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Sheriff’s Department to discontinue airport security

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Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns said Thursday morning that because of a shortage of deputies, he no longer will be able to provide a security detail for Watertown International Airport near Dexter.

Mr. Burns said that since November, he has filed several requests to fill vacancies left by deputies who have retired, been promoted or moved on to other law enforcement agencies.

The county thus far has refused to grant his requests, he said.

With the retirement Thursday of Deputy Joseph D. Murtha, Mr. Burns said, his personnel deficit will go from three to four and he will have to suspend airport security operations after Thursday afternoon’s flights.

“My thought on it is this, I have criminal complaints that we have to respond to. To me, that is more important than being there for somebody carrying on an airplane more than 3 ounces of shampoo,” he said.

County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said the county’s contract with the Transportation Security Administration obliges it to provide security at the airport.

“It is a requirement throughout the country. The numbers will vary based on the size of the airport,” Mr. Hagemann said.

Mr. Burns said the duties of the deputies include assisting with the screening of passengers by conducting checks on suspicious identification credentials and preventing passengers from sneaking weapons onboard airplanes.

When the county took over the airport in 2006, the TSA provided funds to subsidize the salaries of four deputies to provide security at the airport.

According to Mr. Hagemann, as time went on, the TSA began to ratchet back the subsidies it had been providing to the county.

Mr. Hagemann said the county is aware of the vacancies in the sheriff’s staff.

“It is something that has to be addressed,” he said. “We just have to figure out the manpower problem, and I know we will.”

Mr. Hagemann said that while it was true the sheriff had been submitting requests since November, the county had requested background information about the department from the sheriff in March 2012 to assess the need to fill openings, but never heard anything back.

Even if new deputies were hired immediately, it would be early summer before they would be on full duty. In the meantime, the sheriff would have to pull deputies from road patrol to cover the airport. Deputies spend about four hours a day at the airport during weekdays, when there are two flights a day. They spend less time at the airport on weekends, which have only one daily flight.

Mr. Burns, who has been sparring with the county Legislature recently over allegations of misconduct in his department and jail overcrowding, said the decision to remove deputies from the airport security detail was driven by the prerogative to “keep people on the road answering complaints and taking care of our county residents” and was not a move to force the county to a decision on hiring more deputies.

There are three deputy positions and one sergeant’s position open in the department.

The Aviation and Transportation Act of 2001 requires at least one law enforcement officer at each airport security screening location.

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