Chris James joined the Schoharie County Tac-Force, a volunteer auxiliary police unit, after seeing friends and family lose their homes and spend weeks in chaos in the floods of Tropical Storm Irene. He wanted to be on the other side of the equation, he said — the person who shows up to help.
But after the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors decided to disarm the unit last week, citing insurance concerns, James and others on the Tac-Force are not sure of its future or their willingness to serve.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” said James. “I’m kind of hoping that some of this down the road can be resolved. I guess I’m in a wait-and-see pattern.”
County officials said over the past year it has come to their attention that their insurance provider, New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal, does not cover for the Tac-Force members to carry firearms, as they are not certified peace officers.
At its Feb. 20 meeting, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution officially disarming the group, and they were asked to change their uniforms and name to better distinguish themselves from regular sheriff’s deputies.
The Schoharie County Tactical and Rescue Force, more commonly called the Tac-Force, was created in 1970 based on a 1951 law to assist the Sheriff’s Department in the case of natural disaster, “attack” or other emergency situations.
There are 18 counties around the state that use auxiliary police units, including Schenectady County, according to a Division of Criminal Justice Services representative. In Schenectady, members are required to serve on the force for one year and complete a 47-hour DCJS training course before being allowed to carry firearms on duty, according to the unit’s website.
In recent years, Schoharie’s 16-member Tac-Force has been used primarily to help control traffic and crowds during parades, the Schoharie County Fair in Cobleskill and other large events, as well as assisting with natural-disaster recovery and emergency situations like search-and-rescue operations.
The unit had the support of state Sen. James Seward in getting a $25,000 state grant in 2013 for equipment, including new uniforms and bullet-proof vests — the same uniforms Schoharie County Sheriff Anthony Desmond is now asking the unit to stop wearing.
“They came up with these uniforms, and they put their bullet-proof vests on over the top of their shirts, then put the [word] ‘Sheriff’ right over that,” he said. “That’s when everybody kind of took a step back and looked at it and said, ‘This isn’t good.’ ”
In their black uniforms, duty belts, black bullet-proof vests emblazoned with “Sheriff” in yellow letters, with a Glock .40 handgun on their side, it would be very difficult for the average person to distinguish between a Tac-Force member and a sheriff’s deputy, Desmond said.
That blurring of lines has led to tensions, which both sides admit. Ted Volkert, president of the Tac-Force, described is as a “get out of my sandbox” attitude from some deputies. Desmond said it was a matter of drawing lines.
“We have to have a dividing line to show these are regular road patrol officers, sworn police officers who have gone to the academy for a number of months, and these guys here are just a volunteer force that helps direct traffic and control crowds at the fair,” he said. “The road patrol— they work hard, it’s their career, they had to go to the academy, and they had to study hard there and they had to do all these other things to get the title of police officers. So I understand how they feel about it.
As it stands, the Tac Force only has the authority to conduct traffic and crowd control. They cannot make arrests or issue tickets.
Seward again supported the unit in 2014, introducing a bill in the state Senate to establish them as full peace officers at the request of the county, which would give them more authority. That bill stalled in the codes committee of the state Assembly last June. A representative from Seward’s office said the senator would consider introducing a new bill if asked, but the request must come from the county.
Desmond says if the members of the Tac-Force want the full authority of police officers, “take the [police academy] test and see what happens.”
But for Volkert, that was not an option. When he retired from military service, he was over the maximum age, 35, to enter the academy.
“I had a certain skill set being ex-military and I wanted to do what I can to help my community,” he said. “I did EMT for a while and served on the rescue squad, but there’s just something that drives me more toward the law-enforcement side than to the ambulance or fire department side.”
Other members of the force, all men, have similar stories: some have military or law-enforcement backgrounds, and some are just willing to learn and eager to serve. Chris James is an assistant manager at Wal-Mart, and Anthony Hall, another member, is a postmaster with the U.S. Postal Service.
Hall said he joined last year for the same reason as the others: he wanted to serve his community. When he heard the unit would be disarmed last week, he prepared his resignation. His decision isn’t final yet, but he said if they’re going to be asked to operate without firearms, he’s done.
