The legendary Sheriff James Bowen of Saratoga County has announced he will not seek re-election. This is Sheriff Bowen’s 41st year in office. Sheriff Bowen’s career is a wonderful representation of the evolution of the Office of Sheriff in New York State. When he began there were 5 deputy sheriffs patrolling Saratoga County. Today there are over 100.
To be honest, the best way to get a look at the contribution’s Jim Bowen has made to the Office of Sheriff is read article below. This article appeared in The Empire State SHERIFF after Sheriff Bowen was named the first winner of the Sheriff Grover Cleveland Award in 2012. Sheriff Bowen’s tenure as Sheriff has become an important, meaningful event, in the history of New York State.
Editors Note – The photo is Sheriff James Bowen, left, presenting the Sheriff Grover Cleveland Award to Sheriff John York of Livingston County. Sheriff Bowen was the award’s first recipient and Sheriff York is the second.
THE HISTORIC TENURE AS SHERIFF
Saratoga County Sheriff Fred Scherer won reelection in November of 1972. He didn’t celebrate his hard fought victory. The people of Saratoga County had literally elected a dead man Sheriff. Sheriff Scherer had died 5 days before election day.
It was now the responsibility of Governor Nelson Rockefeller to choose someone to serve as Sheriff until next year’s November election. Thirteen people throw their hat in the ring for the county’s top law enforcement job.
Saratoga County, influenced by the construction of the Adirondack Northway, was on the verge of explosive population growth. Control of the Sheriff’s Office was apparently important to those who would drive the county’s growth
Sheriff Sheer hired Jim Bowen as the 5th deputy sheriff in November of 1965. At the time the 5th deputy was the low man of the totem pole. The Army veteran had quit a much higher paying job to become a deputy sheriff. He had to back fill his loss in wages with two part-time jobs.
“It had been my dream to be a police officer,” Jim recalled. “I had to sacrifice to take the job but it’s what I wanted to do.”
Deputy Bowen was promoted Investigator in 1968. Shortly after that he attended the 90th session of the FBI National Academy. It was the first class to be held at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Investigator Bowen’s graduation from the FBI National Academy proved to be the foundation for the construction and development of a professional and modern Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office.
Jim Bowen was one of the 13 people who expressed an interest in becoming Sheriff. Jim wanted to be Sheriff because he was a police officer not a politician.
“I knew nothing about politics when some of the county fathers reached out to me to run for Sheriff,” Bowen recalled. “They saw that Sartoga County was about to experience tremendous growth and strongly believed That the next Sheriff had to be a professional police Officer.”
Governor Nelson Rockefeller , who had professionalized and expanded the New York State Police, much like what was needed at the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, saw Jim Bowen as the man who could get that job done. In December of 1972 Rockefeller appointed Jim Bowen Sheriff. The following November Sheriff Bowen won the first of 11 elections.
“Each election the people of the county has to evaluate the job I’m doing as their Sheriff,” Sheriff Bowen explained. “I’m only a caretaker. The people judge me every four years.”
Sheriff Bowen is the longest serving Sheriff in the history of New York State. But Sheriff Bowen’s legacy is not about longevity. It’s about accomplishment. Taking the responsibility to insure the services provided by the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office meet the demands of a rapidly growing community.
During Sheriff Bowen’s 40 years in office Saratoga County’s population has grown by 100,000 people. Thousands of new homes have been built. Much of this growth occurred in the Sheriffs first 20 years in office and most of it occurred in the county’s southern end where the small and sleepy farm town of Clifton Park became of the state’s largest suburban towns. A town that never had its own police department continues to prefer to depend on the Sheriff’s Office and the State Police for police protection.
The sheriff’s criminal division has just under 100 deputy sheriffs patrolling Saratoga County. When Jim Bowen was hired their were only 5 deputy sheriffs. When Sheriff Bowen was hired the basic police school was two weeks. Today the BASIC school is 6 intense months. These are changes that were influenced by Sheriff Bowen.
In 1969, the Saratoga County Jail housed 29 inmates. Today it routinely houses 180 inmates. Needless to say during Sheriff Bowen’s tenure a new Sheriff had to be built. Never a popular topic amongst county taxpayers.
Sheriff Bowen proposed that the county build a much bigger jail than they immediately needed. Anti – incarceration advocates against the construction of new jails screamed bloody murder. A former Catholic Priest by the name of James Murphy lead the charge. They generated a lot of media attention and Saratoga County tax payers began to get uneasy. Sheriff Bowen stuck to his guns. Jail construction was delayed. Finally the Sheriff prevailed.
“We built big for two reasons,” the Sheriff recalled. “First I knew the county population would continue to grow. But more importantly I knew with the extra capacity I could take inmates in from other county’s and offset the construction costs.”
History has proven Sheriff Bowen correct. The taxpayer was the big winner. The new jail cost 12 million to build. Sheriff Bowen took in 11.5 million in inmate boarding revenue until his internal county demand for jail space used up the extra space.
As proud as Sheriff Bowen is of the professional growth and advancement of the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office he is equally proud of the advancement of Sheriff’s Office across New York State. The way Sheriffs stuck together on issues that would impact both the Office of Sheriff and the county taxpayer was very important to Sheriff Bowen. In many cases he stepped up to lead the charge.
