Ulster’s gang and drug task force is under new management, and reaching out to bring agencies that had dropped off the team back into the fold.
But one town supervisor says that issues of legal liability and the division of seized assets may complicate the effort.
The Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team is a signature initiative of Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum. Since it was instituted shortly after he took office in 2007, URGENT has been at the forefront of local drug and gang investigations. The task force uses investigators on loan from local, county and federal law enforcement agencies to pursue cases anywhere in Ulster. The agency’s most recent high-profile effort involved working closely with federal Homeland Security Investigations on an investigation that netted dozens of members of a Poughkeepsie-based cocaine trafficking ring operating in and around Kingston. The team also provides investigative support to other law enforcement agencies on homicide cases, bank robberies and other major crimes.
“URGENT has been enormously successful,” said Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright on Wednesday, Feb. 8. “We are safer in Ulster County because of URGENT and the work they have done over the years.”
Carnright, along with VanBlarcum and Town of Lloyd Police Chief Daniel Waage, act as a “board of directors” for the task force. But until recently, overall command of the team was always handled by a member of the sheriff’s office. That changed in December when Senior Assistant District Attorney William Weishaupt was given the role. Weishaupt, a veteran of the FBI’s Special Operations Division, heads up Carnright’s own investigative team. Carnright said that Weishaupt would have an overall supervisory role in the task force, while day-to-day operations on the street would be handled by a sheriff’s sergeant.
Carnright said county inter-agency task forces had traditionally operated under the auspices of the District Attorney’s Office. The arrangement, he said, would offer more flexibility and avoid “chain of command issues” that can occur between sworn police officers who report to different agencies.
“When you have a commanding officer who’s an assistant district attorney, you can avoid some of those situations where you have someone who’s a sergeant in one department gives orders to someone who’s a lieutenant in another department,” said Carnright.
Along with the new command structure, URGENT is also actively seeking to recruit police departments that once loaned officers to the task force but dropped out over the years. Currently the task force includes officers from the sheriff’s office as well as town cops from Woodstock, Lloyd, Shandaken, Plattekill, Marlborough, New Paltz and the Village of Ellenville. Ulster County Probation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations also contribute personnel to the task force. But a number of police agencies, including some of the county’s largest like Kingston and the Town of Ulster, no longer participate in the program.
In Saugerties, Police Chief Joseph Sinagra said Weishaupt’s taking command of the task force had caused him to reconsider an earlier decision not to assign an officer to URGENT. With the task force operating under the district attorney, Sinagra said, he was more confident that the Saugerties Police Department would be insulated from liability issues stemming from participation in the task force.
Kingston Mayor Steve Noble said the police commission planned to meet with URGENT representatives to discuss rejoining the task force. At one time, the KPD had five members assigned to URGENT. One, former detective lieutenant Tim Matthews, served as the outfit’s co-commander. The arrangement ended about five years ago in the wake of revelations that Matthews had stolen thousands in “buy money” and other funds from the group. The Kingston officers were reorganized into the KPD’s current “Special Investigations Unit” that operates in the city and occasionally partners with other Ulster County agencies on drug investigations.
“We’re open to the idea,” said Noble. “We’re going to hear what they have to say.”
Town of Ulster Supervisor James Quigley, however, was less hopeful about his town’s prospects of rejoining the task force. The town was one of URGENT’s original members, but the relationship ended a few years later after a town cop was sued over allegations of the use of excessive force while on assignment to the task force. Quigley said the county did not defend the lawsuit, or indemnify the town; instead, Quigley said, the town was forced to pay $50,000 to settle the complaint.
The incident, Quigley said, highlighted the risks associated with allowing officers to work outside the town’s own chain of command without some protection from liability. Quigley said he had received a copy of the new URGENT contract and had seen nothing in the document to allay concerns about legal liability.
“You’re either indemnified or you’re not,” said Quigley. “And until we receive a commitment of indemnification, the Town Board is not interested in assuming that risk.”
Quigley added that the town’s earlier participation in the task force had been dogged by questions of accountability for money seized under federal civil asset forfeiture programs. The programs allow police agencies to petition a federal court to seize money, property, vehicles and other items suspected of being proceeds of or used in criminal activity. Seized assets can then be used to fund law enforcement activities including purchase of vehicles and equipment and funding overtime.
Quigley said that the town’s future participation in the task force would require more transparency in how the funds were distributed. “[The task force] ended up with all of the new cars and all of the goodies,” said Quigley. “And the local departments were stuck paying the officers’ overtime bills.”
Carnright said he hoped to address both liability and overtime issues moving forward. Carnright said he had discussed with the County Attorney’s Office the possibility of offering indemnification from legal liability for towns that assign cops to URGENT. Carnright said he was also exploring the feasibility of using asset forfeiture proceeds to reimburse towns for URGENT cops’ overtime. Carnright said he also hoped to bring the state police’s Community Narcotics Enforcement Team into URGENT for the first time.
“We’re trying to go slowly and get this done right,” said Carnright. “We’re a strong task force, everyone understands the format, it’s a format that works. Bringing more towns and more agencies on board can only make us stronger.”