This week marks the 40th anniversary of my appointment as a deputy sheriff with the Chenango County Sheriff’s Office. The date was on or about January 4, 1979, when my appointment to full-time took effect.
I’m not yet a crotchety old man talking about “how tough it used to be”, but for the sake of reminiscence, here’s a look back at police officers then. Some of these memories will be hard to accept, especially for today’s police officers, but policing was quite different 40 years ago.
At the old, brick sheriff’s office there was no doubt who was in charge; his name was Joseph J. Benenati, Jr. – the Sheriff; a former Trooper, Marine and always a bachelor. For many years the Sheriff lived in a two-room suite on the second floor of the building. There was also a bunk room with twin beds for off-duty deputies to sleep over on a rotational basis in case of late night emergencies. The ‘sleepover deputy’ duty was a once a week requirement and ended just before my appointment.
The sheriff’s office of this period had 19 total gun-toting full-time personnel. That was everyone from the sheriff all the way down to the lowliest deputy - me. The 19 of us ran the entire operation which was; road patrol, desk duty, radio-room dispatching, family court security and jailers. At the time many sheriff’s offices in the state closed at night, but here in Chenango, we carried on for 24 hours every single day.
My starting salary was $8700 annually and deputies received their pay once a month. Those who worked the evening or night shift were reimbursed for out-of-pocket meals on the 15th of each month. However, the deputies who worked on the day shift were required to return to the station to eat their lunch, which was the same meal the prisoners received. In my first year, I attended the basic police academy with Joe Coe, Jim Fox, and Althea Fowlston. The academy was 420 hours over 52 non-consecutive days.
The Dodge police cars we drove had the basic necessities. We had only a police radio for our listening pleasure and no air conditioning or power windows. The engines were 440 cubic inch gas gulping, tire burning machines, and we were disappointed when the next year’s fleet had only a 400 cubic inch engine. We never had a patrol car with a backseat partition so the safest place to transport prisoners was up front right next to the driver. In the winter’s deep snow, deputies had to attach chains to the rear tires. My first day riding in a police car was with Deputy Gary Brookins driving. Years later, his last day riding in a police car, I was driving.
Our duty belts were Spartan; only a personally owned six-shot revolver, leather loops holding 12 additional bullets and a set of handcuffs were carried. No one that I remember wore body armor (bullet proof vests). Portable radios were sometimes worn, but there weren’t enough for everyone, so they were optional. What wasn’t optional was carrying dimes in order to make calls back to the office from a payphone. The C&U telephone operators would put through the long-distance calls from Greene, Afton, or New Berlin for free if you told them you were a deputy calling on official business.
Our duty week was five days on, followed by two days off which meant every seven months was an actual weekend off. We all worked eight and a half hour shifts with staggered start times. From 1979 to 1981 I worked the evening shift with officers; Sgt. Jerry Stone, deputies Vince Marsenelli, John Wonka, Rick Mattice, and Tim Annesi. At the age of 19, I couldn’t believe I was part of their ranks and was proud to be one of “Benenati’s men.”
On occasion working evenings, a drunk driver was arrested because they damaged someone else’s property. Those people arrested always tested extremely high; 2.0, 2.2 and higher were the norm. Sometimes we encountered a drunk driver and there was no accident involved, these people often were told to “park it and sleep it off” with their keys tossed in the back seat. Belligerent drunks who required arrest were arraigned in one of two places; Judge Bill Evan’s enclosed front porch or Judge Chris Burke’s living room.
One of my favorite duties was getting sent on a “blood run” for the Syracuse Red Cross. I always pictured someone on a faraway operating table, surrounded by doctors, waiting for the pouches of AB negative to arrive. At the northern county line, near Georgetown, we would meet a Madison County Sheriff’s car, transfer the package of blood to our car, and begin our high-speed journey to the Midway Diner at the intersection of routes 7 and 8 in Sidney. There, we turned over our package to a Delaware County deputy and they continued to the hospital in Walton or Margaretville.
During the 1970s the sheriff’s office had patrol contracts with some villages in the county where a deputy was assigned permanently. In Sherburne, the full-time deputy was Jim Peptis, but he couldn’t work all seven nights per week. This meant two of my five nights on duty were spent in the Village of Sherburne. The Sherburne police car was a black and white Pontiac and nowhere on the car was the word “police.” The car was not marked because it was used during the day by the village electric department meter reader. At night for police duty, magnetic signs were attached to the doors.
Thank you for sharing this career milestone with me. If you’d like to stop and chat to swap more stories, I’ll be on duty in Sherburne this Friday evening.