Proposal would arm NY county probation officers

Washington County probation officers could be carrying firearms if a resolution is passed by the Board of Supervisors Friday

By Christina Scanlon
The Post-Star

FORT EDWARD — Washington County probation officers could be carrying firearms if a resolution is passed by the Board of Supervisors Friday.

The measure was prompted by changes in state law as well as the ever-increasing drug climate in the region.

Washington County Probation Director Anthony White was in favor of his department carrying firearms in 2009, when the same resolution failed to pass.

Today, he said, the community has acknowledged the local heroin epidemic.

"It's not a huge leap to come into contact with money and guns. That's what the drug trade is," he said.

White oversees a department of 12 probation officers, with all of them, plus White, conducting home visits. At any given time, the department has approximately 600 probationers.

In October 2009, changes in the Rockefeller drug laws, enacted in 1973, came into effect, eliminating mandatory prison sentences, reducing minimum sentences and offering alternatives to other offenders.

White said they saw the results locally. Some offenders who previously would have been sentenced to a year or more in state prison would then be placed in the state's parole care.

Today, some of those individuals are seeing shorter sentences in county jail and probation following their sentence. Some are receiving probation alone.

Approximately 200 are in the program because of felony arrests.

"That number doesn't take into account the probationers that have felony convictions in the past," said White.

A large amount of the individuals reportedly on probation for misdemeanors have previous felonies or have been accused of felonies and have had their charges reduced, he said.

Ideally, probationers would always travel to the higher-risk homes with an armed law enforcement officer.

"That's not always possible," said White.

Compounding the issue with an increase of probationers, are new requirements passed in June.

Kevin McKay, president of the state's Probation Officers Association Inc., explained the new law mandates officers conduct what are called "positive home contacts" once a month for probationers at the greatest risk. A visit to a home where the probationer is not located does not count as a positive contact, often requiring repeated visits. A high-risk probationer must be visited two times in a three-month period.

White referred to a 2009 Post-Star editorial that said: "Washington County isn't the Bronx," while stating it was unnecessary to arm probation officers locally.

"This isn't New York City," White said, "but New York City comes to us."

He said officials' interactions with probationers from the city is daily.

Probation Officer Daniel Boucher recalled how shortly after the resolution was voted down last time, a home visit he was on resulted in a probationer hiding in a closet with three stolen firearms in the house.

Home visits often require the officers to search for alcohol, drugs and weapons. They must remove those items when found.

On Tuesday morning, officers revisited some of those confiscated weapons, opening drawers full of alarming looking items.

Machetes, sickles, daggers, swords, sabers, brass knuckles, nunchucks and throwing stars were just some of the items found.

Probation Officer Jason Harrington pulled out a shining, thick-metaled piece. It had a handle and large curing blade. When asked what the weapon was called, he said, "I don't know, but I don't want it in my back."

He pulled out a 2-by-4 that was found hidden outside a residence at one the of probationer's homes. The end had been carved into a crude handle, turning the board into a club.

"You never know what you'll find," he said.

"We're not looking to be a police agency hell-bent on arrests, but if they are in violation and there's a warrant, we need to be prepared. Officer safety is our priority. Protection is fundamental," White said.

Home visits are not the only duty of a probation officer. While they have powers of arrest, their jobs are multifaceted, referring people to treatment and encouraging their successes in the community through employment.

"Our goal here is to have a successful probation sentence. Violation isn't a success, Early discharge is a success," White said.

It was the department's goal that troubled Hampton Supervisor David O'Brien, causing him to vote against it when the Public Safety and Finance committees passed motions for the decision last week.

"We've heard why they think they need to be armed," said O'Brien, "but I haven't seen why or how this changes the relationship between the officer and the probationer."

He also had concerns about the impact on the number of juveniles overseen by the Probation Department.

O'Brien said it's important to go back to the mission of probation, "to transition them from probationers to members of society."

In New York state, probation officers in 38 counties carry weapons. Washington, Warren and Saratoga are among 24 counties that do not.

Of those counties that do allow the carrying of weapons, not all officers are authorized to carry. Some departments have warrant squads or other special units as the only officers with firearms.

If the resolution passes, four guns will be bought from the Sheriff's Office, requiring the purchase of nine more for a cost estimated at $4,100. Increased insurance for those carrying guns will cost approximately $100 more annually.

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