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No Murder Charge in NYS for Dealing Death
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Another young victim was lost last week to the war on drugs, a 23-year-old local woman who died of a drug overdose right here in Saratoga Springs. For her, and many families like hers, the drug war is more of a street fight, one that lurks in every home medicine cabinet, haunts every playground, and boldly grins through every neighborhood here and across America.
Considering the Call for Armed Civilians
SARATOGA COUNTY – Including the tragedy in San Bernardino, California, there have been 39 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, shootings that resulted in four or more fatalities.
It is in that context that some law enforcement have made statements calling for citizens who are licensed to carry concealed weapons to carry them regularly. The controversial call was most prominently made by Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who declared the day after the December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino that he could no longer guarantee the safety of the people of Arizona, and he urged civilians with concealed carry licenses to carry guns and be ready to step up.
The sheriffs of Laclede, St. Clair and Vernon counties in Missouri recently announced they are lowering the cost of concealed carry applications, and here in New York, Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum wrote on the Ulster County Sheriff's Office Facebook page on December 3, "In light of recent events that have occurred in the United States and around the world I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO."
A few months ago, Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo established an unrestricted concealed carry permit process – new for Saratoga County – and he said that 240 gun owners have since attended the Concealed Permit Course.
“We instruct 60 a month,” said Zurlo. “I don't want people out there thinking they can do whatever with this permit. I'm a big second amendment supporter, but just use common sense. You can't carry a firearm in a school or federal buildings or county buildings. And be proficient in your weapon.”
Saratoga Springs police chief Gregory Veitch agrees. “Yes, an active shooter may be stopped by a citizen with a gun in certain circumstances and as a last resort, and we would all agree that that would be a good thin” he said. “I think we would all also agree that having one or more armed private citizens drawing their weapons, responding to and taking action during an active shooter situation, is not likely to stabilize the encounter or help to reduce the confusion that is sure to be occurring. They may confuse another well-meaning private citizen with a suspect or they may shoot innocent bystanders or responding police officers in plain clothes. They may be mistaken by responding uniformed officers who are looking for an armed person at the scene.”
Saratoga County has pretty stringent firearm training requirements that are needed to obtain an unrestricted concealed carry permit.
“The training is two-fold,” said Zurlo. “One is so you can use the weapon and know the state laws, and the second part is to be proficient with the weapon that you own. You need to have a pistol permit for one year. After that, you can take the 8-hour course taught at a gun club by a certified NRA instructor, the first four hours covering the safety of weapons and when you can or can't use it. Then there’s a written test and if you pass that, you continue to the live-shoot course. You are scored at the end, and if you pass that, your paperwork is sent to judge, then there’s another background and another mental health check, and then it’s the judge’s discretion if he wants to give you a permit.”
Defense Dynamics is one of four authorized training centers offering basic and advanced conceal and carry training toward licensure locally, and its instructors are NRA training counselors. NRA training counselors are not only individuals who are legally capable of training other civilians, but they can train and certify NRA instructors. There are only about 1,700 NRA training counselors in the whole United States.
Gerard Moser, one of the principals and an NRA training counselor with the training firm, had this to say about a civilian response to shooting incidents.
“The first thing anyone should do if they see such an incident is call 911,” said Moser. “It’s extremely important we be a very good witness, that’s one of the things we emphasize in our classes. A lot of folks don’t realize how invaluable that is. In California, a witness called and gave pertinent information that led to that capture [and subsequent death of the San Bernardino shooters in a gunfight with police] so much faster. If he had tried to intercede, he might be dead and we wouldn’t have known who these people were. Your firearm should be used only when your life is in danger.”
It seems to be the sheer randomness of mass shootings, more than anything else, which is particularly challenging for law enforcement and alarming for civilians. The San Bernardino shooting took place at a holiday party at a center that cares for the disabled, undoubtedly as unlikely a place as a movie theater or elementary school. In a survey of New York Times readers last week, there were several thousand responses that stated they think about the possibility of a shooting every day, whether dropping off children at a daycare or holiday shopping in the mall.
Moser stressed that, even with licensure, civilians cannot count on their guns. “Modern minutemen would not be the appropriate answer,” he said. “Whether you are going to carry a firearm or not, people should be aware and prepared for responding to situations. You can’t have a firearm on school property, so you can’t rely on your firearm if you walk into your child’s school and a situation arises. How are you going to secure yourself and your child? What’s the best cover? It’s important to be aware of your environment and understand how to respond, with or without a firearm.”
“Guns don’t make us safe,” said Jim Fulmer, a member of the Saratoga Peace Alliance. “Our ability to kill won’t make us safer. This is just my personal point of view, but I believe our ability to understand and be involved in a community together makes a real difference. I support hunters, but not killing other people.”
And killing another human being is not as easy as it looks, a cautionary thought proposed by both Veitch and Moser.
“I would suggest that even though it is legal to carry a conceal firearm if one has the proper permit,” said Veitch, “anyone who is considering such a course of action should think long and hard about the burden of responsibility they assume in carrying a weapon. Most gun owners are responsible men and women who often go above and beyond the legal requirements of the permitting process to educate themselves in proper gun safety and handling procedures. It is important to keep in mind, however, that carrying a weapon is serious business and the decision to do so must not be taken lightly. It is one thing to legally carry a gun, it is another thing entirely to use that gun against another person, and simply having a permit and some safety training in handling a weapon does not prepare one for a violent encounter, or the consequences of the decision to use a firearm.”
Moser added that the big challenge with most people in getting a firearm is asking themselves whether or not they would be able to use it.
“It’s something a lot of people don’t think about, but it should be the first thing,” said Moser. “Would you be able to do that [shoot someone], and would you be able to live with yourself if you had to use it? It’s not weak to decide you can’t. Just know that if you’re not willing to use it, you should not be carrying it, because it could be a detriment to you and everyone around you because it could be taken from you and used against you.”
For civilians who do not want to carry guns, as well as for those who do, the NRA came out with a series of courses called “Refuse to be a Victim.”
Moser said, “It doesn’t pertain to firearms. It’s actually a course that teaches you how to respond to things that work in cases of an active shooter. Secure yourself behind a desk or a file cabinet that’s full. How to secure your home. How to respond if someone is in your home. How to respond if someone is coming toward you with a firearm.”
Ultimately, it seems that everyone agrees that if terrorism is a fact of modern life, that it makes most sense for civilians to learn how to prepare and respond, whether or not they have a weapon, to a possible dangerous situation.
“I cannot give any assurance that Saratoga Springs is safe from an act of terrorism or an active shooter,” said Veitch. “There is always the possibility that this can happen in any community. As a police department, we train regularly for an active shooter situation and we continually communicate with other law enforcement agencies on these types of issues. My advice to someone who might be considering carrying a concealed weapon is that they must keep in mind their responsibilities when carrying, and not just their legal right to do so. They must remember that the decision to use that weapon comes with the burden to use that weapon properly, legal and ethically. No one is free from the responsibilities and consequences of carrying or using a weapon at all times, not just during an active shooter situation.”
Homeless in Saratoga County
First in a three-part series exploring solutions.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Over the last few weeks, mingled with discussions about street performers and their impact – positive and negative – on business in downtown Saratoga Springs, many questions arose about the impact of the homeless population as well, especially vagrants who would block doorways or panhandle near business establishment entryways.
Gregory Veitch, chief of the Saratoga Springs Police Department, has been working with service providers and local businesses regularly. He understands the concerns of the business community, and recently spoke at the Saratoga Springs City Council on the subject, where he assured members and attendees that the department will uphold the law while honoring people’s Constitutional rights.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a homeless or vagrancy issue,” he said in a telephone interview. “We can arrest for criminal behavior, like lewdness or public urination, but we can’t arrest people for being homeless.”
Recognizing the complexity of the issue, the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association (DBA) invited homelessness service providers to speak at its general meeting on May 20, chaired by Tim Holmes, proprietor of Wheatfields Restaurant and president of the DBA. The topic was so well-received that anticipated attendance forced a venue change from Hattie’s Restaurant to a larger space in Northshire Bookstore.
Mike Finocchi, Executive Director of Shelters of Saratoga, Maggie Fronk, Executive Director of Wellspring, and Jamie Williams, Associate Director of the Franklin Community Center all answered questions and gave an overview of the situation and services available to the homeless population in Saratoga County.
“It was very well attended,” said Fronk. “At least 60 people were there. Although the impetus of the meeting was vagrancy, the tone of the meeting was very much about what is being done now and what can businesses do to help with solutions. There has never been a doubt about the compassion and community investment of our community leaders. Code Blue could not exist without businesses providing dinners and other fundraisers.”
Code Blue Saratoga Springs is an emergency shelter serving homeless people who might otherwise remain unsheltered during periods of extreme winter weather. Wellspring, formerly Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Saratoga County, offers crisis intervention and survivor services support to more than 1,000 clients annually, providing safe housing to adults and children either fleeing or homeless because of domestic violence, as well as comprehensive support in the form of counseling, legal advocacy, and case management.
“Domestic violence is the primary cause of family homelessness,” said Fronk. “Vagrancy is such a small proportion of the homeless population, yet they have been causing difficulties. It’s hard when homelessness impacts a business’s bottom line. I champion the idea of nonprofits and businesses getting together to build bridges toward solutions.”
