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Pandemic thrusts new duties on an old NYC agency: the sheriff's office

A member of the New York City Sheriff's

A member of the New York City Sheriff's Office is seen in the foreground. The agency within the city's Department of Finance has issued verbal warnings, and summonses or violations for not adhering to pandemic-related safety rules at bars, restaurants and other establishments citywide. Credit: Sipa USA / Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden via AP

The sheriff in town's not new, but his turf is.

As New York City began this summer enforcing a quarantine during a once-in-a-century pandemic to isolate travelers arriving now from most states, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not enlist New York’s Finest, the 36,000-cop NYPD, to enforce checkpoints.

Nor did he turn to the NYPD to lead the charge when illegal fireworks across the city became a sudden scourge at all hours of the night.

Instead, de Blasio vested these enforcement duties in an obscure agency within the city Department of Finance — the sheriff’s office — the same agency that’s been tasked with helping combat illegal gatherings inside restaurants, pubs, karaoke bars and even public parks.

The mayor's pick to enforce the rules earned the ridicule of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who last month said: "Did you ever hear of the sheriff’s office? There’s, like, 150 people in the sheriff’s office."

There's actually 171 people in the sheriff's office — 159 officers and 12 others, according to de Blasio spokesman Mitch Schwartz.

With roots dating back to 1626, when New York was a Dutch settlement called New Amsterdam — centuries before the founding of the NYPD, there was an appointed official called a "schout" handling enforcement — the city sheriff's office has had a lot more to do during the coronavirus pandemic.

Typically involved in property seizures, enforcing cigarette taxes and handling court orders, Sheriff Joseph Fucito and his team have for months been on the front lines during the pandemic.

Edgar Domenech, who spent more than a quarter century with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms before being appointed sheriff and serving from January 2011 for several years in the Bloomberg administration, said that until he was asked in 2010 to apply he didn't know the post existed.

De Blasio, asked earlier this month why he’s used the sheriff, and not the NYPD, for such duties as quarantine enforcement, said the sheriff does not have to do the "day-to-day law enforcement at the neighborhood level that the NYPD does."

"But they have been great about swinging into special assignments," de Blasio said. "And it’s really been a good division of labor. And it’s obviously been working."

Speaking at an August news conference held by the mayor, Fucito said the number of personnel at checkpoints might vary, with 20 during the day and fewer into the night.

"We have to be flexible. The sheriff has many responsibilities, as you know. We do certain things involving bar and club enforcement in the evenings. We have our court duties. So, it's a balancing test. We have to make sure that we assign the right amount of resources," he said.

The sheriff office's Twitter account depicts bursts of enforcement — shutting down an illegal rave at 1:50 a.m. Sunday inside Cunningham Park in Queens with more than 110 people, a DJ, tables, chairs, bar, food service, hookah attendants, torches and bouncers; closing an illegal bar operation days earlier in Flushing; and staffing quarantine checkpoints at the Goethals Bridge, the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and beyond.

The sheriff ordinarily has "significant powers," such as garnishing wages and conducting evictions, said Ross Sandler, the founding director of New York Law School’s Center for New York City Law and an official in the administration of Mayor Ed Koch.

"Police officers are very highly paid, and they have major criminal-justice issues to deal with, and it’s important to keep them focused on what they’re trained to do best and what only they can do," Sandler said.

And the NYPD has been busy, between an increase in crime — the rate of major offenses rose in August compared with the same month last year, fueled by a spike in shootings, homicides, burglaries, robberies and car thefts — and street protests, with some unrest, nearly every day following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

This year, the NYPD is expected to exceed its budgeted overtime spending by $400 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

In general, deputy sheriffs make less than NYPD officers with similar levels of experience, and must work longer before retiring — 25 years instead of 20, according to E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

"Cops make more than deputy sheriffs," he said. "There's no question about it."

De Blasio enlists the sheriff's office

The surge in illegal fireworks complaints — by mid-June there were 24,850 made to 311 and 911, compared with 1,061 for the same period a year earlier — became a scourge, with some saying the NYPD was refusing to do anything about it.

Video posted online showed an NYPD vehicle driving past youths shooting fireworks, appearing to ignore the behavior.

De Blasio appointed the sheriff’s office to combat fireworks, targeting the "root" of the problem. In the past, it was the NYPD taking the lead in public. But this summer, it was Fucito at the mayor's side during news conferences about the fireworks nuisance.

Over the summer, the sheriff’s office carried out 126 arrests; there were enough confiscated fireworks to fill a shipping container, according to de Blasio spokesman Schwartz, who said 20 sheriff's personnel were assigned to the fireworks enforcement at the peak.

Since Aug. 5, when the sheriff’s office began staffing checkpoints at tunnels, bridges and other crossings, Schwartz said, 6,153 vehicles had been stopped as of Oct. 1, randomly, to comply with constitutional search-and-seizure requirements. Representatives from the sheriff's office collected 528 of the forms, or logged the information online, required of out-of-state travelers coming from coronavirus hot spots to ensure they isolate. The sheriff's mandate was later broadened to buses coming from out of state.

And from March 23 to Sept. 30, there were 322,175 inspections, 6,326 verbal warnings and 1,250 summons or violations, at venues such as bars/restaurants, barbershops/tattoo parlors, public spaces, essential businesses and nonessential workplaces, Schwartz said.

Earlier in the pandemic, the NYPD conducted social distancing and masking enforcement, but was criticized — with the police commissioner promising to "make adjustments" in protocols — after videos went viral of violent takedowns on the streets and in the subway system, and allegations of racialized enforcement.

De Blasio diffused pandemic-enforcement duties, including deploying school security guards and "social distancing ambassadors" into public places to urge masking and sufficient spacing to halt the virus' spread.

Sheriff takes on a greater role

It’s not the first time a sheriff has been deployed in creative and unusual ways.

In 2008, then-County Executive Steve Levy gave patrolling duties for the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway to the sheriff's office, instead of the police, to save money. Levy’s successor, Steve Bellone, returned the police to those roadways.

In an interview Monday, Levy said that using sheriffs for highway patrol "saved us a fortune," avoided a new academy class and allowed the redeployment of county officers to other enforcement duties.

"If they can use a sheriff to supplement the work of police," he said of city leaders, "it's not as though quality's going to suffer, because they're trained. They're highly trained."

De Blasio has not said that sheriffs are being used to save money.

And in New York City, the NYPD has recently begun to take on a greater role policing in the pandemic.

When the mayor announced in the past two weeks that the city was trying to tamp down a surge in coronavirus cases in nine "areas of continued concern," such as Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods like Borough Park, Brooklyn, he said there were 1,200 city personnel conducting inspections and enforcing the state’s face-covering mandate. Among the 1,200, he said: 400 NYPD officers.

Days earlier, an anti-mask activist named Heshy Tischler disrupted a news conference in one of those neighborhoods with city health officials to oppose COVID mandates, proclaiming himself "the new sheriff in town."

"With the Reliable NYPD," read a headline in the Jewish newspaper Hamodia, "We Are Not Looking for A New Sheriff in Town."

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