Former Sheriff looks back on his eight years as county’s top lawman
GREENPORT—As of January 1 Columbia County Sheriff David W. Harrison, Jr. was not the sheriff anymore, but retirement is nowhere in his immediate plans.
Mr. Harrison, 51, held the top spot at the Sheriff’s Office for the past eight years and made the decision a year ago not to seek re-election. In an interview last January, he told The Columbia Paper that the job demands “24/7 thought” and that his focus shifted when his wife of 32 years, Kelly, was diagnosed with breast cancer, several months earlier.
She underwent surgery and chemotherapy and the sheriff “went to just about every doctors’ appointment” with his wife, noting, “Going with her helped me, I needed to know as much about it as she did.”
Now, a year later, Mrs. Harrison’s most recent mammogram showed she’s cancer free, the sheriff said this week in a phone interview, during which he also reflected on a 31-year career as a lawman.
Born in Hudson and raised in Spencertown, Mr. Harrison, affectionately known as “Bubba,” graduated from Chatham High School and enrolled in Hudson Valley Community College.
The son of a lawman, the now former sheriff said he initially thought being a police officer was not for him. His father is David W. “Butch” Harrison, Sr., who retired as an investigator with the State Police after a 24-year career, went on to work as an investigator with the County District Attorney’s Office and now serves as a Ghent Town Justice.
“I saw how the job affected him, the time it required and it wasn’t something I wanted to do,” said sheriff just before his term ended, noting that it wasn’t until after he took some college courses in criminal justice that he found it interesting. Now he says he believes being in law enforcement was “in my blood. I liked public service and always thought of myself as a protector of people.”
After working as a mechanic and for an overhead door company, the sheriff went to work for the Chatham Police Department part-time, transferred to Columbia-Greene Community College part-time and got married at the tender age of 19.
In April 1984, he was hired full-time by the Sheriff’s Office starting as a jailer deputy sheriff. There were no civil service exams at that time and he “served at the pleasure of the sheriff,” who was Paul J. Proper, Sr. The undersheriff was James Bertram.
He worked for two or three years as a jailer in the original county jail located in the back of the county courthouse in Hudson. He said it was like something out of “The Rock.” Though he didn’t want to continue working in the jail, he said it was “a very good experience” and provided him knowledge about “what goes on.”
He went on to work as a communications deputy before 911 came along. Deputies dispatched all police, fire and EMS calls. “It was challenging,” he said.
Later while working as a deputy on road patrol, the sheriff took a civil service exam for investigator in 1990 and was appointed to that position. And after working as an investigator for nearly 10 years, he decided he needed a change. “Investigators handle the most tragic cases there are, the worst things that happen to people,” he said. “Some people can do that type of work for much longer; some can’t do it at all. In every case something bad has happened; it carries a huge responsibility.”
As a deputy, he explained, he wasn’t always responding to emergencies. Sometimes he got to do something nice for people, like help them change a tire. “Being an investigator is intense, but fulfilling, when you work a successful case you help the victim go forward and that means a lot,” Mr. Harrison said.
During his years at the Sheriff’s Office, the sheriff worked under Sheriffs Proper, Bertram, Proper again, Walter Shook and Acting Sheriff Ed Dorsch.
In 2002 Sheriff Shook appointed Mr. Harrison then a captain, the undersheriff, and when Sheriff Shook decided not to run again, Undersheriff Harrison ran for sheriff, winning in November 2005 and 2009, both times unopposed. Sheriff Harrison’s undersheriff during both terms, James Sweet, will also leave office at the end of 2013.
Asked to recall some of the more noteworthy cases he worked on during his three-decade career, the sheriff said he does not like to pick among tragedies. “Each one is important, each one took a toll on people” including the officers who worked on them. “We are all local here, you have to live in the county to work for the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Instead, the former sheriff prefers to mention the positive programs started on his watch. “Everything is done as a team; it could never be done by just one person,” he said.
Substance abuse counseling was instituted in the jail, a service relevant to the majority of people who end up there. Also, he mentioned The New Leash on Life program, where inmates train homeless dogs to help make them more adoptable, and the garden program, where inmates plant a variety of crops that eventually end up on their plates.
The Sheriff’s Office also started the first law enforcement-related Explorer Post in the country in which young people ages 12 to 21 receive instruction on all aspects of the Sheriff’s Office, tour the jail and courts. The establishment of the Sheriff’s Office Hillsdale Substation was also accomplished during his administration bringing a law enforcement presence to the eastern part of the county after the Copake Police Department was dissolved.
Mr. Harrison thanked the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office and the Board of Supervisors for their service and support, calling them both very important components of a Sheriff’s Office.
Asked what the future holds for him now, he said he’s not sure and will wait to see what comes along.
“I’m going to work on my resume” and paint the inside of his house. “I’ve got things to keep me busy for several months.”
He is succeeded by former Sheriff’s Office Captain David Bartlett, who was elected last November.
At 51, the Mr. Harrison sees this change as an opportunity to do something else. He will check out what jobs are available and not necessarily in law enforcement, he said.
“The hardest part was making the choice not to run again. I have no complaints or regrets. My job allowed us to build our house and raise our children,” said the sheriff, stressing he plans to stay in Spencertown. An October trip to Myrtle Beach, SC, convinced him, “I’m not built for a southern climate.”
Mrs. Harrison is a customer service representative with Johnnie Walker Insurance in Spencertown and recently earned her real estate license.
They have three sons, all in their 20s: Adam, the youngest, who just earned a 4.0 grade point average in his senior year in the theater program at SUNY New Paltz; Lee, a coffee aficionado with Joe Coffee, family-owned coffee shops with eight stores in Manhattan and two new stores recently opened in Philadelphia; and the next generation of Harrison lawmen, Daniel, the oldest, who works for the Sheriff’s Office and for the Greenport and Chatham police departments.
“Over the last 30 years I’ve met some of the most vicious, violent people we have in society and at the same time have gotten to meet some of the nicest and most sincere,” Mr. Harrison said, adding, “the county is a safe place and it has been a pleasure to serve.”
To contact Diane Valden email .