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Jefferson County moves toward arming probation officers

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It’s been years in the making, but on Tuesday night, the push to arm the majority of Jefferson County’s 31 probation officers appeared to have reached a tipping point with an endorsement from the Board of Legislators General Services Committee that will begin the process of bringing the idea to fruition.

Probation Director Edward E. Brown has been promoting the safety measure since the 1980s and said it felt “awesome” to finally see the proposal take a big step forward, though it won’t change the way the department does business.

“This is just one more tool. We’re not going to be busting down doors. We’ll still have the Sheriff’s Department execute our warrants, but now they won’t have to protect us in addition to themselves,” Mr. Brown said after the meeting.

The main justification for the measure is the demographics of the county have changed and the job “is more dangerous now than it was in the ’70s when I first started,” Mr. Brown said.

With jail overcrowding, more and more violent offenders are being placed on probation instead of being incarcerated, often contrary to the recommendation of probation officers, according to Mr. Brown.

Of the county’s 31 probation officers, 18 have indicated they would like to carry firearms while performing their duties.

The department now has five Glock .40-caliber pistols.

The resolution will next appear before the board’s Finance and Rules Committee, which will work out the numbers associated with the plan.

If the measure is recommended by Finance and Rules and approved by the full board, the Probation Department plans to buy 13 more pistols to arm all 18 officers who have expressed interest.

Officers wishing to carry a firearm would have to pass a two-week intensive training course and a psychological evaluation.

If an officer fails the training course, he or she would have two more chances to take it before waiting six months to try again.

The psychological evaluation would cost $300 per officer. Carrying firearms would add roughly $3,000 to the county’s annual insurance expenses.

The measure’s price tag will be between $20,000 and $22,000, according to County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III.

Probation officers in 31 of New York’s 62 counties already carry firearms and three more are in the process of approving their use, Mr. Brown said.

In addition, federal probation officers and parole officers carry firearms and perform the same job as county probation officers.

“Many people think we currently carry,” Mr. Brown said.

The department already has two firearms instructors on staff, and half of the probation officers have permits to carry as private citizens but cannot carry while on the job, Mr. Brown said.

The policy would not be mandatory, but if a probation officer elected to carry a firearm, he or she would be required to carry it while on duty.

Mr. Brown has already signed a letter of understanding with the Civil Service Employees Association on the issue.

Technically, the probation director is authorized by law to arm his officers and doesn’t need legislators’ approval. Mr. Brown said he would never exercise that right without their blessing.

“I just wouldn’t do it,” he said.

General Services Committee Chairman Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, acknowledged the issue’s sensitivity.

“No one is taking this lightly. We’ve all put a great deal of thought into this,” opening up the floor for questions from other committee members.

Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, asked why the policy wouldn’t be mandatory, especially because it had been construed as a safety issue.

Mr. Brown said employees weren’t hired under the assumption they would have to possess a firearm and it would be unfair to require them to carry. A form noting an employee had declined to carry would reduce any liability issues that might arise if an employee encountered a dangerous situation but had chosen not to have a pistol.

Legislator Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown, voiced unequivocal support for the measure, saying, “These officers have every right to carry to protect themselves. I’d like to move this through.”

The motion to endorse the plan came from Legislator Michael W. Behling, R-Adams.

It will go before the Finance and Rules Committee in two weeks.

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