A Nassau County Deputy Sheriff's vehicle sits parked outside the...

A Nassau County Deputy Sheriff's vehicle sits parked outside the Nassau Family Court, Tuesday, June 4, 2024, in Westbury, N.Y. Nassau County which has one of the nation's largest police forces, is training a unit of armed residents that can be called up during natural disasters and other major emergencies. But some residents of Nassau County in the New York City suburbs say the so-called "provisional special deputy sheriffs" are a dangerous example of fear mongering and government overreach. Credit: AP/Phil Marcelo

MINEOLA, N.Y. — A suburban New York county with one of the largest police forces in the nation is training dozens of armed residents who could be called up during natural disasters and other major emergencies, sparking worry that the new volunteer unit amounts to an unsanctioned local militia.

Nassau County officials posted a notice in March seeking private citizens with gun licenses to serve as provisional special deputy sheriffs who could assist in the “protection of human life and property during an emergency.”

Twenty-five have completed training in recent weeks, but locals who have been rallying against the scheme question the need for the unit and have raised concerns about the potential for overpolicing after departments across the country cracked down on protests against the Israel-Hamas war.

Democrats, who are the minority in the county legislature, and some community advocates say they worry Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman — a Republican and staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump — could call up the deputies to quell political dissent, a charge he strongly denies. Critics also contend that emergencies require a different type of volunteer.

“There is no need to give residents broad and dangerously vague authority to respond, armed with deadly weapons, in the event of an emergency,” said Laura Burns, a Rockville Centre resident and member of gun control group Moms Demand Action, after a recent rally.

In a phone interview, Blakeman said the armed deputies would be called on only when the county, just east of the New York City borough of Queens, faces a major emergency akin to Superstorm Sandy, which caused catastrophic damage along the Long Island coast in 2012.

They would not be used for crowd control or breaking up protests because they won’t be trained to patrol streets, he said. Instead, the deputies will be assigned to protect critical infrastructure, such as government buildings, hospitals and houses of worship.

“We are putting together this program so I won’t have to be in a scramble to try and find qualified people,” Blakeman said.

Nassau County, with a population of about 1.4 million, has the 12th largest local police force in the nation, some 2,600 sworn officers — bigger than Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore and other major cities. State troopers also serve the county, which has dozens of village police forces.

Michael Moore, a retired Nassau County court officer and member of the local Community Emergency Response Team trained to support first responders in emergencies, says armed residents weren’t what was needed in 2012 — and aren’t what is needed now. Thousands of armed National Guard members were mobilized across greater New York City during that disaster.

“When Sandy hit, we needed people shoveling, pumping out basements, handing out water, directing traffic, all those kinds of things,” the 65-year-old Long Beach resident said. “We didn’t need people grabbing their reading glasses and picking up their firearms to challenge somebody to a duel on Main Street. It’s freaking ridiculous.”

Local Democrats have questioned the legality of the program. But Blakeman shrugged off the criticism as politically motivated, pointing to state law that authorizes local sheriffs to deputize “orally or in writing” as many special deputies as needed to respond to an emergency.

“These would be the same people that if there was an emergency and I wasn’t prepared, they would be criticizing me for that,” he said.

Amy Cooter, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California who focuses on anti-government extremism and militias, said Blakeman’s plan plays on perceptions that police departments are underfunded and under siege from forces beyond their control.

“Not all of these folks are going to have good training or good motives,” she said. “This is especially true when feelings about immigration are being stirred up, nationally.”

Blakeman said the training program includes 12 hours of classroom instruction as well as practice on the firing range, which critics note is significantly less training than the 150 hours for Nassau County’s unarmed auxiliary officers and the seven months required to join the county police department.

So far, nearly all the people who have completed the deputy sheriffs training — which included a background check and random drug testing — are retired police officers, according to a list provided by the county. Blakeman hopes to train up to 50 deputies.

Edward Haggerty, a 65-year-old retired police detective who was among the first to complete the training, said the critics simply haven't given the program a chance.

“We’re not going to be out there on anybody’s whim,” he said. “Even with law enforcement and the National Guard, people are stretched pretty thin, so the more forces you can bring to bear to help out the community, the better. It’s a positive thing. I don’t see anything negative to it."

Volunteer deputy programs exist in law enforcement agencies nationwide.

NBA great Shaquille O'Neal racked up a number of deputy sheriff and reserve police officer titles from California to Florida. Action star Steven Seagal had a reality show following his exploits as an armed deputy sheriff in Louisiana and Arizona.

In Westchester County, just north of New York City, volunteer deputy sheriffs are issued a firearm and provide crowd control at parades and other events, according to the county website. They also have assisted during hurricanes, blackouts and presidential visits.

In Suffolk County, which covers the rest of Long Island, sheriff’s deputies don't need a gun license because they serve as “community ambassadors” and have no policing function according to Victoria Distefano, a spokesperson for Sheriff Errol Toulon.

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