Candidates in Their Own Words: Bernie Rivers, Democrat Candidate for Orange County Sheriff, New York
The Epoch Times sat down with Bernie Rivers, the Democrat candidate for Orange County Sheriff at his campaign office in Goshen, New York, on Sept. 26.
Rivers, the sole Democrat contender for the county’s top law enforcement job, faces Republican Paul Arteta in the general election. Carmen DeStefano, a retired investigator, also runs as a write-in candidate.
The incumbent sheriff, Carl Dubois, is retiring after 20 years in office.
The below interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
The Epoch Times: Most of your career centred on environmental conservation law enforcement. How did you get into that career track?
Rivers: “I was born in Suffolk County on Long Island and moved up to Mount Hope, New York when I was a kid. I attended a law enforcement class offered by Orange-Ulster BOCES as a senior from Minisink Valley High School. The instructor told us about various law enforcement careers, and I just liked the conservation officers.
“I like the outdoors. When I was younger, I did a lot of hunting and fishing. You understand that traditional police officers work out of police stations, but environmental officers work out of their homes.
“They give you a car, they give you all equipment, and you live in the area where you are assigned to patrol. You set your own schedules around your enforcement activities, and you report to headquarters once a month.”
The Epoch Times: After you graduated from high school, you worked as a correctional officer for 10 years while juggling part-time work at local police departments. Can you share more about that experience?
Rivers: “My ultimate goal was to become a state environmental conservation 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 at corrections and police departments gave me the experience to qualify for the DEC test.
“I became a correctional officer at 18. I put myself through a police academy and became a part-time police officer in Mount Hope, New York, at 19. That was a bit out of the realm of things because most people at the time, including the police chief, were under the impression that you could not become a police officer until you were 21.
“I told the chief, ‘No, that’s not what the law says. The law says you couldn’t legally purchase a firearm until you are 21, but if the police department gives me a gun, I can legally carry it.’ The chief made a phone call to a governing body of the police, and they told him that I was correct. Then he hired me.”
The Epoch Times: You became an environmental conservation officer at 29. How was the job different compared to traditional police work?
Rivers: “Environmental conservation officers are police officers who specialize in enforcing fish, wildlife, and environmental laws. In other states, you would have game wardens who just protect fish and wildlife. But in New York state, we also deal with environmental laws such as illegal dumping, air pollution, and hazardous waste.
“For example, in terms of fish laws, there are what we call catch limits depending on the types of fish and seasons. If someone violates the legal limits, we can fine as much as $250 per fish. We patrol on foot, by car, or by boat. I approached people and asked them whether they had a license or if they had 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 feel something was not right. I would ask for their driver’s licenses. Then when I ran their licenses through the system, I found out they had outstanding warrants.
“Later I was promoted to an investigator, and I got to work on more complex cases. My biggest environmental case had to do with the bankrupt Westwood chemical. We eventually held the bank, not the owner, accountable for the illegal disposal of chemicals, which I think was the first time that was ever done in the state.
“My biggest hunting case was about a grandfather who shot and killed his grandson during hunting in Port Jervis. As conservation officers, we are mandated by our policy to investigate all hunter-related shooting incidents in the state. In some cases, people could lose their hunting privileges.”
The Epoch Times: Then you were promoted to lieutenant, captain, and director of the law enforcement division at DEC. Shortly after you retired, you decided to run for Orange County Sheriff. Why?
Rivers: “This went back to the BOCES class which I attended as a high school senior. When they were talking about how a sheriff was an elected job, I did make a comment back then, ‘That would be a nice job after I retire.’ As I went through my different police career stages, I put that on the back burner.
“About four years ago, somebody asked me to run for sheriff here in Orange County. I would be interested in running because we hadn’t had a Democrat running for sheriff here since 2002. But I said no because I thought the current sheriff, Carl Dubois, did a good job. When Dubois announced that he was going to retire, I ran.
“I ran because I believe that my record, my experience, and my managerial skills are what is needed to continue to bring the sheriff’s office into 21st-century policing. I do not believe I need to have worked for the sheriff’s office to be able to manage the sheriff’s office.
“I understand how correctional facilities operate, I had done traditional police work with local police departments, and I have specialized police work as a conservation officer. When I became the chief conservation officer for the mid-Hudson Valley region, I had to manage the small pot of money that was allocated to me to run the seven counties.
“As a director of law enforcement at DEC, I oversaw 350 uniformed officers statewide, managed our 30 million-plus budgets, and collaborated with other division managers.
The Epoch Times: What’s the first thing you would do as a sheriff if you were elected?
Rivers: “The first thing I’ll do when I get in is to do a full assessment of the sheriff’s office. I think they are running a good operation. Those programs that are worthy to continue, we will continue. If there are places where we can save money, we will do so. We will look at other agencies of similar statutes for benchmarks.”
The Epoch Times: In July, right after the state’s concealed carry law was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, New York passed a set of new gun laws within hours of introduction. What’s your take on the laws?
Rivers: “I do not agree with Governor Kathy Hochul on the firearm laws that were just passed. She made it illegal for people with concealed carry permits to carry firearms in just about any place outside their homes that you can think of, so then why would people even need a permit?
“I think the laws are unconstitutional. I believe once this makes its way back up to the Supreme Court, it is going to be struck down.
“Since I ran, I met a lot of people who looked at me and said, ‘Well, you are a Democrat. You want to take my guns away.’
“I’d say, ‘Well, yes, I’m a Democrat, but I’m a Democrat that believes in your first and second amendment rights.’ I’ve always leaned towards Democratic values except for gun control and law and order.
“Having been in the law enforcement field for 40 years, I believe in law and order. But I also believe there need to be some changes in terms of police reform. I’d like to see people being treated equally across the board, and that all comes down to training.”
The Epoch Times: New York passed major bail reform in 2019 that eliminated cash bail for most low-level crimes. What’s your take on those laws?
Rivers: “The purpose of bail was never meant to be a punishment. The purpose of the bail was always to ensure people came back to court. So, if you have a judge who is setting bail higher on black and brown people but setting bail lower on non-minorities for the same crime, then you need to go address that problem.
“But I think that was a major problem in New York City, but rather than addressing it within the city, they came out with this statewide bail reform. That doesn’t work because upstate counties are not set up the way the largest cities are set up.
“Too much was done too fast by the state legislature without consulting the people that have to work under those conditions.
“Also, I want to stress that the county sheriff is not a legislator. The county sheriff doesn’t write laws. A lot of people are upset with national politics and state politics, and I want people to remember that county politics is different.
“Just because you are upset with national Democrats, voters should not be voting strictly on part line in county elections. They should do their research for their candidates and elect the best person to fulfill that position.
“And that’s the only thing I’m asking people to do when they are looking at my resume.”