The Epoch Times met with Democratic nominee for Orange County sheriff Bernie Rivers on September 26 at his campaign office in Goshen, New York.
Rivers, the only Democratic contender for the county’s chief police officer, faces Republican Paul Arteta in the general election. Carmen DeStefano, a retired investigator, is also running as a candidate.
Acting Sheriff Carl Dubois is retiring after 20 years in office.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The epoch times: Most of your career has been focused on environmental law enforcement. How did you come to this career?
Rivers: “I was born in Suffolk County on Long Island and moved to Mount Hope, New York as a child. As a senior at Minisink Valley High School, I took a law enforcement course offered by Orange-Ulster BOCES. The instructor told us about different law enforcement careers and I just liked the conservation officers.
“I like nature. When I was younger I hunted and fished a lot. They understand that traditional police officers work from police stations, but environmental officers work from their homes.
“They give you a car, they give you all the equipment, and you live in the area you’re supposed to patrol. You set your own schedules for your enforcement activities and report to headquarters once a month.”
The epoch times: After graduating from high school, you worked as a correctional officer for 10 years while also working part-time for the local police force. Can you tell more about this experience?
Rivers: “My ultimate goal was to be a state environmental protection officer, but the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wouldn’t hire you until you had four years of law enforcement experience or 60 college credits.
“Working in correctional facilities and police departments gave me the experience to qualify for the DEC test.
“I became a correctional officer when I was 18. I graduated from a police academy and became a part-time cop at 19 in Mount Hope, New York, including the commissioner of police had the impression that you couldn’t be a cop until you were 21.
“I said to the boss, ‘No, it’s not in the law. The law says you can’t legally buy a firearm until you’re 21, but if the police give me a gun I can legally carry it. The boss called a police governing body and they told him I was right. Then he hired me.”
The epoch times: You became an environmental protection officer at the age of 29. How was the job different from classic police work?
Rivers: “Conservation officers are police officers who specialize in enforcing fish, wildlife and environmental laws. In other states, you would have game wardens protecting only fish and wildlife. But in New York State we also deal with environmental laws such as illegal landfilling, air pollution and hazardous waste.
“For example, in fishing law there are so-called catch restrictions depending on fish species and seasons. If someone breaks the legal limits, we can issue a fine of up to $250 per fish. We patrol on foot, by car or by boat. I approached people and asked if they had a license or if they caught anything. Sometimes they said no but when I looked around I found the fish they had hidden.
“Occasionally when I was talking to people, depending on the way they answered my questions or their body language, I could get the feeling that something was wrong. I would ask for their driver’s licenses. Then, when I ran their licenses through the system, I found that they had outstanding search warrants.
“Later I was promoted to detective and got to work on more complex cases. My biggest environmental case involved the bankrupt chemical company Westwood. We ended up blaming the bank and not the owner for the illegal disposal of chemicals, which I think was the first time this had ever happened in the state.
“My biggest hunting case involved a grandfather who shot his grandson while hunting in Port Jervis. As conservation officers, we are required by policy to investigate all hunter-related shootings in the state. In some cases, people could lose their hunting privileges.”
The epoch times: Then you were promoted to lieutenant, captain, and chief of law enforcement at DEC. Shortly after your retirement, you decided to run for Orange County Sheriff. Why?
Rivers: “It went back to the BOCES class I took as a high school senior. When they talked about being a sheriff being a chosen job, I remarked at the time, ‘That would be a nice job after I retire.’ As I progressed through my various career stages in the police force, I put that on hold.
“About four years ago someone asked me to run for sheriff here in Orange County. I’d be interested in running because we haven’t had a Democrat run for sheriff here since 2002. But I said no because I thought the current sheriff, Carl Dubois, did a good job. When Dubois announced he was retiring, I ran away.
“I am running because I believe my record, experience and managerial skills are what it takes to continue to propel the sheriff’s office into 21st century policing. I don’t think I have to have worked for the sheriff’s office to run the sheriff’s office.
“I understand how correctional facilities work, I have done traditional policing with local police departments, and I have specialized policing as a conservation officer. When I became Chief Conservation Officer for the Mid-Hudson Valley region, I had to manage the small pot of money I was allotted to oversee the seven counties.
“As Director of Law Enforcement at DEC, I oversaw 350 uniformed officers nationwide, managed our budgets of over $30 million, and worked with other department heads.
The epoch times: What is the first thing you would do as sheriff if you were elected?
Rivers: “The first thing I’ll do when I walk in is do a full inspection of the sheriff’s office. I think they are doing a good operation. We will continue those programs that are worth continuing. If there are ways to save money, we will. We will look at other agencies with similar statutes for benchmarks.”
The epoch times: In July, immediately after the state’s concealed carry law was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, New York passed a series of new gun laws within hours of its introduction. How do you feel about the laws?
Rivers: “I disagree with Governor Kathy Hochul on the gun laws that just passed. She made it illegal for people with concealed carry permits to carry firearms in almost any place outside of their homes you can think of. Then why would people need a permit at all?
“I think the law is unconstitutional. I believe once this finds its way back to the Supreme Court it will be crushed.
“Since running for office, I’ve met a lot of people who’ve looked at me and said, ‘Well, you’re a Democrat. They want to take my guns away from me.”
“I would say, ‘Well, yes, I’m a Democrat, but I’m a Democrat who believes in your First and Second Amendment rights.’ I’ve always leaned toward democratic values, with the exception of gun control and law and order.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years and I believe in law and order. But I also believe that there needs to be some changes in terms of police reform. I want people everywhere to be treated the same, and it all has to do with education.”
The epoch times: New York passed sweeping bail reform in 2019 that eliminated cash bail for most low-level crimes. How do you feel about these laws?
Rivers: “The purpose of bail was never intended to be punitive. The purpose of bail has always been to make sure people get back to court. So if you have a judge who is giving blacks and browns higher bails but non-minority lower bails for the same crime, then you need to address this issue.
“But I think that was a big problem in New York City, but instead of tackling it within the city, they came out with this statewide bail bond reform. This doesn’t work because the upstate counties aren’t structured like the major cities.
“The state parliament did too much too quickly without consulting the people who have to work under these conditions.
“Also, I want to emphasize that the county sheriff is not a legislature. The county sheriff doesn’t make laws. A lot of people are upset with national politics and state politics, and I want people to remember that county politics are different.
“Just because you’re angry with the national Democrats doesn’t mean voters should vote strictly in line in the county elections. They should research their candidates and choose the best person for that position.
“And that’s the only thing I ask people to do when they look at my resume.”