By Holly Crocco
Members of various law enforcement agencies throughout the county expressed shock and concern over the abrupt disbandment of the Putnam County Emergency Response Team in December.
During the County Legislature’s Dec. 18 Protective Services Committee meeting, Sheriff Kevin McConville explained that the Putnam County Emergency Response Team was created in about 2002 and included about 17 members from the sheriff’s department, four members of the Carmel Police Department and three members of Kent P.D., who made up an agency tasked with training for and responding to critical incidents including hostage situations, barricaded individuals, active shootings, mass casualty and other major incidents.
However, it was brought to the attention of the Putnam County Personnel Department that while new team members were being required to complete and pass physical fitness tests and have their personal physicians issues letters clearing them to take such tests, the personnel department had no paperwork or records of any legislative action that approved these measures, according to McConville.
In early December, all the agencies involved received a letter from the Putnam County Law Department advising the ERT to cease its actions until this matter could be resolved.
The law department “made a determination that since the team was never approved by the appropriate legislative action, nor did it receive insurance, that we had to stop the team as constructed,” said the sheriff. “That caused great concern. We are a small county, but we are experiencing a number of different events throughout our threat assessment that potentially – and we hope this never occurs – but operationally could require the deployment of the ERT team.”
So, with the ERT disbanded, McConville said the sheriff’s department created its own team of 19 members as a Sheriff’s Response Team who are trained and experienced to respond to the same type of situations.
“As previously constructed, one can obviously see the litigation involved in a team that was not authorized by this legislative body, not the full legislative body, nor the towns of Carmel or Kent through a legislative process,” he said. “It was a good idea, and I can’t speak to why those things didn’t happen, but our concern was we wanted to be able provide protection to the individuals that comprised the team, as well as the county and towns that participate. So we wanted legislative approval and we wanted them to be indemnified for their actions.”
McConville said a captain was tasked with writing a policy that includes practices and procedures for the team, which is being reviewed by his command staff before it goes to the Legislature for approval. In January, he anticipates the policy to be approved and implemented for the Sheriff’s Response Team.
“Looking to the future, we anticipate at some point in time… to come to you and explain and initiate the process of reconstitution a countywide team, given lawful authority and indemnification,” he said. “What we’re talking about tonight is not to exclude anyone. It’s the liability issue which is the greatest threat.”
While McConville said some of the problem stems from not having the proper memorandums of understanding authorized for all the agencies to work together, Carmel Police Chief Anthony Hoffmann said that’s not the case.
“We have an MOU that was passed by all three jurisdictions by (former) Sheriff Smith on the 18th of October, 2006, plus we have an executed resolution from the Town of Carmel – and I believe Kent does, as well – authorizing that,” he said. “We authorized the mutual aid agreement for the Town of Carmel to operate with the sheriff’s department or any agencies in Putnam County. So the ERT team that’s been in operation, as far as we know, on paper since 2006, has been working well.”
Hoffmann said the town was surprised to learn that the sheriff was creating his own team.
“We don’t understand why the sheriff is pursuing this in the way that he is,” said Hoffmann. “That he’s constituting a team solely under the sheriff’s department… For the law department to say that the team had no lawful authority, I believe that to be incorrect.”
Legislator Ginny Nacerino, R-Patterson, chairwoman of the Protective Services Committee, said the missing piece is the legislative approval – which is a big piece, seeing as the county could be implicated if a lawsuit is initiated.
“We have to do what we have to do to make sure we are accountable and we are not remiss in our liability, and we are just being cautious in how we proceed and that we are doing it in the right way,” she said. “The onus is on the county. It’s a tremendous risk and I’m happy that we caught this in time because it’s a slippery slope to continue without the proper protocol and procedures in place.”
Carmel Town Supervisor Mike Cazzari, who previously served as the town’s police chief, said the reason the ERT was born was because all three law enforcement agencies felt time is of the essence in the event of an emergency and it couldn’t wait for a coordinated response from Westchester County or the New York State Police, and disbanding the team leaves the county vulnerable.
