OSWEGO — For Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton, 2019 was a successful year.
The Hastings native, who took office for the first of his four-year term at the stroke of midnight last Dec. 31, had a long docket of priorities and goals for his first 12 months: installing law enforcement officers in local schools, reducing the jail population, updating his office’s technology and forming strong relationships with fellow law enforcement agencies to combat a persistent drug crisis.
In a recent interview with The Palladium-Times, Hilton said while he feels his office has accomplished much and taken important steps to “bring us into modern times,” he foresees a 2020 made far more difficult for his deputies and staff by looming state criminal justice reforms.
Hilton, 58, won election unopposed for Oswego County Sheriff in November 2018 after prevailing in hard-fought Republican and Conservative party primaries. His three-decade career in law enforcement included service with the Syracuse Police Department and Onondaga County District Attorney’s office in roles ranging from a SWAT Team supervisor to drug intelligence officer.
His first job in the justice system, however, came shortly after his graduation from SUNY Oswego in the early 1980s when he joined the staff of the Oswego County Correctional Facility. His hiring came at the direction of longtime Oswego County Sheriff Reuel “Moe” Todd, whose retirement in 2018 cleared the way for an open sheriff election.
During his campaign, Hilton sought to distance himself from the Todd administration and promised to “restore the reputation” of the department — an area in which he feels his first year has made significant progress.
“Morale is great, we’re promoting officers, we have new recruits hitting the streets,” said Hilton in a visit this week to the offices of the Pall-Times.
One of Hilton’s signature programs in his first year was launching an initiative to place armed, sworn sheriff’s deputies — operating under the title of School Resource Officers (SRO) — in school buildings around Oswego County. SROs can now be found in seven of the nine county districts, Hilton said.
“We’re getting requests from districts for additional officers and all the feedback has been super positive,” Hilton said. “On my wish list, I’d put an officer in every school building in the county. There’s still some schools out there that make me awful nervous.”
Hilton said he’s “shocked” at how busy SROs are in local schools, which makes him wonder how the schools managed without them. The sheriff’s office also conducted several active shooter exercises at schools during the summer, convening a number of law enforcement agencies for a realistic run-through of protocol and procedure during a school shooting incident.
As a drug intelligence officer, Hilton worked for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program for New York and New Jersey, where he was named senior investigator in 2016. Oswego County this year, through the efforts of the Oswego County District Attorney’s office, earned the HIDTA designation allowing for greater allocation of funding and resources to combat the transportation of narcotics. As a HIDTA county, access is granted for Oswego law enforcement agents to state and federal intelligence to address illegal drug use in the region.
A major issue for Hilton upon taking office was the operation of the Oswego County Correctional Facility and, impossibly intertwined, the effects of opioid addiction on inmates. The county’s opioid court requires individuals in the program to show up to court each day for 60 days and test clean of opioids — a practice Hilton said has been successful but is now threatened by Albany politics.
Under new state bail and justice laws going into effect in January, Hilton says he would no longer be able to hold defendants awaiting trial on a wide variety of non-violent crimes — a situation he says will exacerbate opioid dependency and undo the work done by the opioid court.
“All we’ll be able to do is issue an appearance ticket then let the person go,” Hilton said. The threat of a long stint behind bars in lieu of bail is often enough to convince a defendant to opt for opioid court, where their freedom is guaranteed as long as they stay clean and out of trouble. Come January, that incentive will be removed, Hilton said.
When asked if he felt state bail and justice reforms would make Oswego County less safe, Hilton did not hesitate.
“This is absolutely going to make us less safe,” Hilton said. “It’s a huge step backward.”
Despite the challenges on the horizon, Hilton said his office is moving forward with a number of programs including a push for a paperless office and expanding the department’s drone program. The sheriff’s office already uses some existing drone technology, Hilton said, but is working with experts at Griffiss Air Force base and the nascent Central New York Drone Corridor, supported by state and federal governments, to add more eyes and ears in the sky