Compassion key for retiring New Hartford police chief
NEW HARTFORD — After nearly 40 years in law enforcement, New Hartford Police Chief Michael S. Inserra is grateful that he’s held on to his compassion. He’s glad the job never made him cold.
The relatively small department, serving the village and town of New Hartford, has seen some of the worst offenses in Oneida County over Inserra’s career — from the line of duty death of New Hartford Police Officer Joseph D. Corr in 2006 to the murder at the Word of Life Church in 2015.
Through it all, Inserra is still able to see silver linings. And he will keep that optimism through his final days at the end of this month.
“I think I succeeded in this occupation, and I’ve succeeded for a long time, for a lot of years, because I haven’t lost my compassion for people. I can still empathize with our residents or with someone that’s going through a hard time in their life. I haven’t gotten cold,” said Inserra, age 62, in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel. His final day before retirement is June 29.
“I think that’s something that’s hard to maintain through the course of a career, especially law enforcement. when you see the worst society has to offer and you have to still be able to maintain the empathy and the feeling for the people you’re dealing with on a habitual cycle. You can never forget: people go through hard times and you have to always remember that. You just have to hope they turn around.”
That compassion is what Inserra hopes is his legacy with the department, something he hopes he has instilled in the officers he will leave behind. Inserra is retiring after 34 years with New Hartford, and 12 years as the department’s top cop.
“I wouldn’t trade it for a second. I don’t think I’d make any different decisions in my career, even with all the different options that are out there now,” Chief Inserra stated.
“I was drawn to it from when I was a small child.”
Chief Inserra does not come from a long line of law enforcement officers. But his family did like to follow the rules.
“I came from a large family, a Catholic family. My mom was very strict. Our entire family, we always complied with the laws,” Inserra explained.
“I always looked up to law enforcement officers. It was something I was drawn to through my youth.”
Born, raised and educated in New Hartford, Inserra graduated from Oswego State University in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in public justice. He was quickly snatched up to join the recently formed Whitestown Police Department, and then transferred to the Kirkland Police Department in 1984 when a full-time, civil service position opened up.
At the same time, Inserra said he turned down an offer to join the U.S. Marshals Service — because it would have meant a pay cut and a big move.
“A pay cut and a move to New York City; it just wasn’t the right time in my life, and never would have been,” Inserra stated, recalling how he was surprised that the Town of Kirkland Police offered better pay than the U.S. Marshals in the mid-1980s.
He also had another very good reason to stay local.
“I had met my wife. We weren’t married at the time, but I was in love,” Inserra recalled fondly. He and his wife, Christine, have been married for 36 years, with two adult sons. Christine is a retired school teacher.
“It was just a decision, to stay local. And I haven’t regretted it for a second now. It’s been a great, great career.”
Inserra made a lateral transfer to the New Hartford Police Department in 1988 and he rose up the ranks from patrolman.
Inserra was a sergeant in February 2006, when fellow officer Joseph D. Corr was shot and killed while responding to a jewelry story robbery. Inserra called those the “darkest days” of his career, as he played a major role in speaking with and attempting to apprehend the suspects.
“I can look back on it to this day and know, and see, that I was just talking to a cold, ruthless, heartless person,” Inserra said about booking and charging Toussaint Martin on the night of the shooting, a co-defendant to the actual gunman, Walter Richardson.
After Martin was in court, Inserra said he was tasked with heading to Pennsylvania to help other agencies track Richardson. Inserra can still remember speaking with Richardson on the phone for nearly an hour.
“It was the same feeling I got when I talk to Toussaint: just cold, ruthless, heartless,” Inserra recalled.
“On one hand he was saying, ‘tell the officer’s wife I’m sorry I shot him’. And he would then say, ‘but I’m not going back to jail. And if you show up, I’m going to shoot you, Mike.’ And that’s how it went down. He waited for us to show up where he was and he engaged in a shoot out.”
Richardson was shot and killed in the shoot out. Inserra was part of the case against the three men that were ultimately charged. He was named chief in 2010, shortly before those three defendants were put on trial in Federal Court. They were all found guilty and will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Immediately after taking the top spot as chief, Inserra said he had to deal with a major change to the department: the New Hartford 911 center was consolidating with Oneida County. He said that meant his department needed to adapt and evolve very quickly.
“By losing our 911 center, that basically prioritized how we were going to get our work done. We realized we had to become electronic,” Inserra said.
