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Watertown’s plan to hold unarraigned suspects best arrangement for now


While Watertown will have to bite the bullet financially, an agreement to have city police officers guard suspects in City Hall lockups before they are arraigned looks like the best deal that could be made in the short term.

City officials had to find an alternative to a long-standing arrangement to have unarraigned suspects kept in holding cells at the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building. Since the PSB opened in 1992, people arrested by city police were brought to one of these cells and guarded by members of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. This was a good way for the city and county to share services and was convenient for Watertown officers, as the Watertown Police Department is located in one part of the PSB.

But earlier this year, the New York State Commission of Correction notified the county that members of the Sheriff’s Department could not guard suspects arrested by city police before they are arraigned per state corrections law. Sheriff John P. Burns established a deadline of April 16 for the change in practice.

City police will now bring suspects to the lockups in City Hall, and officers will be reassigned from their regular beats to guard them. Judge James C. Tormey, the Fifth Judicial District’s administrative judge, has appointed three town justices to help Watertown’s two city judges in holding arraignments on evenings and weekends, if necessary.

County officials are seeking home rule legislation to obtain an exemption from the corrections law. That would be preferable in the long term as this new arrangement will cost the city additional money in overtime expenses.

An even better solution would be for state officials to review the corrections law to determine if revisions should be made. Members of the Sheriff’s Department are duly sworn officers of the law. What’s the rationale behind prohibiting them from guarding suspects arrested by municipal police?

But for the time being, this agreement will do. Members of the New York State Legislature should pass home rule legislation as soon as possible so both the city and county can continue providing the cost-effective service they have been for the past two decades.

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