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Vote nears on fate of Copake PD

COPAKE–The more cops the better.

Lawmen from the State Police, the Sheriff’s Office and Copake Police delivered that message during an hour and a half information session at the Copake Town Hall Saturday morning.

On Election Day this November voters in Copake will decide whether they want to keep their local part-time police force. As the town has found itself increasingly cash-strapped in recent years, eliminating the Copake Police Department has come up as a money-saving option. The department’s annual budget is about $100,000.

To help voters wade through the pros and cons of the issue, the first of two or more information sessions took place following the October 15 Town Board meeting. On hand were: Sheriff’s Office Sergeant John DeRocha, Copake Police Chief Rob Lopez, State Police Troop K Zone One Commander Captain Scott Brown and Sheriff’s Office Resident Deputy David Proper.

Sergeant DeRocha spoke about the new Sheriff’s Office Substation set to open October 29 at the old Hillsdale Town Hall on Route 23 as a one-year pilot program approved by the County Board of Supervisors. The aim is to provide better coverage in Zone 801, one of the five law enforcement zones that make up the county. This eastern zone, includes Hillsdale, Copake, Ancram, Gallatin, Taghkanic and Claverack, the biggest zone geographically and the only one that does not have 24/7 police presence. The substation will have at least one deputy per shift who will report to work there. Since the deputy will start and end his or her shift in Hillsdale instead of at the Sheriff’s Office in Greenport, there should be a shorter response time to calls in the zone.

But Sgt. DeRocha said that if the volume of calls demands it, the 801 patrol may be pulled out of the zone to go where help is needed. The total number of Sheriff’s patrols on the road will remain the same, with no new patrols added.

State Police Captain Brown said he likes to have at least one trooper per post, but the reality is that when serious or “hot calls,” as he referred to them, come in, cars get pulled from different posts “and boom, we got no one on post 801.”

The captain voiced his “strong support for Rob [Lopez] and his folks” and told residents they are “getting more for their buck” than the $100,000 they would save if the department is disbanded.

While he assured residents State Police will not abandon Zone 801, “it’s the nature of the beast that a call could tie you up for an hour or two.”

Sgt. DeRocha agreed: “We may be here… but sometimes calls wait a little while.”

Another factor is the dwindling number of law enforcement personnel on the state payroll. Capt. Brown said state Department of Environmental Conservation Police have been told “to park their vehicles unless they get a call, no more patrolling around just looking. Of course, deer season is coming and that may change.”

As for new State Police members entering the force–that is not happening. Capt. Brown said the last class of new troopers graduated over three years ago and the state has no specific date when a new State Police training course might commence. “We’re in shrinking mode,” he said. The lack of new troopers and the continuing retirement of older officers “is probably why we have not had layoffs. I don’t know where it’s going to stop and level off.” He said in the last three years, the number of state troopers has gone from 5,000 to just above 4,000.

The captain warned residents that if they vote to do away with the local police and expect the Sheriff’s Office or the State Police to cover their calls on a regular basis, “you may be shooting yourself in the foot” because “we’re out doing other stuff.”

“When someone is getting their teeth kicked in, 20 minutes is a long time to wait,” he said.

Resident Deputy Proper, who lives in Copake and takes his patrol car home with him every night, covers Ancram, Gallatin and Copake. He recounted an incident during the summer when 911 reported receiving multiple calls from motorists saying their vehicles were struck by paintballs as they travelled on Route 22, near the northern entrance to the hamlet. Copake Police had the closet car and an officer went to the scene, a trooper and Deputy Proper also went to assist.

The officers found no suspects, but did find where someone had been lying in the high weeds and found evidence of paintballs, he said. About an hour later, when Deputy Proper was on his way to a call in Gallatin and the trooper had also been called away, 911 reported the paintball shooters were at it again. Copake Police Officer Larry Edelman went right to the spot where the police found the matted grass and caught the juveniles in the act. He said the situation was potentially very dangerous, with motorists having their windshields obstructed and believes that the culprits would likely not have been caught had it not been for the Copake Police.

Copake Chief Lopez told the audience of about 25 that his department provides “community-based policing,” that “the citizens have a direct impact on what we do. We carry defibrillators and do CPR, we help wherever we can and we serve this town only.”  Chief Lopez said he calculated the cost of his department per household and found that a homeowner with a $100,000 assessment pays 7 cents a day or $26 a year.

Councilwoman Linda Gabaccia said that having local police means “we can direct where we want our law enforcement dollars to be spent. We have flexibility in the budget.”

Copake Police Commissioner Jan Near, a retired Sheriff’s Office investigator, said the local police department has been around for about 35 years and the erroneous perception exists that “town police are a bunch of idiots,” unfit for the Police Academy. In fact, town police officers need 640 hours of training at a minimum and they learn the same law as all police officers: criminal, vehicle and traffic and penal, he said.

Mr. Near pointed to the situation in Valatie, where residents mounted a Neighborhood Watch to deter a rash of burglaries at Main Street businesses. He said residents there want their streets and parks patrolled. Mr. Near said Valatie had a police department in the late 1970s and noted, “I bet if you asked them now, they’d say they wish they had it back.”

Sgt. DeRocha said the Sheriff’s Office is busier than ever. “When the economy struggles, we get busier. Suicides, domestics and burglaries are all up. People are getting desperate, some of it is drug-driven, home invasions are on the rise.”

Captain Brown agreed, noting that while burglars are looking for jewelry, gold and silver, they are also checking out the medicine cabinets for prescription drugs.

Another information session has been scheduled November 5 at 10 a.m. at the Town Hall.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com.

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