Looking back with New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder

New Paltz Chief of Police Joe Snyder will be retiring in 2020. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In 1987, Joseph Snyder applied for a police job in the Village of Walden. At the time, admission to a police academy required sponsorship, and he needed an opportunity to show that he was worth the investment. He was persuasive enough to land a job as a dispatcher, but he soon got to wear a badge as he desired. Next April, New Paltz Police Chief Joseph Snyder will wear that badge for the last time, retiring from a police career almost entirely in New Paltz, but for the first few months.

Snyder’s younger days

When he finally got to the academy run by the Kingston police, young Snyder had to sell his car to help pay the $300 tuition. The canceled check is framed in his office. Today, rookie officers have to fork over $4,500 to SUNY Ulster for their education, but they also receive college credit. He entered a law enforcement community where reports and tickets were written in pen (“Your hand would get tired if you had to write a lot of them,” he remembered), fingerprints were taken with black pads of ink and mug shots were taken with polaroid cameras and taped to index cards. He leaves a department where citations are generated with a button, police cars have computers for writing reports and both mug shots and fingerprints are entirely digital. His first New Paltz uniform was brown, rather than the blackish-blue worn today. Police officers don’t actually wear badges any longer, either: the insignia is embroidered on because metal badges can cause injury in a scuffle and may also reveal an officer’s position as it’s reflective. The police hats, in those days, were stetsons rather than the baseball-style caps worn most commonly now. The cars had AM radios and manual windows, and officers were separate from suspects with a metal cage. Today’s cars have a solid plastic barrier which prevents spitting and minimizes verbal abuse, and the back seat is hard plastic, which can be easily hosed off.

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Snyder lived in New Paltz from the time he was 14, and he was hired as a part-time officer in his then-hometown on April 15, 1988, by Chief Dennis Zappone. He secured a full-time position in November of that year and worked as a patrol officer until May 1, 1995, when he was promoted to detective. Even today, the number of leadership positions in the New Paltz police department is small, but a quarter of a century ago there was just one detective on the force. Robert Murphy, who was chief at the time, successfully lobbied for a second detective position, and Snyder was promoted into that slot. Some five years later he became a road sergeant, and then made detective-sergeant the year after that. Chief Ray Zappone, brother to Dennis who hired Snyder in New Paltz, promoted him to lieutenant in January of 2003. When that Zappone retired nearly six years later, town officials made Snyder chief of police. With eleven years in the top job, Snyder said that he’s been chief four years longer than anyone else — at least since the village department was dissolved in the 1970s. He didn’t have records going back further.

“It’s amazing how fast it went,” Snyder said in his South Putt Corners office, where the walls are adorned with memorabilia such as an historical collection of New Paltz police officer hats. “It seems like I started in Walden yesterday.” His long-held retirement plan was to grow his hair long again, and possibly even add a beard, but time has caught up with him. “I don’t have much hair, and my beard’s grey,” he said with a laugh.

Reasons for leaving

Counting his time as second in command, Snyder’s been setting the tone for New Paltz officers since this year’s high school graduates have been alive. He feels that this is the right time to exit the stage because he sees the department as “well-liked” and recognizes that the current period of harmony between town and village boards is historically rare and remarkably good for the community. His successor will oversee a move to a new headquarters, assuming that no one forces a vote to try to prevent the purchase of 59 North Putt Corners Road, the warehouse slated to house police and court functions.

To his as-yet-unnamed successor, the chief has some advice about that move. “Preparation and planning, from the phones and computers to every last chair. You have to be able not to skip a beat when you move.” When the police left their Plattekill Avenue space, one group of officers and dispatchers wrapped up over there while the next shift started duty on Putt Corners Road. “It was very smooth, and that means hard work,” he said. Most of the work was done by the officers in their own free time. No moving company was hired: Snyder brought his trailer, and many others their trucks, which they loaded with all the equipment and furniture they needed. They even built the sign which is out front and mounted it in the ground.

As he’s not leaving the job until next April, Snyder will be involved in the planning, but intends only to weigh in with his experience as needed. “I don’t have to work there,” he said, and thus he doesn’t plan on imposing his opinion on those who will.

