Visitors to the county’s Department of Social Services offices will have to show identification and undergo a check for active arrest warrants under a new policy put in place by department officials and the Ulster County sheriff. The policy, which covers all DSS visitors, including clients, their family members and caseworkers from outside agencies, went into effect Monday, October 6. By Friday, October 10, the warrant checks had yielded five arrests for low-level crimes.
“It’s a great tool for us,” said Ulster County sheriff Paul VanBlarcum.” It’s been a long time coming.”
The sheriff’s office has long maintained a security checkpoint at the DSS office on Ulster Avenue. Visitors routinely pass through a metal detector and bag screening before entering the waiting room. VanBlarcum said that introducing a system of warrant checks, similar to those performed on visitors to the county jail, had long been a goal.
The initiative, Van Blarcum said, never got off the ground during the tenure of former DSS commissioner Roberto Rodriguez. His successor, former DSS counsel Michael Iapoce, was more receptive to the plan, VanBlarcum said, but only after an extensive legal review.
Iapoce said the focus of the review was to determine whether the ID requirement would violate confidentiality mandates. “We did not see any conflict with them performing warrant checks in the context of our enforcing our confidentiality requirements,” he said.
The new protocol requires all visitors to the DSS complex to present identification with a name and date of birth at the security checkpoint. The information is then run through a nationwide database. If an active warrant appears, the person is detained in the security team’s office while deputies contact the police agency or court named in the warrant to determine whether the warrant is valid and whether the agency wants to go through the trouble of taking the suspect into custody.
Sergeant George Goodwin, who commands the sheriff’s DSS security detail, said the checks turned up about 15 active warrants, all for low-level crimes, in the first week. In five cases, including a harassment case from Kingston and a petit-larceny compliant from Newburgh, suspects were turned over to answer the charges. In the remainder, Goodwin said, the suspects were released after the agency which issued the warrant declined to initiate an extradition process.
The warrant check takes about 30 seconds. With roughly 350 visitors coming through the doors each day, Goodwin said that it was taking up significantly more of his and the deputies’ time. Once the system is in place, Goodwin said, the officers might start running the warrant checks more like a DWI checkpoint, stopping every third, fourth or fifth person, at least during peak hours. Goodwin added that response to the new procedure had been generally positive.
“They think it’s great and it should have been done a long time ago,” said Goodwin. “You have some people who are disgruntled, but in general the support has been surprisingly overwhelming.”
Not everyone, however, supports the new system. Christina, who asked that her last name not be used, is a regular visitor to DSS. The 38-year-old single mother, home health aide and sociology student uses food stamps and heating assistance programs and accompanies clients to the DSS office for a variety of services. Christina said that the warrant checks had transformed a “comfortable, relaxed” experience into a stigmatizing one. She noted that users of other government offices, like the DMV, are not subjected to such checks. She said that warrant checks feel like a deliberate targeting of a vulnerable population.
“They’re saying, ‘We have this awesome opportunity to run background checks and arrest people,’” said Christina. “And the people coming into this building don’t have another option.”
Others who work closely with DSS clients said that they were concerned that the new system would leave people without identification frozen out of vital services. Victoria Read, assistant manager for Family of Woodstock’s adult case management program, said there is no legal requirement to have identification to access some services offered at DSS. In fact, she said, one of the duties of DSS caseworkers is to help those without ID obtain the proper documentation.
“My concern is that you’ll have someone who’s homeless, who’s lost everything,” said Read. “And they’re trying to get shelter and they can’t get in the door.”
Wide latitude in IDs
During the first week of the program, Goodwin said, those who showed up without ID were allowed to self-report their name and date of birth, and let in with a warning to bring identification on their next visit. Deputies on duty were advised to be “extremely lenient” in what type of documents to accept, Goodwin added. Virtually anything with a name and date of birth, he said, would do.
Iapoce, meanwhile, said clients already needed ID to access most DSS services. He added that DSS staff would still be available to assist those without IDs. Iapoce also said he defers to the sheriff’s office when it comes to security procedures at the DSS facility.
“The security measures enforced here are as a result for the decisions made by the sheriff’s department as well as recognition of the particular kinds of activity transacted here,” said Iapoce.
For his part, Van Blarcum expressed unreserved enthusiasm for the new program. He said warrant checks would not only help the department catch lawbreakers but, once the word spread, would encourage DSS clients to pay fines, make court appearances or take other actions to clear up old warrants on their own initiative.
“You shouldn’t be driving up to DSS for services when your license has been revoked,” said the sheriff. “This is either going to stop you from getting free benefits, or you’re going to clear up your stuff.”