The use of Narcan in combating the opioid crisis, issues around river and creek safety in the area, overcrowded jails, licensing for off-road vehicles, the increasing role of the Department of Environmental Protection in policing the area, mental health services, and the use of body cameras in police work were all areas of concern as 46 attendees heard Captain Michael Drake of the New York State Police, Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa and Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra, speak of the importance of community involvement in keeping their areas safe.
“We have about 185,000 citizens in Ulster County…Some towns don’t have police departments, so we have to work with local and state agencies,” said Drake at the community policing forum March 21 at the Frank Greco Senior Center. “It really takes community involvement as well — you save lives when you pick up the phone and call me, or the Chief here, and go: ‘Listen, I drive this route every day and there’s always speeding here.’”
Building a closer relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they police was a recurring topic of discussion.
“I am a big proponent of community policing — you have to know your folks, who belongs where, who they are, in order to be able to better serve them. That’s a huge part of policing,” stressed Drake. “You’re not missing that here. Community policing is huge in Ulster County, it is so, so valuable and you have to impress that upon the men and women you serve.”
Apart from the role of community reporters in helping to curb would-be-speeders on their streets, the forum attempted to highlight the importance of community support in policing other issues, such as homelessness, drug use, and domestic abuse. “It comes down to communicating with us — if you hear that there’s a domestic violence issue next door, you’re going to have to make that phone call if you want to save someone’s life. You have to trust us, and we have to trust folks,” commented Figueroa. “In the community that I come from, I saw it on a regular, daily basis. Neighbors, family members don’t want to get involved, but you have to get involved. You have to pick up the phone.”
While local Saugerties officers and Sheriff’s deputies are fitted with body cameras, state troopers have yet to implement them. Sinagra said that they had become an integral part of the Saugerties police department process.
“We had the union that didn’t want it, and I had them agree to let us do it was a pilot program,” he said of the shift in 2014. “After six months, my cops demanded that we wore body cameras — it reduced personnel complaints by 90 percent. Every single one of our police officers, including myself, wears a body cam — it’s issued to you just like your weapon. Sometimes, someone is yelling at an officer, and they are showing great restraint. If it weren’t for the camera, they wouldn’t show such great restraint. And when people realize that the officer has a body camera, their tone changes too. It allows us to stop yelling and talk to each other. As long as I am police chief, we will have body cameras — I have not had one instance where it hurt a police officer.”
Also discussed was the size and diversity of each department: in Saugerties there are 20 full-time and 15 part-time officers and there are 160 corrections officers are employed by the sheriff’s department. All of these, the department heads said, including the state police, were predominantly white men. Within the state police, 23 percent of officers are minorities, and about fifteen percent are female. Sinagra said that when he took up his position as Saugerties chief, the department only had one non-white officer and no women; now, there are three female and two non-white officers. Within the 160 corrections officers working in the county, ten of them are non-white.
One larger topic of debate was the recent push towards allowing New York State drivers licenses to be obtained by undocumented immigrants, an idea that Sinagra has supported publicly via local news publications. One forum attendee questioned why the agencies would be on board with the practice, and whether this might serve to attract immigrants to the area.
“I have extensive experience in law enforcement. Before 9/11, anyone could get a driver’s license, documented, or otherwise,” shared Figueroa with an attendee riled-up by what he perceived as a growing acceptance of undocumented immigrants in the community. “This is not anything new — it was like this before. My job is public safety, I’d rather have people that are insured and licensed on the road. Having a driver’s license for someone that could get insurance, documented or otherwise, is important. [Licenses] also let me get to know who’s in this county. It’s my responsibility. If someone commits a crime, I want to know who that person is. Any law enforcement officer would say the same.”
Chief Sinagra spoke extensively on the issue as well, giving a take closer to home. “[Undocumented immigrants] being here is a federal crime — we cannot enforce that. I can tell you that we have several hundred undocumented aliens in Saugerties. The problem is, I don’t know exactly who they are. We aren’t looking to go against the law, we’re asking that it be changed, the way it was prior to 9/11. My personal stance, which is not the position of the town of Saugerties, is that I agree with the Sheriff. I want people to travel safely. I don’t want someone on Main and Partition Street driving while undocumented, who gets pulled over by an officer and races past Cahill to hit a bunch of kids.”