Racial and safety concerns mount over Nassau County's special deputy initiative

Blakeman's gun-owner deputization plan sparks fear and opposition


Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman announced a plan late last month to deputize gun-owning residents "for the protection of human life and property during an emergency."

Blakeman, who did not seek legislative approval or consult with police union officials when creating this new system, says these new special deputies — most of which Blakeman says will be former law enforcement and military personnel — would be called upon to secure “critical infrastructure” and “help Nassau police” in times of crisis, but would not be permitted to go on patrol, or wear body cameras — the lack of which, according to residents and activists, should be enough to stop this plan in its tracks.

In creating the team of special deputy sheriffs, Blakeman cited New York State County Law 655, which states “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."

Applicants must be between ages 21 and 72, be U.S. citizens and residents of Nassau County, own property or a business in the county, possess a pistol license, consent to full background check and random drug testing, and provide a fit-for-duty letter from a doctor.

But it is this language, as well as the unanswered questions regarding how these new deputies will be trained and what exactly constitutes an “emergency,” says County Legislator Carrie Solages, that is sparking fear within communities of color across the county.

“God forbid a young man wearing a hood is out and about minding his business during this so-called ‘state of emergency’ — which is not defined properly under the law,” said Solages, “and God forbid an overzealous George Zimmerman type-of-person chooses to think that young man is a danger, that he puts him in fear.”

Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County office of the New York Civil Liberties Union, agrees that Blakeman’s plan will disproportionately impact communities of color.

“I think these are the important questions that we need to really ask,” Gottehrer told reporters at a rally on Monday outside of the county legislative building in Mineola. “Whose command will this militia be under? How will they coordinate with the police when activated? How much training will they get? How will they be held accountable when there is inevitable misconduct?”

Gottehrer also sais that there is already discrimination at play through who is allowed to apply within Blakeman’s deputizing process — pointing out that applicants must “own property” in order to be eligible — a provision that may limit the amount of eligible Black and Brown former law enforcement and military personnel who know their community and would qualify to participate.

“This hiring of untrained, armed civilians who have backgrounds in law enforcement and the military, but only those who are property owners and business owners are allowed — that caught my eye,” said Gottehrer.

What Gottehrer is getting at, is that throughout this country’s history, property ownership has often been used as a means of discrimination and exclusion, often reinforcing power structures that favored the wealthy, privileged, and white men. But that is the least of people’s concerns, as most residents throughout Uniondale, Roosevelt, Hempstead, Lake View, and Freeport will tell you: they do not want an “armed militia” roaming the county during an “emergency,” regardless of who it is.

In fact, many residents don’t even see the purpose of this initiative. Nassau County has the highest police budget per capita in the country, according to USA Facts, a database of government information. Not to mention, Nassau County was also named the safest county in America by US News and World Report four years in a row.

“We need highly trained individuals – trained in de-escalation, in mental health; to use technology we equip them with like body cameras, and to work with the mental health professionals we imbed in their response to mentally aided calls,” said Nassau County Legislature Siela Bynoe. “As a body, we have invested wisely and collaboratively with our police unions and prior administrations to build greater trust between police and our communities. One bad act by one bad actor of this militia could erode all the trust that we have worked to get.”

But Blakeman defended his plan after Monday’s rally, calling these concerns “ridiculous,” saying “there is no controversy,” and that this plan is “nothing more than a list,” and “an effort to build a database of former law enforcement officials” he hopes he never has to use.

"I didn't want to wait until an emergency to try and scramble and find people. You have to vet them, you have to train them," said Blakeman. "If there's a Superstorm Sandy event or an act or terrorism, we would use our special deputies to protect infrastructure," he continued. "I'm hoping I never have to activate them, but it would be foolish not to acquire the database ahead of time.”

Blakeman said that the special deputies would receive training on penal law, firearms and the use of deadly force. He also informed reporters that he expects training to begin as early as this week, with the first group of 25 being ready to go by the end of May.

But residents aren’t sold on this plan, his reasoning, or what he might believe constitutes an emergency.

“If he had been governing seriously up until now, we might trust that he has the judgment necessary when it comes to judging and declaring an emergency,” Gottehrer said. “But so far he has been targeting vulnerable communities, so why would any of us trust him to not use the emergency for that as well?

“Why would we trust that he won’t declare an emergency based on culture war instead of on real facts?” she added. “How do we know he won’t declare an emergency when protesters end up on the streets instead of on the sidewalk?”

Jeannine Maynard, co-facilitator of the Greater Uniondale Area Action Coalition, says that she has police in her family and understands how much training they have to go through before they are ready to hit the streets, and she fears this initiative will have long lasting impacts on her community.

“I know what happens in a community when half-trained police — or want-to-be-police — start posturing,” Maynard told reporters outside the rally against Blakeman’s plan.

“Our county executive is trying to take us back in time,” Solages said. He, along with other residents and activists believe that Blakeman’s alignment with “Make America Great Again” masks a desire to return to a time when Black Americans had limited freedoms — and his newest plan will attempt to help accomplish that mission.

“This law is based upon an obscure provision of county law from 1964,” said Solages. “You hear that silent language,” he continued, “you know what he's trying to do.”