GENEVA — The 2021 city budget adopted in late October was one of the most difficult in recent times for City Council. Numerous spending reductions were needed due to significant revenue shortfalls caused largely by the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Among the reductions receiving the most criticism: The elimination of two police officers, both of whom were trainees in the probationary periods of their employment with the city. Those jobs were set to go away as of the new budget year, Jan. 1.
However, neither officer was still on the police roster by year’s end. Both were separated from the city before the budget cuts took effect.
One of the officers lost his position because he failed to pass training successfully, Ward 4 Councilor Ken Camera said in open session Thursday night. The topic of the two positions came under discussion during a followup meeting to the Wednesday public hearing on the Police Review Board.
However, for the other terminated officer, Ryan Ambrose, the matter is of a more serious nature.
Ambrose, 23, of Canandaigua, is accused of attempting to strangle his former girlfriend at her home in Canandaigua last year. He was indicted by an Ontario County Grand Jury Dec. 23 on a charge of second-degree strangulation, a class D felony, following an incident that Canandaigua police said took place Oct. 10. The indictment, released by Ontario County Court on Friday, said Ambrose “on or about Oct. 10, 2020, committed the crime of criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation and thereby caused loss of consciousness for a period of time or caused injury” to the victim.
The Ontario County District Attorney’s Office has asked the Wayne County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case because it involves a former police officer from Ontario County.
Geneva Police Chief Mike Passalacqua would say only that “Ambrose’s employment with the city’s police department was terminated effective Nov. 13, 2020 during his probationary period.” Passalacqua said he could not comment beyond that.
According to sources, the victim had been having difficulties with Ambrose for months — largely over accusations that she was unfaithful. Canandaigua police responded to her residence Aug. 26 after the victim’s mother called 911 during a heated argument between the couple that took place in front of the victim’s son and her mother. The source said police asked the couple, who were living together, to separate for the night. Ambrose left, and neither was charged.
The source said the victim learned that Geneva police subsequently questioned Ambrose about the incident. The GPD had been contacted by Canandaigua police after the domestic call but both the victim and her mother were left out of the investigation.
Passalacqua also was asked specifically about that, but said he could not comment.
While no charges were filed in the Aug. 26 case, the events of Oct. 10 did result in criminal action.
The source said Ambrose allegedly went to the woman’s city home in the middle of the night and a fight ensued, with the former Geneva police officer accused of choking her and causing injury. The source said he allegedly locked her in her apartment and took away her cell phone to prevent her from calling for help.
According to a Canandaigua Police Department report provided to the Finger Lakes Times in response to a Freedom of Information Law request for any reports and calls for service related to Ambrose, police began investigating the Oct. 10 incident when learning of it on Nov. 6. The city of Canandaigua did not provide any additional documentation regarding the alleged Aug. 26 incident but said in the report that there were “prior police contacts for domestic incidents.”
The source said the victim didn’t report the Oct. 10 incident to authorities until about a month later, when she learned that City Council was considering reinstating the two positions and that Ambrose would keep his job. Ultimately, Council stuck with the two police cuts, which were made when the union representing the officers refused to accept a delay in raises because of the city’s budget challenges.
Ward 3 Councilor Jan Regan noted that it was the second incident of a Geneva police officer being accused of choking a woman. The other involves officer Jack Montesanto, who is accused of attempting to choke a suspect at the police station. That case is awaiting trial in City Court. The trial on the misdemeanor charge has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montesanto remains on the force on unpaid leave.
The Times asked the city of Geneva to explain why Montesanto remains on the force while Ambrose was terminated, despite facing similar accusations. City Manager Sage Gerling responded with the following statement:
“A police officer who has successfully completed his/her probationary period is entitled to due process hearing rights under either a union contract, the Civil Service Law, or both, and cannot be removed for disciplinary reasons until that process is complete,” Gerling said. “On the other hand, a probationary police officer is more like an at-will employee and can be separated from employment for any lawful reason, or no reason at all.”
The issue of the two officers no longer working for Geneva PD spilled over into Thursday’s City Council meeting, with some Council members expressing frustration that they have been vilified for eliminating the positions when, in fact, the officers in those jobs were separated before their tenures were up.
“I think right now (the public doesn’t) have the real story,” Camera said.
He said the city should be more up front about what transpired with the two officers. However, others cautioned that Council was treading into discussions that should not be part of an open session because they were personnel matters.
Gerling urged an end to the discussion, at which point Camera suggested the “screening process (for hiring) failed” when it came to the two officers who were terminated.
The city manager responded: “Councilor Camera, please, just pause.”
While councilors lamented that they were being criticized unjustly for eliminating the jobs, Ward 6 Councilor John Pruett disagreed, saying that when making decisions as part of a governing body, you “take your lumps” and “stand by your decisions.”
Regan called the incident involving Ambrose a shining example of why the Police Review Board is needed, claiming that such a panel would have been able to review whether the police department had properly handled investigatory issues related to the domestic call on Aug. 26.