One immediate change was the fact that the New Hartford Police Department was still using typewriters for their police reports, and the station only had two typewriters.
“If you didn’t get a typewriter, you were hand-writing those reports. That was in 2010,” Inserra recalled.
The chief said he helped hire an IT company to come in modernize the department. Within his first two to three years as chief, he said New Hartford had computers in the patrol cars and was completely electronic and hooked into the system.
Inserra said he oversaw many such changes throughout his decade as chief, including trying out body cameras for his officers and joining social media, which helped strengthen the relationship between the police and their community. He was also part of moving the police station to their new location at the former Gander Mountain store, along with the rest of the New Hartford municipal offices.
But no matter what he accomplished, the humble Inserra noted that he never did it by himself.
“There’s nothing that I can sit there and say I did alone,” He said.
“I did it as part of a team. Whether it was another ranking officer or someone from the patrol division.”
“Most of all, I would like to commend the men and women of the New Hartford Police Department for their professionalism and unwavering dedication to duty,” the chief stated.
“Those are the memories that I’m going to cherish the most, being able to command these professional and dedicated men and women here. It has been my pleasure. It’s been my pleasure to serve and protect this community and the surrounding areas.”
The New Hartford Police Department has 28 sworn officers on staff, including six part-time officers. There are also six additional officers who came back from retirement to work in the school districts.
Inserra said the small size of the department has helped bolster his favorite part about policing: the camaraderie.
“I think the size of our department really has a lot to do with how a department is managed,” the chief explained.
“We’re small enough that I know every one of my officers, their spouses, their children. You get more officers and you don’t get that personal connection with each one of the guys.”
New Hartford also holds a unique position as a major business hub in Oneida County. Not only does their jurisdiction include the Sangertown Square Mall and most of its surrounding area, but there is also the New Hartford Shopping Center and many businesses along French Road and Genesee Street.
Inserra said this has meant the “bread and butter” of their police calls are usually shoplifting complaints. And it means most of their time is spent in the commercial districts, instead of the neighborhoods.
“You have the good and bad with the commercial districts,” Inserra stated.
“One of the things that we stress here to our guys is that we understand the call volume is high, we understand that they’re at the stores for larceny complaints...when they have downtime, a way for our guys to connect is to get into the neighborhoods. And they’re really good about that.”
A benefit of having so many businesses, Inserra said, is that they are often the first to reach out and help the department in times of need, or in times when a cup of coffee or a free lunch would help perk up a lousy day.
Shoplifting has become especially problematic because of bail reform, Inserra noted. Whereas in the past, a person charged with multiple shoplifting complaints in one day could be sent to jail. With bail reform, Inserra said they constantly encounter thieves who go right back to stealing no matter how many times they’ve been caught and charged.
“They need to get something to support their heroin addiction and their crack addiction,” Inserra noted.
“Whatever it is, they’re stealing for a reason. And it’s not to support the family. People don’t steal to support families. They steal to support their habit.”
The last few years of reform have been “extremely tough” for all police agencies, the chief said, but he sees change on the horizon.
“I’ve seen this cycle before, and that’s exactly what it is, it’s cyclical,” Inserra stated. “And I can already see it coming back around.”
Meanwhile, the traditional residential neighborhoods of New Hartford have been going through a “big change” in recent years as well, the chief noted. Many family homes have been converted into apartments as a more urban lifestyle is settling in.
“People are moving out. I’d like to say our neighborhoods haven’t changed, but they have. We’ve seen it,” Inserra stated.
“I think it’s the way society has gone. Kids aren’t outside as much playing when we were kids. There are a lot of dynamics that have changed in our neighborhoods. Parents are a lot more cognizant of where their kids are and they don’t allow them to get on their bikes and go where they want.”
Whatever the future has in store for the town and the department, Inserra said he’s ready to finally move on from law enforcement. He has no major plans for retirement, other than to probably get another job in another sector to stay busy. All he knows for sure is that he’s ready to hand over the reins.
“I was told many times throughout the course of my career that you’ll know when it’s time,” Chief Inserra said.
“I still love the job, I love coming into work, I enjoy working with the guys, but I hit that wall. I can’t get around it, I can’t get over it. It’s time to pass the department on to the next police chief and to let him expand it or take it in the direction he wants to take it.”
Inserra’s successor has not yet been named.
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