The longest-serving sheriff in New York state won’t be seeking re-election in the fall.
Saratoga County Sheriff James D. Bowen said Wednesday he won’t seek another term this fall, capping 41 years as the top law enforcement officer in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties.
Bowen, 75, has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 48 years. The Republican has been elected 11 times, and would have been seeking a 12th term this fall.
“I made a decision a few months ago that 41 years as sheriff and 48 years with the department is a long time,” he said. “It’s time to relax and enjoy life.”
Bowen didn’t say anything publicly about his intentions until after informing the county Republican chairman Tuesday evening.
Law enforcement has been a lifetime pursuit for Bowen. He also served in the U.S. Army, including 15 months stationed in South Korea.
After joining the Sheriff’s Department in 1965, the Greenfield native rose through the ranks from road patrol deputy to investigator to undersheriff, the department’s second-in-command. When Sheriff Lee A. Sherer died in 1972, just days before the November election, he was re-elected anyway; Bowen was then appointed sheriff by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. He was elected in his own right the following year.
“The people of Saratoga County have been good to me. They’ve elected me 11 times,” Bowen said.
He has often had an opponent, though four years ago his only opposition was Jason Longton, a former Corinth police officer who ran an independent candidacy. The Republican Party has a significant countywide enrollment advantage and holds all countywide elected offices.
District Attorney James A. Murphy III, a fellow Republican who is up for re-election this year, praised Bowen as a hard-working man of high integrity.
“He works tirelessly to ensure that the Sheriff’s Department is a professional, accredited and highly regarded law enforcement agency,” Murphy said in a news release. “While I respect his decision not to seek re-election, I will miss his extraordinary experience, insight and knowledge, as well as our partnership and our commitment to working together to achieve public safety.”
Over the past four decades, Bowen has seen the Sheriff’s Department expand as the population of the county has increased threefold. There were only five road patrol deputies and two civil clerks when he joined the department; today, there are 115 sheriff’s deputies working in law enforcement and about as many who work at the jail. The emergency communications center handles more than 40,000 calls a year.
Bowen led the push for construction of the current sheriff’s headquarters and jail on County Farm Road in Milton, which opened in 1988. He also pioneered an effort to provide more police protection in growing suburban towns like Clifton Park and Halfmoon by having the towns contract for protection; that’s been much cheaper for the towns than having to establish their own police departments.
The annual salary for the position is $113,305.
County Republican Chairman John Herrick said he’s already been contacted by a couple people from outside the department who are interested in running for sheriff. Michael Woodcock, the current undersheriff, is also a potential candidate.
“He’s got a lot of years in,” Herrick said. “I haven’t spoken to Mike, but he’s very well-qualified.”
Woodcock told The Gazette it was premature to discuss any interest he might have in running.
Prospective candidates will be asked to appear before town and city Republican committees over the next few weeks, and a county endorsement decision will be made around June 1, Herrick said.
“I’m sorry to see him go, but after 48 years with the department and 41 as sheriff, he has earned his retirement,” Herrick said. “He’s done a great job.”
A poll at the Saratoga County Fair a few years ago showed Bowen to be the most popular politician in the county, Herrick added.
“He was very popular with people.”
Bowen has been a colorful figure who often spoke passionately at public events — and in recent months, he has spoken out against the burdens being put on local law enforcement agencies by the NY SAFE gun control law.
But there have been controversies.
In 1983, Bowen gained notoriety when he ordered an inmate sentenced to prison to be handcuffed to the fence at a downstate reception center, to protest a state policy of delaying accepting prisoners. The state policy was eventually changed, but the county’s insurance carrier paid a legal settlement to the prisoner.
In 1998, a federal court jury in Albany awarded a $400,000 verdict against the county after a civil deputy accused Bowen of retaliating against her for supporting an opponent in the 1993 sheriff’s election.
On Wednesday, Bowen said the department has seen “many good cases” in his tenure, but when asked for specifics, he pointed to two unsolved cases: the murders of Pam DeVizzio and Betty Conley.
DeVizzio’s beaten body was found in rural Northumberland in July 1988, after she was last seen leaving a downtown Saratoga Springs bar. Conley was a clerk shot to death in a Charlton convenience store in 1993.
The construction of the new jail required years of convincing county supervisors of the need for more cells and more modern police quarters than what the department had in downtown Ballston Spa.
Today, Bowen said the Sheriff’s Department is one of the top departments in the state, having kept up with the county’s population growth and changing times.
“The Board of Supervisors has always supported me,” he said. “We have robots, both underwater and for hostage situations, we have a navigation unit, a mobile command center, and we have tactical response teams.”
Bowen, whose wife, Susan, is a civil clerk with the department, said after retirement he plans to spend more time visiting three grandsons who live in Pennsylvania, as well as spend more time with two grandchildren who live locally.
He also plans to spend time working on a 1965 Mustang convertible.