Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman in Mineola on March 6.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman in Mineola on March 6. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman's initiative to build a reserve of residents with gun licenses to deputize in the event of emergencies isn't a new concept.

In nearly every state, there are laws giving power to sheriffs to “summon armed citizens to aid in keeping the peace.”

But while experts said such a force may be useful in rural areas, some questioned the need to create one in a suburban county such as Nassau with plentiful law enforcement resources.

Jillian Snider, criminal justice policy director at R Street Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., said she believed in “very, very rural counties” the case could be made for such armed groups.

But in Nassau County “it almost seems redundant to do this when you have neighboring agencies, the state police and the National Guard,” said Snider, a retired NYPD officer and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

“At a time when people are concerned about the actions of police and police actions are more scrutinized than ever, do we really think it’s safe to consider deputizing any gun owner in the face of an emergency?” Snider said.

Blakeman, a Republican, and his appointed County Sheriff Anthony LaRocco last week called on Nassau residents and business owners ages 21-72 with gun licenses to apply to become provisional special deputy sheriffs “for the protection of human life and property during an emergency” declared by the county executive.

Preference would go to retired law enforcement officers. The stipend would be $150 per day.

Blakeman declined to comment for this story. Nor has the administration answered Newsday's questions about how candidates would be selected or trained and how they would be deployed. In other media interviews this week, Blakeman indicated the sheriff would deputize citizens to help secure infrastructure during natural disasters or defend businesses against looters.

Nassau County Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), the legislature's presiding officer, said he didn't see any legal issues with Blakeman's plan.

“In an emergency situation, the county executive can enter into [a] contract without going into the regular, lengthy process,” Kopel told Newsday, comparing the deployment of special sheriff's deputies to vendors who are called upon during natural disasters. “There's no time to go through the regular process and you're doing it to avoid great harm.”

But Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County regional office of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Blakeman's proposal “raises serious questions. The public deserves more information, including who will be hired under such a program and how Blakeman defines an ‘emergency.’”

Gottehrer continued: “As it currently stands, this proposed initiative runs the risk of turning residents into vigilantes … ” 

Blakeman's administration cites New York State County Law 655 that says “for the protection of human life and property during an emergency, the sheriff may deputize orally or in writing such number of additional special deputies as he deems necessary.” 

But New York State General Municipal law also requires the county executive to advise the governor before deputizing “emergency special deputies” such as “trained law enforcement from surrounding municipalities.” 

Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, said she believes Blakeman has “overstepped his boundaries for his branch of government.”

DeRiggi-Whitton said the measure should have come to legislators for approval, particularly since it requires paying $150 per day from the county budget. 

“He can’t just make that decision unilaterally,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “The county would be responsible for any damages. It’s the taxpayers who would be liable in the event something does go wrong. We have the best police department in the nation. Why would we need to resort to this?”

Kopel said he did not believe Blakeman's proposal needs to go before the county legislature for discussion or a vote, although he said he would defer to the county attorney's office for a legal opinion.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman's initiative to build a reserve of residents with gun licenses to deputize in the event of emergencies isn't a new concept.

In nearly every state, there are laws giving power to sheriffs to “summon armed citizens to aid in keeping the peace.”

But while experts said such a force may be useful in rural areas, some questioned the need to create one in a suburban county such as Nassau with plentiful law enforcement resources.

Jillian Snider, criminal justice policy director at R Street Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., said she believed in “very, very rural counties” the case could be made for such armed groups.

But in Nassau County “it almost seems redundant to do this when you have neighboring agencies, the state police and the National Guard,” said Snider, a retired NYPD officer and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

“At a time when people are concerned about the actions of police and police actions are more scrutinized than ever, do we really think it’s safe to consider deputizing any gun owner in the face of an emergency?” Snider said.

Blakeman, a Republican, and his appointed County Sheriff Anthony LaRocco last week called on Nassau residents and business owners ages 21-72 with gun licenses to apply to become provisional special deputy sheriffs “for the protection of human life and property during an emergency” declared by the county executive.

Preference would go to retired law enforcement officers. The stipend would be $150 per day.

Blakeman declined to comment for this story. Nor has the administration answered Newsday's questions about how candidates would be selected or trained and how they would be deployed. In other media interviews this week, Blakeman indicated the sheriff would deputize citizens to help secure infrastructure during natural disasters or defend businesses against looters.

Nassau County Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence), the legislature's presiding officer, said he didn't see any legal issues with Blakeman's plan.

“In an emergency situation, the county executive can enter into [a] contract without going into the regular, lengthy process,” Kopel told Newsday, comparing the deployment of special sheriff's deputies to vendors who are called upon during natural disasters. “There's no time to go through the regular process and you're doing it to avoid great harm.”

But Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County regional office of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Blakeman's proposal “raises serious questions. The public deserves more information, including who will be hired under such a program and how Blakeman defines an ‘emergency.’”

Gottehrer continued: “As it currently stands, this proposed initiative runs the risk of turning residents into vigilantes … ” 

Blakeman's administration cites New York State County Law 655 that says “for the protection of human life and property during an emergency, the sheriff may deputize orally or in writing such number of additional special deputies as he deems necessary.” 

But New York State General Municipal law also requires the county executive to advise the governor before deputizing “emergency special deputies” such as “trained law enforcement from surrounding municipalities.” 

Legis. Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, said she believes Blakeman has “overstepped his boundaries for his branch of government.”

DeRiggi-Whitton said the measure should have come to legislators for approval, particularly since it requires paying $150 per day from the county budget. 

“He can’t just make that decision unilaterally,” DeRiggi-Whitton said. “The county would be responsible for any damages. It’s the taxpayers who would be liable in the event something does go wrong. We have the best police department in the nation. Why would we need to resort to this?”

Kopel said he did not believe Blakeman's proposal needs to go before the county legislature for discussion or a vote, although he said he would defer to the county attorney's office for a legal opinion.

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