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Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Sheriff gets it wrong

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Sheriff John P. Burns mischaracterized the near perpetual controversy over behavior in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department by telling the Times for a story Tuesday that “90 percent of the people will tell you they see it as nothing more than the legislators going after me.”

The performance of the Sheriff’s Department has been affected by a litany of issues within the ranks. The county awaits two investigations about illegal acts in the department. Oneida County District Attorney Scott D. McNamara, the special prosecutor, is due to report on the case of Deputy Adam B. Hallett. Deputy Hallett was found passed out in his patrol car with an open bottle of liquor. Deputy Matthew A. Vaughn responded to the complaint and threw the liquor bottle into a nearby field, according to reports written by Mr. Burns and County Attorney David J. Paulsen.

The Sheriff’s Department is also waiting for a state police report about the accusations that former Undersheriff Andrew R. Neff used a department cellphone to send indecent photos to a convicted felon.

In addition, the department is plagued by:

n Accusations that a female depute was coerced into posing for sexually provocative photographs. Her claim for damages was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired, but an allegation of breach of contract between the deputy and the department remains outstanding.

n Assault charges filed against a department corrections officer as a result of a bar fight.

n The suspension of another deputy for maintaining a relationship with a woman who had a criminal record.

n A jailhouse nurse who illegally accessed non-inmate medical records.

None of these cases involved anyone elected to serve the county except for the sheriff. No legislator committed any of these acts. No legislator is under investigation. However, it is the Sheriff’s Department that is under scrutiny from another prosecutor and the state police.

Sheriff Burns maintains there is little he can do to control the behavior of his personnel when they are off-duty. That is no defense and it is wrong.

The sheriff was first elected in 2002 and has been re-elected twice. He is independently responsible for the department, its deputies, its corrections officers and its nurses. He has tolerated too many antics and allowed behavior abusive of the law, regulations and common sense to prevail.

In the last several months, the appointment of Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau and an effort to address misconduct more aggressively by sending two department employees to a disciplinary course designed to teach methods to effectively handle internal behavior incidents are first steps to putting the department on an honorable path.

The department is not a victim of the Jefferson County Legislature. It is a victim of itself and its leadership, which allowed almost any kind of misconduct to flourish.

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