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Sheriff's departments air concerns over SAFE Act

Ken Hawkins

One year after the passage of the New York SAFE Act, sheriff’s departments across the state are still struggling to wrap their heads around the law, and some have gone so far as expressing personal opposition to the new laws.

Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn says there are facets of the law that make sense, but that there are many problems. These problems, according to many upstate New York sheriffs, could have been avoided if they'd been more involved from the start.

“It absolutely is a common feeling. The law, as you could see, was not well thought out. And there was not input from many of the individuals who would be involved in the enforcement of it," he said. "There was no discussion with law enforcement, in fact when the law was originally passed it didn’t exempt police."

O'Flynn does support safe storage mandates and limiting access for convicted felons and people struggling with mental health issues, for example, and the SAFE Act has since been amended to exempt law enforcement officers.

But, Alex Wilson, associate counsel to the New York State Sheriff’s Association, says even welcome changes to the bill have created confusion for law enforcement. A recent example he gives is a Dec. 31 ruling from a federal judge in Buffalo. It struck down the seven-round per magazine limit.

“We’re talking about a decision by a federal district court regarding a federal constitutional question that is rooted in a state law,” Wilson said.

But Wilson says it remains unclear whether the decision applies to the whole state, or just western New York.

On a whole, Monroe County Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn says the SAFE Act is so complex that he’s devoted several people specifically to advising officers on how to enforce it.

“We actually have individuals that are designated as the resident experts because it is very complex. There’s a lot of confusion and a lot of frustration with the law,” O'Flynn said.

Livingston County Sheriff Tom Doherty's office has done the same. He says confusion over the law won’t result in an outright refusal to enforce it, but his office is treading carefully.

“I’ve put a directive out to all our deputies in our entire office and said we are not to make on the spot arrests under any section of the SAFE Act, that I want it to be reviewed with our team before we move forward at all," Doherty said. "So I’m not saying I won’t enforce it, but it certainly will be a case-by-case basis.”

Other segments of the law will come into effect over the next few months including the deadline for registering or disposing of assault weapons as defined by the Act.

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail