Saugerties Police Chief Louis Barbaria’s career has come full circle. He began his career as one of the first recruits to the Village of Saugerties Police Department, and he’ll soon retire as chief of the town department, having presided over its merger with the village department.
In between, Barbaria had a distinguished career with the New York State Police, working in the North Country, New York City and the Southern Tier. He retired as a major, but came out of retirement at the end of 2008 to run the Saugerties force, working on a civil service waiver that must be renewed each year. The current waiver expires in June. Barbaria said he expects to retire before then.
The Town Board has appointed Joseph Sinagra, the deputy chief in the town of Ulster, to replace Barbaria. Sinagra has passed the civil service exam for police chief, and would probably not have to go through the usual competitive process to move up to the chief’s position. He’ll serve as deputy chief in Saugerties until Barbaria retires, which will give him a chance to get comfortable before assuming the helm.
Town Councilman Fred Costello described Barbaria as “a true gentleman, and he knows the business as well as, or better than anyone I’ve met.”
Barbaria has three children and six grandchildren. During his time in the New York State Police, he was frequently separated from his family, at one point living in police barracks in the northern part of the state.
The force consists of 22 full-time officers, counting the chief, and seven part-timers. In addition, the force includes four fill-time and seven part-time dispatchers.
The biggest change during Barbaria’s tenure was the merging of the village and town police departments. Barbaria said he had a lot of apprehension about merging the village and town police departments, and there could have been a lot of problems. But “I think it was a seamless endeavor; on January 1, 2011, at midnight when the village officers reported for work it was almost like the two departments were never separated. It’s one police department, and I think it serves the community better than the two separate departments.”
Barbaria joined the Village of Saugerties Police Department in 1970 after finishing four years of military service. He was working as an apprentice bricklayer for his wife’s uncle when he saw the ads for police officers in the villages of Catskill and Saugerties. He applied for both and landed the Saugerties job.
At the time, the town had only one full-time police officer – Charlie Riley. When the town switched to a full-time police force in 1972, Barbaria was one of four full-time officers hired. Bob became chief that year and Barbaria was promoted to sergeant in 1973. At first, the department worked two shifts and put the answering machine on for the other, when calls were filled by the sheriff or state police. A few years later the department went round-the-clock.
Experience with state police
In 1978 Barbaria moved to the New York State Police, where he served for nearly 29 years. It was quite a different experience.
“The state police is considered a paramilitary organization,” Barbaria said.
New York State Police don’t hire and promote through the civil service system. Officers are trained in a live-in academy and can be transferred far from home. Barbaria, after serving in nearby Hurley, was promoted to investigator, serving in New York City on a drug task force, then to Albany in an organized crime unit. He also supervised investigations in Lake Placid, worked on the Thruway Police and supervised Troop C in Sydney, overseeing a seven-county area.
Despite the moves, Barbaria’s address remained in Greene County, where his family lived. He lived in barracks for part of the time, or with friends when he was too far from home to commute.
“It was a good experience; I had an opportunity to try a lot of different jobs and places,” he said of his state police experience. However, he said, “many people don’t seek promotion because they could be reassigned so far from home.” Many others relocate permanently after a promotion, he added.
Bringing it all back home
Running the Saugerties police department is very different from some of Barbaria’s assignments, but it is not dull by comparison. “What advantage I had coming here is that I did work in different capacities, which gave me a variety of experience,” he said.
As a captain and major, Barbaria gained a good deal of additional administrative experience. “Bringing all that experience to the town, we were able to change and reinforce and make better some of the policies that were in existence as well as some policies that did not exist that we introduced to help ensure that we provide the best possible service.”
Among the new systems is a procedure for handling internal cases, and for handling injury to prisoner cases – or allegations of excessive force. The department also improved on the Tasers policy, and the oversight. “Not that all this was immediately needed, but every department needs these policies, whether there’s a problem or not,” Barbaria said. “If you have a sound policy in place, hopefully it will prevent problems from occurring.”
Barbaria has also revised and updated the police policies and practices manual, a task required for accreditation, one of his goals.
Barbaria takes pride in the police force he oversees, which is generally outstanding in its respect for the public and adherence to the rules. “The police officers in this department, and those from the village, I have all the confidence in the world that they would do the right thing.”
The level of police activity has increased during Barbaria’s tenure, “especially since we put the two departments together,” he said. He estimated that the number of calls is up more than 30 percent this year over the calls fielded by the two departments last year.
One of the results of the increased activity is an increase in driving-while-intoxicated arrests and a corresponding reduction in the number of DWI-related accidents, Barbaria said. The town receives grant money from the state to enforce specific goals, one of which is DWI control. The funding has also been used to prosecute drivers with loud mufflers, those using cell phones while driving, speed enforcement and aggressive driving enforcement. The funding is based on results, Barbaria said, because if police don’t show results the departments aren’t funded.
Among the ongoing goals the new chief will have to continue is the cleaning out of the evidence locker, which contains many years worth of evidence that is no longer needed, Barbaria said. This is the kind of job that is done in between immediate tasks, but he hopes the written procedures he is putting into place will prevent a similar buildup.
How the job has changed
Police work has changed greatly over the years, Barbaria said. “The biggest change is the scrutiny, he said. “Whether it be from the courts, the news media; whether it be from politicians, governments or courts, the scrutiny level has increased dramatically. I think it’s partly the fault of police. The police have done some things in the past that have created the need for more oversight.”
Technology has also brought major changes to police work, Barbaria said, recalling that when he started, police did not have radios or computers; “if you had to call by phone, you had to get to a phone booth,” he recalled. Reports were typed, and if you made a mistake you used white-out fluid, he said.
“In some respects the technology made your job easier, but because of the requirements there’s more on your plate. I remember when I was going through basic training, they said you have to be a little bit of a lawyer, you have to be a doctor, you have to be a psychologist to be a police officer because you are going to come across these things. That’s even more true today; there are so many laws on the books you have to be a quasi attorney to understand them all.” Police also render first aid, use defibrillators, and in one recent case in Saugerties, acted as a midwife in the birth of a baby.
Barbaria said he sees the level of violence increasing in society; officers are more frequently challenged and even assaulted these days than in the past, he said. “It’s become a much more dangerous profession.”
While society in general is becoming more violent, “we’re lucky here in Saugerties, our crime rate – and if you look at violent crimes – it’s almost nonexistent,” Barbaria said. “This is a relatively safe community. I really believe it’s because of the partnership between the police and the public.”
Barbaria will be taking it easy for a while, then may travel. He has a camper, and he would like to see the country, including Alaska, but that’s for the future.