Attorney General James' Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office Release Report on Use of Force Incident in Tonawanda

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James’ Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office (LEMIO) today released its report on a use of force incident involving the current chief of the City of Tonawanda Police Department (TPD). LEMIO was made aware of a social media video showing a July 2022 incident involving the use of force against two teenage boys by a TPD officer. After a thorough investigation, including review of documentary evidence, body-worn camera footage, social media videos, and interviews, LEMIO concluded that then-Detective Lieutenant Robert Clontz (Det. Lt. Clontz) improperly arrested a 16-year-old and 15-year-old without reasonable cause and used excessive force in effecting the arrest of the 15-year-old. Det. Lt. Clontz also displayed poor decision-making throughout the encounter, unnecessarily escalating the situation. LEMIO recommends TPD discipline Det. Lt. Clontz, update its use of force policy to comply with state law, and provide training on use of force and interacting with minors to its officers.

Overview of Incident

On July 20, 2022, two brothers aged 16 (Minor 1) and 15 (Minor 2) were attending an outdoor festival when they were stopped at the corner of Main Street and Niagara Street in Tonawanda by Det. Lt. Clontz and other TPD officers. The officers directed Minor 2, who had been riding a bicycle, to dismount and continue on foot. The brothers then proceeded to cross the Renaissance Bridge from Tonawanda to North Tonawanda.

Det. Lt. Clontz followed the boys, eventually catching up to them on the bridge. He pushed Minor 1 twice and repeatedly instructed the boys to keep going. Minor 1 took out his cellphone to begin recording the encounter, at which point Det. Lt. Clontz put his hand on Minor 1’s neck and told him he was under arrest. Minor 1 ducked Det. Lt. Clontz and continued to walk, when Det. Lt. Clontz grabbed his arms from behind.

Minor 2 then began to film the encounter with his cellphone. When a civilian bystander asks if he can help, Det. Lt. Clontz allows him to put his arm around Minor 1’s neck. Other officers arrive, and they place Minor 1 in handcuffs. Det. Lt. Clontz then approaches Minor 2 and places him in what appears to be a chokehold that may only legally be used when deadly force is authorized and which was not permissible under the circumstances. He falls to the ground and holds Minor 2 prone by the neck for about a minute. Det. Lt. Clontz said he was attempting to use a move he had seen demonstrated online in a mixed martial arts video, and that it was the first time he had attempted the move. He claimed he was not attempting an illegal chokehold.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Following a thorough review of the facts of the matter, LEMIO concluded that Det. Lt. Clontz lacked reasonable cause to arrest Minor 1, was not authorized to arrest Minor 2 for the alleged charges because he was only 15 years old and used excessive force in arresting Minor 2. The LEMIO also concluded that Det. Lt. Clontz made a series of poor tactical decisions throughout the encounter, which unnecessarily heightened risk.

In the report released today, LEMIO recommends that TPD take appropriate disciplinary action against Det. Lt. Clontz, who is currently the department’s chief, as well as additional measures, including:

  • Update its use of force policy to comply with Executive Law 840 so that it specifically prohibits the application of any maneuver that runs a reasonable risk of depriving the brain of blood or oxygen, including but not limited to chokeholds and neck restraints, and expressly addresses the concepts of necessity, proportionality, and de-escalation;
  • Provide all TPD personnel with ongoing, annual training of at least eight hours on the updated use of force policy, use of force decision-making, and de-escalation techniques and strategies; and
  • Adopt a policy and training for officers on interacting with minors and young people that makes it clear that under New York law, officers may not arrest minors under the age of 16 who are not committing a criminal offense.

The LEMIO was established by Executive Law 75 for the purpose of increasing public safety, protecting civil liberties and civil rights, ensuring compliance with constitutional protections and local, state, and federal laws, and increasing public confidence in law enforcement. Executive Law 75 authorizes LEMIO to receive and investigate complaints from any source regarding allegations of corruption, fraud, use of excessive force, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse in any covered agency. LEMIO may then determine whether disciplinary or legal action is warranted and prepare and release a public report.