CITY OF TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – The average police officer becomes eligible for retirement with full benefits after 20 years of service, but Tonawanda Police Captain Fredric Foels has more than double that racked up at one department.
Foels, who retired Friday after 40 years on the force, had a simple answer to how he kept coming to work every day: “I always loved the job.”
“I love coming to work each day,” he said. “I enjoyed working with professional people every day. And it was the variety — there were no two days alike. Every day’s different in the police world.”
Indeed, Foels has gone through both the highs and lows of a four-decade police career.
The satisfaction of solving a tough case, helping a resident, and every once in awhile the “thank you” from a member of the community sticks with him. But so do the tragic and dangerous calls.
In May 2020, Foels was part of a group of officers who came under a hail of gunfire on Morgan Street.
Foels said officers were investigating a shooting when the person they believed fired the gun returned, and opened fire on at least six police officers. The gunman shot at Foels, but missed.
Unfortunately, the gunman struck Detective David Ljiljanich, who survived, but retired early.
“If there’s a low point in my career, that was it,” Foels said. “We were pretty upset that our officer got shot.”
Foels visited the site of the shooting for the first time in three years on Monday with a WIVB reporter. Two bullet holes remain in a structure at the scene of the shooting on Morgan Street.
“First time I’m seeing that in three years,” Foels said with a heavy sigh. “Those [bullets] were for me.”
Other low points include when Foels said his arm was cut while breaking up a fight at a recent Canal Fest event.
He saw the tops of trucks strike the Young Street railroad bridge almost 70 times since he started recording them.
And he is also astutely aware of the increase in mental health calls, but simultaneously notes that the reduced number of DUIs on city roads shows how good police work with community partners can make a difference.
“When I came on, DUIs were such a big thing,” Foels said.
Hired on Sept. 16, 1982, at the age of 25, Foels said he worked in the traffic and motorcycle units patrolling the streets. His first promotion was 1998, when he became a lieutenant. He worked the dreaded midnight shift, before being transferred to the records division in 2004, where he worked for the next nine years.
“I enjoyed my time in records, I really did,” Foels said. “But being outside, this is where it’s at.”
In 2013, Foels was promoted to captain, a title he held for a decade.
While the length of his career more than doubled that of the average police officer, Foels said he has never once called in sick.
His secret? Maybe it’s the daily banana and glass of orange juice each morning that gave him the boost he needed to fend off sickness.
“Maybe it’s attributable to good health or whatever, but I always look forward to coming to work each day,” he said.
Foels said policing has changed over the years, but the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer on May 25, 2020, cast a bad light on the entire profession.
“It just seemed like the perception was all officers are that way, and it’s not true,” Foels said. “Most officers go out there every day and do the right thing and they don’t act like that.”
The Covid-19 pandemic also impacted how police do their jobs, Foels said. Face to face interaction was frowned upon and officers even had to avoid entering homes for a period.
“Going from a proactive department to a reactive department — we flipped the script on how we dealt with calls due to Covid,” Foels said.
And then there are the recruitment problems with which departments across the country are grappling.
Foels said he does not believe there is a department in the region that is not shorthanded due to the new challenges of recruiting people to work in law enforcement.
“Everybody is fighting for officers, wanting to get officers hired,” he said. “And there’s a lot of people that are now … where maybe they were enthusiastic about being a police officer, now they’re saying, ‘Do I really want to go through all that?’ The ridicule. The non respect?”
For those who used to be enthusiastic about a law enforcement career, Foels has a message for them: “It’s a career, and it’s a great career. It’s an exciting career, the pay’s decent, the benefits are good, the hours stink — there’s no such thing as weekends and holidays on this job, it’s 24/7. But it’s a satisfying job.”
So, what’s next for the career police officer?
“Just going to sit back and see what happens,” Foels said. “I’m the type that will get a little antsy and maybe down the road decide maybe I’ll do something, but it’ll be of my choosing.”
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.