Snyder has a gift for empathetic listening, which set him apart during his years as a detective. He recalls that the district attorney “was amazed at the confessions I got” by treating people with respect and making it clear that he understood that “people make mistakes.” While he believes that there are bad people in the world, in his view most lawbreakers are more likely guilty of bad judgment than bad intent. Assume a good person is guilty until proven innocent will cause that person to “shut down” and possibly start them down a criminal path. “Bad people are not easy to change,” he said, “but good people, if treated well, will change.” He began promulgating that philosophy as chief, carefully hiring new officers based on their temperament and training his sergeants to reinforce his approach to law enforcement. “Today’s policing needs to be open and friendly to the community,” he explained, “but not every officer is like that.”

This past year has put the chief’s listening skills to the test. When Ellenville resident Paul Echols asserted that he’d been physically abused by New Paltz officers, Snyder listened to a lot of angry residents in public and private meetings alike. At one point he spent seven hours with members of Concerned Parents of New Paltz hashing out that incident at the Plaza Diner. Police commissioners found no wrongdoing by any officer, and Echols was cleared in a jury trial of the most serious charges, but it’s possible the next chief will still be dealing with ramifications from that incident.

The hiring practices which focus on an even-keeled temperament have had an unintended consequence: New Paltz has the most diverse police force for a community this size in the entire state. “I’m proud of that,” Snyder said, and he says it comes simply from “picking the best employee available at the time.” When he started his career, if a female suspect needed to be searched, then it might require getting an officer from another town to do it. Now, there’s a woman on nearly every shift. Snyder found that as women and people of color have been hired in New Paltz, more of them have applied, meaning that “there’s more to pick from,” which is quite important since he’s competing against municipalities where the starting pay is much higher. The chief has said in the past that it’s difficult to hire part-timers in general, but they are important to control costs by eliminating the need for overtime.

Police do get the largest percentage of town taxes, but Snyder points out that the main difference is the fact that he has employees working every hour of every day. “If the highway department was on a 24/7 schedule, it would cost just as much,” he said. Nevertheless, he is cost-conscious, and it’s from that need that one of his biggest regrets is spawned: there’s rarely enough people on a shift for any to use the all-terrain vehicles and bicycles for patrols. “We work with the minimum to get the job done,” and that means setting some tools aside much of the time.

Other changes will be coming as New Paltz residents labor to do what they can to control greenhouse gases. The first hybrid patrol car will be purchased soon; there were initial hopes to make the next cruiser fully electric but the technology doesn’t yet support that goal. Police cars, with all their electronic equipment, draw a large amount of power. That’s why officers can be seen in cars left idling as they write reports, and it’s why Snyder thinks any anti-idling policy considered by town council members will have to exempt those cars.

In some ways, policing hasn’t changed at all. Snyder sees the same types of calls, with drug issues continuing to be among the most pernicious. Thanks to modern technology and interdepartmental cooperation it’s now easier to track and curtail chronic domestic violence issues, and now “good samaritan” laws are in place to protect anyone calling in an opiate overdose from being arrested. Laws that prevent loss of life are a-ok in Snyder’s book. Traffic injuries and fatalities are among the most haunting things he’s had to deal with, and he’s glad that the convenience of services like Uber and Lyft at least seem to reduce alcohol-related crashes.

Serving in New Paltz, a community full of diverse opinions and lively debate has been an honor, he said. “It’s been a fantastic ride through this career,” he added. Even though he eventually did buy a house in Wallkill, “I’ve been here every day of my life.” He sees this as the best time to leave because the community itself seems to be at a high point, with relatively little controversy and almost no political rancor among town and village elected officials.

What’s next

As for what’s next, Snyder just finished up an MBA but he has no particular plans to use it quite yet. He wants to finish up projects around the house and spend a lot more time with his sons, trying as best he can to make up for lost nights and weekends when they were younger. There’s also his boat, and he wouldn’t mind spending more time playing golf. Even after he’s mustered out, though, some things are not likely to change: “If I see a car broken down by the side of the road, I’m going to stop to help. A helper is always a helper.”

There are 3 comments

  1. Cindylee Ricci

    What a great article! You’ve definitely been an asset to this town Joey. I would say I’m going to miss you but I have a feeling our group will be spending a lot more time together LOL! 40 years of friendship in the books for us. Reading this article makes me very proud to call you my friend. You’ve been a terrific chief Joey. Many look up to you. I’m so proud of you! I still have memories of us at 14 years old playing at school. Where the hell did the time go!? I love you Joey. PS… I can’t wait for the party!

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