In addition, he said it’s not a decision the sheriff should make unilaterally.
“It is not a Putnam County sheriff’s team, it’s a multi-jurisdictional team,” said Cazzari. “If the sheriff wants to remove themselves from the multi-jurisdictional team, there’s a mechanism in the agreement that we originally signed that you have 60 days that you can say, ‘I want out.’ That leaves Carmel and Kent; the team is still intact… I think it’s foolish to go the route that you’re going. I don’t think it’s insurance. We’re covered. Kent’s covered.”
Incoming Carmel Town Councilman Robert Kearns agreed. “Quite frankly, it seems like a power grab to me,” he said.
Kent Police Chief Kevin Owens said the claim that legislative approval was never granted for the ERT is disingenuous.
“I know it was discussed in front of the Legislature,” he said. “Back then (in 2006) and it has been, since. You guys have known about this team. Maybe not everybody on this current Legislature, but we get payments from the county for some of the training we do.”
During a Feb. 11, 2020 meeting of the County Legislature’s Protective Services Committee meeting, Lt. Kevin McManus of the sheriff’s department and Lt. John Dearman of CPD, who lead the team at that time, provided legislators with a background on how the unit operates.
At that time, McManus explained that the team was funded through a grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security that covered about half of its training costs. In addition, Putnam allocated $35,000 for equipment and $10,000 to reimburse the towns of Carmel and Kent for its officers, he said.
“We were sharing services before it was politically cool to say ‘sharing services,’” added Dearman. “We knew no department could man and equip a team, so we did it together.”
During the 2020 meeting, Nacerino said she found the discussion enlightening. “These are little pockets of things that are done under the radar,” she said. “The training and expertise that go into this are not things that people are widely aware of.”
Last month, Legislator Greg Ellner, R-Carmel, said he hopes the issue can be resolved so the agencies can work together once again, to best protect citizens.
“That could mean most available boots on the ground, because let’s have the largest potential talent pool, and that includes Kent and Carmel,” he said at the December meeting.
Legislator Nancy Montgomery, D-Philipstown, said she doesn’t like to see any team that’s been operating disbanded.
“Why couldn’t we have addressed the mutual aid agreement and the insurance aspect of this, which we have done in the past very rapidly to correct situations like this?” she asked. “Where we could have managed the administrative end of it and the paperwork end of it and the insurance end of it, rather than disband an entire team and eliminate people who had been serving on that team for a number of years.”
Lt. Neil Brown of CPD reiterated Cazzari’s comment that if the sheriff feels there’s a liability to the county to participate in the ERT, then he can pull out of it; it doesn’t have to be disbanded.
“He wants to control this team and that’s all it’s about,” said Brown. “That’s why he won’t give you an answer on if it’s going to be a reconstituted ERT or we’re going to be able to join the Sheriff’s Response Team – whatever legal works out. It has nothing to do with legal. It has to do with his control.”
The sheriff took offense to the accusations, saying he had no choice but to put an end to the ERT once he was in receipt of the letter from the county’s law department. “This was not of my doing,” he said.
Further, McConville said the team was not being properly run, with members not meeting the required number of trainings, among other shortfalls, and that if such a team is going to exist, it should be top-notch.
“There was a complete failure of leadership by the board of directions,” he said. “Once I started looking into it, I asked the questions that had to be asked. It’s that simple. Do I want control and command of it? Only if it’s going to revert back to the way it was, absolutely… If we’re going to stand up an ERT team or an SRT team, we want to make sure we’re professional, we’re adept, we’re highly trained and we can perform those assignments as directed by the incident commander.”
No action on the matter was taken at the Dec. 18 meeting.
“So, in summary, just to recap, we are implementing the Sheriff’s Response Team so we are not skipping a beat and not jeopardizing any safety measures within the county and moving forward in coordination with the law and mismanagement,” said Nacerino. “We will be making a decision whether or not you need to go to the outside agencies or the fact that your team is able to encompass the needs of the county, and that remains to be seen.”
The sheriff added: “We would certainly look forward to a partnership with our associate law enforcement agencies on this.”