Todd Shimkus, CCE, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, arrived at the May 20 meeting with a tangible idea to help both businesses and the homeless population: the new Saratoga Cares Card, which began from a conversation Shimkus had with Heidi Owen-West of Lifestyles of Saratoga six days earlier about a meeting she had with Mayor Joanne Yepsen and several nonprofit organizations the previous day.
“The idea for the Saratoga Cares Card came from that conversation, and Anita Paley, Executive Director at Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council, took the lead,” said Shimkus. “To help Anita, I reached out and offered to get it printed and distributed at no cost to EOC. She sent me the information they had compiled. Christianne Smith of Designsmith Studio volunteered to create the card. She worked with Camelot Printing to get the first 1,000 printed within about 12 hours, so that we could distribute them at the DBA meeting on Wednesday.”
They printed and distributed 1,000 cards last week and plan to distribute another 5,000 this week. The information on the cards was provided by local social services agencies, who recommend that the best way the community can help those in need is to get them in contact with the range of agencies who are here to help them.
“That really is the purpose of the card,” said Shimkus. “Each of the agencies listed has a proven track record of really making a positive difference in the lives of those who come to them for support and assistance.” Businesses can hand the cards to members of the homeless population or to their customers, encouraging them to hand the cards instead of money to panhandlers.
Several ideas were discussed at the meeting, but the take-away for most businesses was the realization that there are foundational support systems available in the community that are too few to address the growing numbers of the homeless locally.
Finocchi of Shelters of Saratoga, 14 Walworth St, Saratoga Springs, said that last year, according to Code Blue, more than 400 people were assisted through the bitter cold winter, almost twice the number of the year before.
“The homeless community is a strong community,” said Finocchi. “They look out for each other, and this winter was so harsh that the ones utilizing Code Blue got to their friends and told them to get inside. Word of mouth got them indoors and saved lives. There was so much snow they couldn’t even pitch a tent. ”
There were many suggestions and ideas discussed at the meeting, everything from more foot patrols to expanding available services. Finocchi brought up the Friendship House that closed a couple years ago.
“There’s nothing for the homeless population to do during the day,” he said, “With Friendship House gone, they have nowhere to go but downtown.” The facility was open during business hours offering services to the homeless, such as case management, clothes, and basic daily needs.
“There’s a drop-in center in Schenectady that is making a world of difference - Bethesda House,” said Finocchi. “That’s what we need here – a drop-in center. Friendship house kind of did it, but we need a full center.”
According to Maddy Zanetti, vice president of DBA and principle of Impressions of Saratoga, the constructive conversations from the meeting will be ongoing.
“I think everyone who came left with a positive outlook knowing that the Chamber and DBA are working in concert with service providers and with City officials,” said Zanetti.
Fronk agrees. “Before now, all these discussions have been ‘siloed’ meetings, involving just providers or just businesses,” she said. “This is the first time that I’m aware of that we built a bridge between those silos, which will lead to more collaboration and information sharing.”
Zanetti added that attendees also gained a better sense of how hard it is for services to get the funds they need to meet the growing demand and that everyone needs to pull together.
“Nobody asks to be homeless,” said Finocchi. “We’re all just one paycheck away from it.”
City Council Adopts Busker Rules
SARATOGA SPRINGS – The Saratoga Springs City Council, which met May 19, passed a new city ordinance effective immediately that requires street performers to stay within ten feet of the curb, among other changes including noise limits and performance times. Critics cited existing ordinances as sufficient, and after weeks of discussion, the “busker rules” ordinance passed Tuesday with fewer changes than originally proposed.
Police Chief Gregory Veitch was invited to present at the meeting to address concerns raised in the community and at previous meetings regarding minor violations such as loitering and open containers. Veitch assured those present that the department will not be making mass arrests, and clarified that such violations must be seen by an officer in order for an officer to make an arrest. If witnessed by a civilian, that person must go to the station and file a form. He spoke about striking a balance between Constitutional freedoms and violations, saying officers will certainly uphold the new ordinance but cannot be carrying a measuring tape. He encouraged continued communication between all parties as a positive course of action.
Other City Council business highlights for the evening included the appointment of Jim Gold to the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, and the retirement of Chief Water Treatment Operator Tom Kirkpatrick was announced. Greg Johnson will be promoted from within the department to replace Kirkpatrick.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen also provided an update on the centennial celebration and the City’s recognition as a Walk Friendly Community. Commissioner Michele Madigan led the finance discussions, which included the NYS Tax Freeze Credit Program, which potentially allows for homeowners to be eligible for a property tax rebate, and the City’s Government Efficiency Plan.
The Saratoga Springs Housing Authority Five-Year Plan was discussed, and the Council approved the Housing Authority Salary. The City Council also voted to refer the Zoning Text Amendment to Include Golf-Clubhouse Definition to the Planning Board for an advisory opinion, which is nonbinding.