A few years after Sheriff Bowen became Sheriff the New York State Sheriffs’ Association hired a new Counsel and Executive Director in an effort to strengthen the organizations effectiveness. A former District Attorney, Peter Kehoe was hired for the position. He brought his prosecutorial mind set to the mission of protecting and enhancing the Office of Sheriff. Governor Hugh Carey almost immediately challenged the effectiveness of the retooled Sheriffs’ Association.
The battle lines were set when Governor Carey appointed Herman Swartz as Chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction, the agency responsible for regulating county jails. Swhartz, a Buffalo University law professor, had demonstrated extremely liberal views of the incarceration of criminals. Now he was in a position – pending the New York State Senate’s confirmation – to inflict his pro-inmate philosophy on the Sheriffs of New York State.
The Sheriffs working with their new Counsel and Executive Director developed a plan to defeat Schwartz’s appointment during the Senate’s confirmation process. Never in the history of New York State had a Gubernatorial appointment been defeated. Historically if a Gubernatorial appointment confirmation hearing nomination appears to be in trouble the nomination is withdrawn. Not this time. It was full speed ahead for Governor Carey and his nominee Herman Schwartz.
Kehoe used two young and articulate Sheriffs to testify against Schwartz at the Senate confirmation hearing, Sheriff Jim Bowen and Montgomery County Sheriff Ron Emery.
“We were both very nervous as it was an arena neither of us had been in before,” Sheriff Bowen recalled. “But we hit the committee hard with our arguments and answered all their questions firmly and directly. It was extremely reassuring to have all our brother Sheriffs sitting together behind us as we testified. The Sheriffs of New York stood as one and the government in Albany sure took notice.”
Two things happened next. Herman Schwartz nomination was rejected by the New York State Senate – an historical first. Secondly the Sheriffs of New York had banned together as one to tell state government we are the Sheriffs and what we have to say is relevant to governing the State of New York.
Less than five years later the Sheriffs were again at odds with the State of New York. The seriously overcrowded state prison system stopped accepting inmates sentenced to state custody. The result was county jails had to house these additional inmates which caused both overcrowding and financial issues.
A federal judge had ruled that “state ready” prisoners from New York City had to be accepted by the state prison system in 48 years. That same relief was not granted to the non New York City jails.
Peter Kehoe was leading the New York State Sheriffs’ Association’s fight to force the state to accept these inmates, which the Sheriffs believed was clearly the law. Leadership from the New York City dominated New York State government at the time. The state ready issue wasn’t on their radar as they focused on other challenges of governing, typically of downstate, parochial interest..
On October 26, 1983, that all changed thanks to a very bold move by Sheriff Jim Bowen. This move changed the state’s priorities with respect to dealing with the “state ready” issue.
“The Saratoga County Jail was overcrowded. I had inmates housed in other county jails and taxpayer expense. I had 9 inmates sleeping on the floor,” Sheriff Bowen said, the frustration of 30 years ago still in his voice. “The Commission of Correction was telling me to get the inmates off the floor, which meant more tax dollars had to be spent boarding inmates in other counties. The whole time I’m backed up with state readies; if the state would accept these prisoners the Commission of Correction would be off my back.”
The sentencing of an inmate to state prison on October 23, 1982, had pushed Sheriff Bowen’s frustration with the State of New York to the brink. Sheriff Bowen ordered the recently sentenced inmate taken directly to state prison. He told his Undersheriff Ken Cooper not to bring the inmate back under any circumstances.
When they arrived at the Downstate Prison entrance it was locked tight and being patrolled by correction officers. State prison officials had learned that they were coming.
Undersheriff Cooper called Sheriff Bowen and filled him in on the situation and asked what he should do. “I told him don’t bring that inmate back here,” the Sheriff recalled. “Handcuff him to the fence you have to.”
That’s exactly what happened. As the Undersheriff drove away the state correction officers cut the inmate’s handcuffs releasing him from the fence. They then took him into custody. It was a strong graphic statement that the politicians and the public could easily grasp.
The inmate had only been handcuffed to fence for a few minutes but Sheriff Bowen’s actions would put the “state ready” back log issue a top the state’s political agenda.
Governor Mario Cuomo began a massive expansion of the prison system to accommodate the growing demand for state prison cell space. When he would leave office after 3 terms his legacy would be that of the Governor who built prisons. Prisons the state of New York needed. One only has to look at the nose dive in the crime rate – particularly in New York City – for evidence of its value
Sheriff Bowen’s continuing tenure - Forty productive and efficient years in the one of the most challenging jobs in criminal justice is a remarkable accomplishment. So remarkable it’s never been accomplished in New York State’s 225 year history. What makes it even more amazing is there has never been a greater time in law enforcement for technological advancement than the past 20 years. When Sheriff Bowen started they had one way radios in the patrol cars. Today sheriffs deputies have mobile data terminals in there cars (lap tops).
Many will agrue that the Sheriff has the toughest job at the county level. Others will agrue it’s as tough as any job at the state level. But everyone will agree that serving as Sheriff for 40 years is a remarkable accomplishment. Serving as Sheriff in one of fastest growing county’s in the country means you have to met the challenges of your office. If your not getting the job done the voters are going to give you a pink slip. They never gave it to Sheriff Bowen because he always got the job done by keeping the people of Saratoga County protected and safe. Sheriff Bowen doesn’t meet expectations, he exceeds them consistently, which is his true legacy..