SARANAC LAKE — It’s not normal for a police officer to spend a night in jail, but that’s what happened to one of this village’s patrolmen Wednesday night.
Travis MacDonald, 41, stands accused of giving false information about his disciplinary history to the Saranac Lake Police Department when it hired him three-and-a-half years ago.
“It’s alleged that the application that he submitted to the Saranac Lake Police Department, when he did that in June 2017, that it had false information in it,” Franklin County District Attorney Craig Carriero said Thursday. “The allegation is that he was untruthful about his disciplinary history at the Massena Police Department.”
A Franklin County grand jury reviewed the case and on Nov. 10 issued an indictment on the charge of first-degree offering a false instrument for filing, a class E felony. An indictment means a grand jury determined there is enough evidence to move to trial, but not necessarily that the person is guilty.
The alleged deception might never have been found if the state Legislature had not repealed a section of civil law known as 50-a, which shielded police officers’ personnel records from public view. The Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo changed the law in June amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police officers. The Minneapolis, Minn., officer who allegedly killed Floyd had a lengthy disciplinary history few knew about, as did some other officers involved in such high-profile deaths.
While the focus of repealing 50-a was on public information, it also lets police departments know more about the people they hire. With the repeal, Carriero said, his office was able to use New York’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain MacDonald’s disciplinary records from the Massena Police Department.
“I think with the repeal of 50-a, it just made it easier to get into personnel files,” Carriero said.
Before the SLPD, MacDonald worked for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and before that the Massena Police Department.
“I don’t recall any disciplinary issues,” Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said Thursday of MacDonald’s short time working for his department.
There were, however, some disciplinary issues in Massena, Carriero said.
The DA wouldn’t say much about those, saying he didn’t want to appear to be prosecuting the case in the media. He did answer questions about whether MacDonald was ever fired from the Massena department — he was not — or about whether he was disciplined for on-duty or off-duty activities in Massena — both, Carriero said.
“I would say he was misleading about his disciplinary history, and it’s our allegations that there were omissions as well,” Carriero said.
The Massena Police Department referred all questions to Chief Jason Olson, who did not respond Thursday.
Carriero said his office started investigating the case late this summer after Saranac Lake Police Chief James Joyce told him he had reason to doubt MacDonald’s job application.
MacDonald, after being informed of the indictment and securing Peter Dumas of Malone as a defense lawyer, turned himself in Wednesday afternoon at the State Police Troop B headquarters in Ray Brook.
This is not one of the violent felony charges for which jail is allowed under New York’s bail reform law, and Dumas said MacDonald never wanted to spend the night behind bars — but as it turned out, he had to anyway, due to a combination of timing and procedural issues.
Dumas said he had advised MacDonald to turn himself in at that time because Franklin County Court was still open and arraignments are supposed to be available through videoconference from the State Police barracks. But Dumas said MacDonald was told that with a sealed indictment, the arraignment has to be in person, and it was too late in the day to get to Malone to be arraigned in person that day — hence the night in jail. MacDonald was “definitely not” happy about that, Dumas said.
MacDonald was arraigned Thursday in county court in Malone before Judge Robert Main Jr. MacDonald pleaded not guilty and was released.
Dumas said he could not comment further on the case because he doesn’t know enough about it yet; he expects the DA’s office to give him the evidence against MacDonald in the next week or two.
Joyce and Saranac Lake village Manager John Sweeney said MacDonald is still employed by the SLPD, and Sweeney said his future employment is being discussed.
“I’m just going to say it’s active,” Sweeney said. “We’ll be following up on it shortly.” He said the village board is aware of the situation.
MacDonald made headlines in 2019, both for organizing a National Night Out family police event at the Saranac Lake Civic Center and for his quest to be the SLPD’s first K-9 officer in 20 years, along with his dog Vigo — a role he said he had been trained for in Massena. However, the K-9 program, started under prior Chief Chuck Potthast, “never got off the ground,” according to Joyce. Sweeney explained why. He said while he was in the middle of negotiating with the police union over K-9 program details, “The dog attacked someone in Vermontville.” And that was that.
MacDonald “still owns the dog, as far as I know,” Joyce said.