November 26, 2021

Retiring chief reflects on career

F. Michael Catalano credits his family, faith for many of his successes

Jamie Costa/staff reporter

Cortland Police Chief F. Michael Catalano, shown in his office, is retiring after 37 years as a police officer and 12 years as the chief.

As a child, F. Michael Catalano watched movies and shows where the good guys always won. And they looked cool doing it in their uniforms. But that wasn’t his only inspiration for becoming a police officer.

“Ever since I was a kid, I advocated for victims,” Catalano said. “I couldn’t stand bullies or people that took advantage of other people.”

His advocacy extended throughout his career, taking him through the ranks from a corrections officer with the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office in 1980 to the chief of police for the City of Cortland Police Department in 2009.

“I’ve worked my way through every aspect of the police department,” Catalano said. “There are little mistakes you learn through that give you the experience to be a good officer.”

The little mistakes led to efforts to improve, bit by bit, program by program.

“As a police officer, he was a very sensitive individual not only to the members of the police department but also the community,” said Jim Nichols, who preceded Catalano as chief. “As far as I am concerned, he’s always had the concerns of our community at the forefront of his leadership.”

Catalano, then a deputy chief, helped Nichols establish many community programs from 1997 to 2009, programs Catalano continued and expanded when he became chief.

Some of these programs included a school resource officer, a community-oriented police officer, a crisis intervention team and a technical team that all serve the public in unique and beneficial ways, Nichols said.

“He served as one of my lieutenants and as my deputy chief,” Nichols said. “I was obviously satisfied with his expertise in dealing with the variety of problems when faced by law enforcement within my time frame.”

The only thing on Catalano’s bucket list that he did not accomplish was getting the department into a newer, more modern facility, he said.

His biggest accomplishments as an officer were attending the FBI academy in 1988, which invites fewer than 5% of officers worldwide, and getting the police department accredited in 2016, a process that includes meeting more than 110 industry standards and model policies enforced by the New York State Accreditation Council.

The department is now in the process of seeking reaccreditation.

“A lot of my successes in my career are because of my family and my faith,” said Catalano, who has a wife and three children. “Their support makes my job much easier.”

In the future, systemic changes and technological advances will continue while public transparency and discussion of body cameras have been topics of conversation, Catalano said. But the budget has made it difficult to acquire them.

“The majority of people thought they (body cameras) should be implemented (in the police survey),” Catalano said. “There are false accusations made against officers that we will be able to verify with the body cameras and it holds the officers accountable, too.”

As racism came to the forefront of policing after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the City of Cortland police department took steps to make sure everyone is treated equally, Catalano said.

Deputy Chief Paul Sandy will take over the responsibilities of chief on Monday.

“We have to adapt to generational shifts, attitudes and ways of thinking,” Catalano said. “I hope he takes what I’m giving him as a professional, well-run police department and makes it better.”