Interim Saugerties Police Chief Lou Barbaria is a throwback, and in a department recently beset by scandal, town officials believe that might not be a bad thing. Barbaria agrees.
“I’ve been away from law enforcement for eleven years and things have really accelerated since I left, especially in the arena of technology,” he said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, I am concentrating on the personal touch and I don’t think I would’ve come back if I didn’t think I could have that positive effect on the agency. As a matter of fact, I met with one of the officers that was here prior to me leaving the other day, and that’s exactly what he said to me.”
Barbaria has been here before. He last served as chief in 2012 prior to the merger of the town and village police departments.
“I started on the Village of Saugerties Police in 1970, and when the town started actually hiring full-time officers, I transferred from the village to the town in 1972, and was one of the first four police officers hired by the town,” Barbaria said. In 1978, he left the town for the state police department, where he served for nearly three decades before retiring in December 2005.
“And then I came back to the town to conduct a study on the feasibility of consolidating the two agencies,” Barbaria said.
The interim chief’s experience may be critical as the Saugerties Police Department (SPD) looks to move forward from the end of former Chief Joseph Sinagra’s time at the helm. A July 7 report by New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office (LEMIO) covered multiple complaints against Officer Dion Johnson, including allegations of harassment and sexual assault.
By the end of July, the Town Board had placed a temporary freeze on hiring and promotion, and Sinagra was placed on administrative leave, with Barbaria hired as interim chief. Sinagra has since submitted his retirement paperwork and remains on leave until that goes into effect on Sunday, September 24. Johnson, currently on active duty with the Army Reserve, is still officially a member of the SPD.
Barbaria believes he provides a stabilizing influence on the department at a time when it may need one, not only internally, but in the public eye.
“Basically, I believe that I’m here, and what the town really wants me to do, is to ensure that our agency goes out and provides the level of service that we should to the public and just make sure that that’s continuing,” Barbaria said.“I’m really not here to drastically change the operation of the police department. I mean, if I see something that has to be changed and it’s critical, of course they’ve given me full authority to do that. But basically I’m not here to create a new police department and I’m only here for however long it’s going to take to find someone who could step in here and take over as the chief of police.”
Town officials have said they will also rely on Barbaria to offer his advice as they seek to find a permanent police chief.
“I think that really it dovetails and it goes along with my original mission here, to make sure that the department looks forward and make sure that the department offers the level of service that they should to the public,” Barbaria said.“And with that goes finding the right person to fill the shoes of the police chief.”
Barbaria has been un-retired for less than two months, but other than an ongoing technological learning curve, he hasn’t run into any hurdles along the way and has been welcomed back by the SPD. His experience garners respect, particularly as this isn’t the first time he’s steered the ship through choppy waters. Not everyone was happy with the merger of the town and village police departments.
“I don’t want to sit here and kind of blow my own horn, but because I was here through all that time,” Barbaria said. “It was kind of a trying time when we went through the consolidation, and there was a great deal of opposition to that at the time, especially with the village. And it all wound up, I think, positive for the community.”
It’s been over a decade since Barbaria retired, and though he didn’t imagine he’d be back again, it’s been going well. He credits the department for much of that.
“I have tremendous respect from the officers, some of whom I’ve really never met, some of the younger officers,” he said. “There’s quite a few of them I don’t know, and I’ve gotten to know them since I’ve been back for this real short period of time. And from what I can see, they’re going out doing a tremendous job. I mean, they should be commended for what they’re doing in spite of the negative publicity that the department, the agency has received lately.”
While he’s all-in as interim chief, Barbaria stressed that it’s only temporary and he is not interested in taking on the role on a permanent basis again.
“I am definitely not seeking another career,” he said. “I’m beyond that. I did what I did and I’m happy with the way things went with every agency I worked for. I retired as a major on the state police, so I’m very happy with that.”
Barbaria is here only as long as it takes the SPD to find its new police chief, at which point he’ll return to retirement with his wife Donna.
“It’d be misleading if I said it didn’t disrupt my life because my wife and I were enjoying our retirement,” Barbaria said. “You just don’t know how many years you have left to enjoy it, so I want to continue doing that. But I just felt compelled to come back and try to help out here just for a short period of time to make sure that things are going the way they should, and that’s what I hope I can accomplish. I have confidence I can.”