“They’re taking away our ability to protect ourselves and the community,” he said. “Especially nowadays with the random shootings and everything like that, I wouldn’t put a uniform on or do any type of activity that we do without having protection.”
Most of the members feel the same way. Volkert said as long as they’re unarmed, they won’t be working the fair or any festivals where alcohol is served.
“We’re not going to put ourselves in harm’s way,” he said. “Basically, we’ve been demoted down to flagmen for parades. That’s about the extent of it.”
According to Volkert, the Tac-Force used to have a close working relationship with the Sheriff’s Department, and its members were certified as peace officers in the past. That has been hard to confirm, however, as nearly all of the unit’s documents were destroyed in the floods of Tropical Storm Irene.
Desmond, who was sworn into office in 2010, said it’s possible that was the case, but his office has not submitted the paperwork to do so on his watch, and he doesn’t plan to. When the unit was created in 1970, the Sheriff’s Department had two deputies; it now has 12 full-time patrolmen and five part-time. It also has stricter regulations to deal with and, after the events of Ferguson, Missouri, and other instances in which police have been accused of unacceptable use of force, Desmond said he’s practicing caution.
“Things have changed since 1970, and now citizen-police encounters are not the same as they were,” he said. “You don’t need to be armed to direct traffic, you don’t need to be armed to work at the Cobleskill Fair at the grandstand when they have special events.”
Members of the task force look at the same developments and draw different conclusions. Times have changed, they say, which means it’s more dangerous to be a uniformed officer, and the firearms are necessary deterrents.
Members of the unit pay out of pocket to equip themselves with Glock .40s, the same handguns carried by the sheriff’s deputies. That allows them to “swap out magazines and ammunition with the road patrol if we ever happened to be in that kind of situation,” Volkert said.
And that’s exactly where the sheriff doesn’t want them to be.
“I wouldn’t put them on any detail that’s so dangerous that they would need a firearm,” Desmond said. “Because there are regular guys that do that.”
Until last year, the Tac-Force members underwent twice-yearly firearm qualification courses with the Sheriff’s Deparment to be allowed to carry their handguns, as well as various trainings in traffic and crowd control procedures, personal defense, first aid, search and rescue, and cave rescue, said Volkert.
Last year, as Desmond began to explore the insurance issue after being asked about filing paperwork for peace officer certification, he did not allow the unit to undergo the handgun qualifications with his office for liability reasons.
Chris James said that added to what he saw as a pattern of disregard and disrespect from the sheriff’s office.
“It was probably last fall,” he said. “I walked into Middleburgh Rod and Gun Club because I’m a member, and one of the deputies who does the qualifying was posting dates on the calendar, and I flat-out asked him when the Tac-Force was going to be qualifying, just to kind of make small talk. And he turned around and said, ‘You’re not.’ And that was pretty much the end of the discussion.”
Add that to the fact that they haven’t been called out to many details or operations lately, and now the news about the firearms and uniforms, and James said he feels like “they pretty much threw us away.”
All of the Tac-Force members have valid pistol permits from the county. Volkert said in the 13 years he’s been on the unit, he’s never had to draw his weapon, but there have been times when he felt the authority of its presence was a clear deterrent to escalation.
In one instance, he said, a crowd had stormed the fence at a demolition derby to “go after” one of the drivers. They blew past the demolition derby officials in orange vests and charged toward the driver. The Tac-Force, Volkert said, formed a circle around the driver.
“When they came up and saw us in a uniform with a gun, they stopped,” he said. “So a lot of times, just the presence is enough.”
Volkert has asked the county to reconsider the group’s peace officer status. The members are willing to pay the $900 course fee and put in the 99 hours of training, he said. So far, county officials have shown little support, neither interested in paying higher insurance premiums nor, according to Desmond, in having the unit remain armed.
“Each member has invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of their personal time to serve our community,” Volkert told the Board of Supervisors last month.. “We only ask that you allow us to do the job that we are willing to do for you for free.”