Published December 6, 2021
Six members of University Police are recipients of the 2021 SUNY Police Chiefs Awards, including two officers whose awards were among the highest honors given by the SUNY Police Chiefs Association.
Police Officer Catherine Guzman and Police Officer Jay Lawrence received the SUNY Police Chiefs Heroism Award for their actions in saving a suicidal woman in a North Campus parking lot.
Police Officer Michael Virchau, Police Officer Florence Brown, Police Officer Gregory Fowler and Dispatcher Alaina Reid received the SUNY Police Chiefs Professional Service Award for their work supporting their colleagues as volunteers with a local law enforcement helpline.
The UPD members were among 67 officers and staff from 11 SUNY campuses who were honored for heroism, lifesaving efforts and professional service during a ceremony in Saratoga Springs on Nov. 16.
“UB’s officers have consistently been recognized for remarkable acts of professionalism, compassion and courage,” says UB Chief of Police Chris J. Bartolomei. “I am very proud of the work they do each and every day, and am extremely pleased to see these examples of heroism and professionalism acknowledged by the chiefs association. Our officers have received numerous Life Saving and ProfessionaL Service awards over the years, but the Heroism Award is somewhat less common due to the exceptional criteria.”
Guzman and Lawrence are the recipients of UB’s second consecutive Heroism Award. Lt. Christopher Kerr received the award last year for disarming a man planning to commit suicide.
Guzman and Lawrence received the 2021 Heroism Award “for exceptional bravery in the line of duty, performed at very high risk to their own safety and with full awareness of the danger involved” following an incident around 2 a.m. on Feb. 11, 2021. The officers stopped to check on a vehicle in Governors C parking lot after Guzman noticed it had been parked there with the engine running for about two hours.
The officers discovered a woman asleep in the back seat of the vehicle; the doors were locked and the engine was still running. Guzman woke up the woman and tried to talk to her to see if she was alright. The woman appeared agitated, kept the car doors locked and would only open her window slightly. Lawrence noticed a bottle of lighter fluid on the front seat, and the officers smelled gasoline coming from inside of the car. They also saw a pair of scissors, a lighter and a large bucket that appeared to be filled with gasoline in the back seat where the woman was seated. The woman ignored the officers’ requests to unlock the doors and moved into the driver’s seat. As she began to engage the vehicle’s shift lever, the officers could hear the doors unlock.
Shortly after they opened the doors, the woman shifted the car into drive. As Guzman grabbed for the keys to gain control of the vehicle, the woman reached into the back seat, dumped the bucket of gasoline onto herself and retrieved the lighter. Lawrence was able to pull her from the vehicle as she was attempting to activate the lighter, and Guzman used both hands to try to prevent the lighter from sparking, gasoline soaking into her uniform during the struggle.
Lawrence was eventually able to help Guzman grab the lighter from the woman without the gasoline being ignited. The woman was successfully restrained until an ambulance arrived. She was treated at a local hospital and eventually was able to return home under the care of her family.
2021 Professional Service Award winners Virchau, Brown, Fowler and Reid are trained volunteers with the Western New York Law Enforcement Helpline, which provides 24/7 confidential assistance, information and referrals to individuals in law enforcement and their family members dealing with job-related and post-incident stress — any issues that may impact work and family life.
The UPD members work with individual colleagues who need assistance, as well as organize debriefings to help larger groups of colleagues dealing the stressful incidents, among them suicides and fatal motor vehicle accidents.
SUNY Police’s top administrator acknowledged the importance of recognizing the award recipients.
“In a time where society is currently focused on law enforcement, praise and appreciation for the jobs our officers do, now more than ever, is extremely important for them,” said University Police Commissioner Mary Ritayik. “It is imperative that we continue to honor our officers and acknowledge them for the risks they take to help others in need, the lives that they’ve saved, and their efforts and contributions that they make to their departments in order to ensure that the New York State University Police remains a professional leader in law enforcement.”