Whenever Schenectady County residents are evicted, sheriff’s Deputy Donald Williams is present.
Sometimes the residents are still sleeping and he tells them to get dressed. He pokes his head inside the closets to make sure nobody is hiding, and if the residents are upset, he tries to keep things calm. He has encountered pit bulls and uncovered puppy mills. He has evicted businesses whose employees didn’t even know they were about to lose their jobs.
“Every situation is different,” Williams said.
Last month Williams was awarded the New York State Sheriffs’ Association Civil Deputy of the Year Award for his work processing evictions.
A 22-year veteran of the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department, Williams has spent 12 years processing evictions for the department and for the past three years has been the sole officer managing evictions. In 2011, he processed an all-time high of 774 evictions in Schenectady County. During a recent interview, he referred to the crowbar under his desk as “the key to the city.”
Christopher O’Brien, the executive director of the state Sheriffs’ Association, said that one of the things that impressed his organization was the sheer number of evictions Williams had processed. “The volume of evictions he’s done is staggering,” he said. “It’s a sad commentary on the economy, but it’s also just a huge amount.”
Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino echoed this, saying, “We’ve seen an increase in evictions because of the economic crisis.”
Williams said he was initially shocked by the number of evictions in Schenectady County and it took him a little bit of time to get used to ordering families to leave their homes.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” Williams said. “When there are a lot of children involved, it wears on you. The hardest part is when the kids look at me and want to blame me.”
Many of the people he evicts are struggling because of situations they have no control over, such as medical problems, while others are serial problem renters who bounce from place to place, Williams said. He said he often winds up evicting the same people over and over again and witnessing the gradual deterioration of their living conditions.
“There are some people I might evict two or three times this year,” he said. “I do know who they are.”
He said he sometimes finds himself angered by the conditions parents are letting their kids live in.
“There’s good landlords and bad landlords and good tenants and bad tenants,” Williams said. “I can sympathize with both tenants and landlords, but I try to stay neutral.”
Dagostino said that Williams’ strengths include a tremendous work ethic and an even-keeled personality.
“One of the least pleasant types of job duties we have here is evicting people,” Dagostino said. “We don’t take any pleasure in it. You have to have an even temperament to do it because you’re dealing with people who are upset.”
Evictions are processed by the sheriff’s department’s civil enforcement division after a court order has been issued. Though most evictions target renters who owe money, the housing collapse that triggered the recession caused the number of evictions resulting from foreclosure to increase. More recently, foreclosures have slowed because of new regulations that aim to prevent banks from signing off on foreclosures that haven’t been properly reviewed.
Under the law, evictions can only be processed if the landlord or a representative is present and on days when the Department of Social Services is open.
“That’s common sense and common decency,” Williams said, adding that he never wants to be in a situation where he evicts a family during a snowstorm and there’s no place for them to go for help.
Williams is a tall, imposing man who once played on a semi-professional football team in Albany.
But he had never given any thought to becoming a sheriff’s deputy until he saw an advertisement inviting people to take the required test and apply.
Williams once worked on the assembly line at General Electric, but he was laid off in the mid-1980s. Subsequent jobs included stints in construction and bartending. A job that offered a pension and benefits appealed to him, and he decided to go for it. In 1989, he started working for the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department.
“A lot of us made good money at GE,” Williams said. “[Those layoffs] were our recession.”
A graduate of Scotia-Glenville High School, Williams, 57, said he was raised by a single mother and the people he evicts are often “not that much different from the way I grew up.
“The bottom line is, this is my job,” Williams said. “We provide a service that taxpayers pay for. We do a job that we’re entrusted to do. … It’s a never-ending process.”
He credited the staff in his office with supporting his work.
Evictions generate revenue for Schenectady County. Dagostino estimated that the sheriff’s department makes about $300,000 processing evictions each year — money that goes directly into the county’s general fund.
O’Brien said the state Sheriffs’ Association created the civil deputy of the year award about 10 years ago to honor and provide greater recognition to deputies who perform the sort of behind-the-scenes duties of which many people might be unaware.
“The civil office is not known to the public unless they’re in a situation where they have to deal with it,” O’Brien said.
The association also honored Schenectady County corrections officer Steven Redmond with its corrections officer of the year award.