BY CHERYL SLAVIN
The Rockland Republican Women’s Leadership Council presented a talk with County Sheriff Louis Falco at the Blauvelt Free Library last Monday evening. Along with his undersheriffs Mary Barbara and Bob Van Cura, Falco discussed both the functions of the Sheriff’s office in general and the counter-terrorism measures specifically that his office currently has in place.
“There is no Democratic way or Republican way to keep people safe,” he began. “There is only the right way.” He continued by urging people to continue to be vigilant. “Complacency is the real danger. If you see something, say something.”
Falco went on to describe the functions and activities of each of his department’s divisions. He pointed out that the Communications Division, with the cooperation of County Fire and Emergency Services, the County Executive, and all the municipal law enforcement departments, now has a state of the art communications center to ensure the highest level of response to any emergency. He noted that the number of cellular 911 calls have risen from 4500 in 2003 to 100,000 in 2013. He urged people, however, to continue to maintain their landline phones for now, as these are the still the main means emergency responders use to communicate back to callers.
Falco also pointed out that, with the exception of Clarkstown, his department’s Police Division conducts all crime scene investigations throughout the County. By doing so the individual police departments can concentrate personnel in the areas of criminal investigation, detective work and prosecution. The Corrections Division and the Civil Division round out the Sheriff’s Department.
Turning to terrorism, Falco quoted his predecessor, retired Sheriff James Kralik: “There will never be a pre-9/11 again.” He credited Kralik, who was in office during the years immediately after 9/11, for developing the “zone” terrorism response plan that was ultimately adopted by the entire state. Kralik also spearheaded several counter-terrorism initiatives, including developing partnerships with the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and Homeland Security and creating a technical assistance advisory board made up of retired counter-terrorism personnel.
Currently, all county law enforcement personnel receive extensive counter-terrorism training. The Sheriff’s Office has a monthly agenda for monitoring and investigating the many places where terrorist activity could be detected. These include, among others, the motor vehicles department and real estate agents, fertilizer distributors, army surplus suppliers and paintball locations. Rockland County also continues to participate in the Secure the Cities initiative, and had recently received five vehicles, plus personal radiation detection devices and backpacks, from New York City in the continuing effort to monitor for nuclear activity around the tri-state area.
Falco also emphasized the actions his department has taken to ensure the security of all the schools in the County. The Sheriff’s Department possesses floor plans of all the schools and regularly conducts safety assessments. They make sure to make their presence known throughout the schools during September, and also take preemptive action to prevent false bomb threats during finals and Regents weeks.
The audience peppered Falco with questions that reflected their concerns about safety as well as their fears of government overreaching. Many wanted to know if Falco would enforce the SAFE Act even if it were unconstitutional. The Sheriff responded that until a judicial review deemed it unconstitutional, it is the law of the land and he will enforce it. He did add, however, that his office would not enforce it arbitrarily, and that he does personally support legal gun ownership in New York State.
Questions were raised about the presence of Muslim communities in New York State, and whether they presented a continuing threat to national security. Falco, and Undersheriff Van Cura, warned about the dangers of profiling, adding that suspect persons and communities were continually being watched by authorities, but that no further action could be done unless a law was broken. On the other hand, several attendees expressed extreme objection to the presence of surveillance cameras in public places like malls as an invasion of privacy. Falco pointed out that safety is always a balancing act between privacy rights and protections, and noted that the Boston Marathon bombers probably would not have been caught without the presence of video recordings.
“We are always trying to find what is best for the majority to keep the public safe,” he emphasized. “We are always working to find the best responses, which will continue to change as we learn more over time.”