Last week, in response to the ongoing furor over school shootings, Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond issued an open call to put school resource officers in every district in the county.
Real talk: If my nine-year-old is going to have to walk past a cop every morning to get into her school building, I’m glad it’s DuMond they’ll be reporting to. But my first thought was: This is not what I signed up for.
Before he was elected to head up Delaware County law enforcement last year, Sheriff DuMond was the undersheriff for his predecessor Tom Mills. As the department’s de facto press officer, he’s spent a lot of time on the phone with me over the past decade. I know him as a decent, honest guy and a dedicated public servant. As you might expect of a local county sheriff, he’s a conservative of the old school, a believer in the power of “good guys with guns.”
It’s a long way from there to the fever swamps. A few years ago, after a Tennessee right-wing radical threatened the little local Muslim community of Islamberg (Google it, carefully), DuMond was out there pouring oil upon the waters, talking to national reporters, defending Islamberg against a slew of online hit pieces that sought to paint the place as a jihadist training camp. It didn’t keep the Proud Boys from rallying outside Islamberg last year, it didn’t stop the anti-Muslim paranoia about the place from circulating on the internet, but those of us who deal in facts around here appreciated it nonetheless.
I decide to call Sheriff DuMond — not so much as a reporter, though I tell him I’ll be writing about our conversation for my column, but as a parent. As a citizen. As somebody who has seen footage of police officers using force on and around children that I would dearly love to scrub from my brain.
A couple of high-profile local incidents in recent years have focused public attention on police use of force: one in Ulster County, in which a deputy shot an unarmed drunk driver after a high-speed car chase, and another in Schoharie County, in which a patrol car chasing a man on a dirt bike struck and killed the rider. Right here in Margaretville, state trooper David Brinkerhoff was killed by friendly fire during a shootout with an armed man holed up in an unoccupied house, in a 2007 incident that made the front page of the New York Times. In all cases, officers involved were cleared of all wrongdoing; some may see that as vindication, others as evidence that the courts fail to punish police.
Those are the ones that went wrong. There are others that show restraint and professionalism. In 2013, in the Delaware County town of Bovina, 32-year-old Justin Geraghty took a pair of homeowners hostage at gunpoint and holed up in their house. After a day-long standoff, during which he taunted police and threw objects from windows, Geraghty shot himself. To the credit of all the first responders on the scene, no one else died. As a local reporter, when I think of police shooting people, I think of that one too.
We don’t entirely see eye to eye, but I find Sheriff DuMond’s talk about school resource officers reassuring. He talks about the importance of placing the right officer with each school, of making sure that the district and the officer work together as part of a community that looks out for its children. The department has had an officer in the Masonville and Sidney schools for several years, and the program is going well.
“That individual becomes a trusted member of the school community. Kids feel comfortable in sharing their issues and things that they’re hearing with them,” he says. “It’s led to avoiding some potential incidents and threats.”
At the end of our conversation, I ask him what he would say to parents in Delaware County who are afraid, for their children, of the police.
It’s a messy, awkward question, full of hems and haws and clauses, and I’m acutely aware, asking it, that I am the whitest piece of Wonder Bread ever to grace a ham sandwich. With the evident frustration of a man asked to account for atrocities he’s not personally responsible for, he sighs, and cites a number about what a tiny percentage of officers disgrace their badge.
It’s tempting to include that number here, but I don’t know where it’s from. You shouldn’t just pick up stray numbers you find on the street, even if they look delicious. It’s not really what I’m after, anyway.
I try again, because I’m not just looking for reassurance that his officers aren’t going to shoot children, or take sexual advantage of them, or funnel them unnecessarily into the criminal courts. I want to know what he thinks about how we should deal with fear of the police — a fear fueled by the new hyper-visibility of obvious atrocity, and one that can’t be soothed by statistical unlikeliness. It’s a fear that comes with terrible sounds and pictures, and it nestles right up against our fear of each other, our fear that one of our own local kids might show up at school tomorrow with his dad’s AR-15.
“I would encourage parents to build a bridge with their local police agency,” he says. “Meet with the chief. Meet with the sheriff. Voice their concerns. Have a meaningful conversation.”
Sound advice. It doesn’t fix the broken world, but I recommend it.