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Former trooper Colleen O’Neill could become first female sheriff in the state

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Colleen M. O’Neill, the former state trooper who announced her candidacy for Jefferson County sheriff last week, could make history if she wins.

According to the New York State Sheriffs’ Association, no woman has ever run for sheriff in the state and been elected.

Ms. O’Neill, who served 28 years with the state police and retired as a senior investigator, was one of only 10 women in her 1984 rookie class at the state police academy in Albany.

She said she was previously unaware of the fact that no woman had ever been elected to the office in New York.

“I won’t know how it feels to be the first female sheriff of the state until November,” she said. “I’ll give you my reaction then.”

Ms. O’Neill, who is running as a Democrat, said gender has never been a big factor in her career.

“I spent my career with the state police without gender being an issue at the forefront of my mind or being an issue in any supervisory position that I had,” she said.

There are 62 counties in New York state, all with male sheriffs.

The five constituent counties comprising New York City — Bronx, Queens, Richmond, Kings and New York — are all overseen by one sheriff, a man named Edgar A. Domenech.

In the city, the sheriff is an officer of the court whose main job is to serve and execute legal processes, according to the city’s finance website. The New York City sheriff is appointed by the mayor.

Everywhere else in the state, the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer of the county and is elected by the populace.

A woman was once temporarily appointed sheriff of Queens County, and there have been female undersheriffs, but no woman has ever been elected to the office in the state’s history, according to the Sheriffs’ Association.

To look at the photos of New York state sheriffs by county on the association’s website is to see a gallery of stern faces and tight-lipped smiles, all close-cropped hair, all men.

According to the website, there is one female undersheriff: Mary Barbera, of Rockland County.

Ms. O’Neill, who is from LaFargeville, said that her father, former Sheriff Alfred P. O’Neill, was a captain in the state police when the first women graduated from the state police academy in 1974.

She was just 10 or 11 years old, she said, but old enough to realize that it was a historic moment.

“When I realized it was a possibility, it became my goal,” she said.

While announcing her campaign, Ms. O’Neill told supporters last week that being a state trooper was all she ever wanted to do. That determination kept her motivated throughout her six months at the academy and her long career, which saw her filling roles varying from road patrol to providing security for the governor.

“As tough as those days got, I never doubted that’s where I belonged or that I would finish,” she said of her time at the academy.

Since April 2012, a series of incidents of alleged misconduct have been reported from within the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, including two lawsuits and a notice of claim involving charges of sexual harassment perpetrated by males against females.

Asked whether she thought having a woman as “top cop” of the county would put a stop to that pattern of behavior, Ms. O’Neill said, “No matter who’s at the head of the department, those kinds of issues have to be addressed.”

John R. Bocciolatt, a Watertown native and retired Portland, Ore., city police detective, is running for sheriff as a Republican.

“Gender is a non-issue to me,” Mr. Bocciolatt said. “The people of Jefferson County deserve the best candidate. In this day and age, it’s unthinkable to use gender, race or ethnicity as a qualifier.”

Mr. Bocciolatt said he has worked with, supervised and been supervised by several female officers in his career, including two or three female police chiefs, and never found it to be an issue.

“I think if voters take my resume, my education, experience, leadership and training, they’ll find I’m the best candidate for the job,” he said.

Jefferson County Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau is also running for sheriff as a Democrat. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

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