An agent of change
For state’s first woman elected sheriff, spotlight is best shone on staff, deputies
After only two years of retirement from the New York State Police, an agency where she spent 32 years, Colleen M. O’Neill returned to law enforcement as Jefferson County’s and New York State’s first woman elected as sheriff. She sat down with us to share the experience of her first year in office, the challenges the Jefferson County sheriff’s office faces and what it means to lead as a woman in a historically male-dominated field.
NNYB: When did you develop this goal to become sheriff?
O’NEILL: It’s a good example of never say never because I really didn’t think I would run for sheriff when I was with the troopers. When I retired from the troopers I thought, there, that was a great career, hang up my gun belt, go plant some flowers, play with the dogs and have coffee with my mom every other Tuesday or something. I think the timing just lined up correctly. John Burns was retiring and I had a year and a half, almost two years, of retirement under my belt and realized that I still had something to offer. It wasn’t really one thing and it wasn’t something I thought I would do for years before hand. Things just lined up.
NNYB: What led you into the race for sheriff? Was it one issue over another?
O’NEILL: It wasn’t one issue. To be perfectly honest, it was probably the Watertown Times. It was that there was bad news all the time and I knew that there were good things happening here. I really thought that someone needed to stand up and say hey, this is not a ship going down. This ship may need to be corrected a little bit, but it’s a good, hardy, successful ship.
NNYB: Since you’ve come on you have done a big turnaround in public perception and bringing back some transparency. How important was that and what was that process like?
O’NEILL: It’s extremely important to me that the public knows what great work is being done here and really always has been done here. The agency is loaded with talented educated committed deputies and detectives and corrections officers and civilian staff. The easy part of my job, and honestly, the most pleasant part of it is letting the community know how successful and professional and committed all these folks are. I’d like to take more credit than I am actually worthy of. All I’m doing is shining a light on what has been going on here for some time. It’s easy for me to find some examples of great work almost every day. I pick the best of the best of those examples out and I publicize them. I’m not hiding anything. We’ll make mistakes, everybody does, but we’ll own them, we’ll learn from them, we’ll admit them and we’ll ask the community to forgive us if we make mistakes and we’ll move on. The positive light that is being shone on the sheriff’s office now is just me letting the community know how great the people are that work here and that’s easy.
NNYB: In your first year, what has been your biggest surprise?
O’NEILL: I guess the amount of time I spend handling issues coming out of the jail. There’s a different issue almost every day. It could be anything from the food supplier to do we have enough inmate workers to help the maintenance down in the jail. Is it a correction officer who’s hurt or use of force that goes down there, which is very minimal I’m happy to say? The biggest surprise would be the amount of attention that the jail requires of me and the undersheriff.
NNYB: Is that something that required you to overcome a bit of a learning curve?
O’NEILL: Absolutely. The patrol side I totally understand what the detective’s roles are, what their responsibilities are and what their challenges are, same with the deputies. The challenges, the responsibilities and the goals that the corrections officers face every day I had to learn that. I’ve spent as much time as I can in the jail and I’ve talked to as many corrections officers as I can. I have a very competent jail administrator and second lieutenant and I count on them daily to keep me updated. It’s a very good working relationship.
NNYB: How have you approached establishing yourself as a leader?
O’NEILL: If you’re talking in the beginning of the term, not making any sweeping changes right out of the gate. I really don’t believe in changing something just because you have the authority to change it or for the sake of change. I spent probably the first three to four months observing and listening. I had a lot of meetings with corrections officers and deputies and detectives, and asked what’s working, what’s not working, what can I do to help, where do the changes need to be made. Then slowly we started making those changes. Some things were priorities as soon as we got here. There was a big issue with the prearraigned inmates being held in the lock up before arraignment. The Commission of Corrections put some regulations in place that either weren’t there before or weren’t followed before. That took two months to straighten out, but it’s working like clockwork now. We try to take small bites of big problems if we can. Sometimes we don’t have that luxury, but if we do.
NNYB: Were there some things when you came in that made you think the situation in the sheriff’s office wasn’t all bad? Were there some positives you were relieved and happy to see?
O’NEILL: I would argue that I had the opposite opinion when coming in. I really thought that this was a great agency. I had worked here in Jefferson County and I had worked with deputies. I didn’t come in thinking that a whole bunch of things needed to be fixed. I was thinking how can I make it better and help the agency move forward in these trying times. The things that I saw that impressed me were certainly the competency of the detectives, the deputies, the corrections officers and the commitment for all of those people including the civilian staff to do a good job. Everyone wants to do a good job here. It’s an honor to lead people that want to do great work.
NNYB: Some people have said that what they appreciate the most about you coming in is finally they have someone who listens and who will show some fundamental respect and that treating people well goes a long way.
O’NEILL: That’s what I learned from that book “Lincoln on Leadership.” Treating people with respect that’s how you become successful. People want to work for people that appreciate you and appreciate good work. Something that I try to do is pick out the good things people are doing and acknowledge them. I write letters all the time for good work that somebody has done in this agency. When something is worthy of the public knowing and acknowledging that’s what I think the community is seeing.
NNYB: Heroin is a huge issue and we’re talking about some new solutions. As we’re looking back at your first year in office, what new tools have been successful in battling this problem?
O’NEILL: One of the very first things I did was I sent another detective out to the drug task force and it seems like an easy thing to do, but the truth of the matter is if you take a detective out of the detective’s unit it’s more pistol permits for one thing for those detectives left to handle and general crimes. Some of those general crimes include things that are very close to the heroin epidemic, which are human trafficking and burglaries, robberies, and larcenies. I try to stay in step with community leaders. I listen and I give my opinion when they ask, but it’s a nationwide problem. I hope while we’re still in my career I see some success in that.
NNYB: How bad is heroin in Jefferson County?
O’NEILL: It’s worse than people think. Traditionally, a lot of folks thought that heroin was somebody else’s problem. Heroin is infiltrating its way into wealthy families and kids that were brought up with dinner on the table at six o’clock. There’s heroin in all aspects of our community. It’s not lower class, lower income. It’s not any particular race or sex. It’s in the city. It’s in rural settings. I think that’s what people are starting to realize that it’s not the other guy’s problem. It’s cheaper than most other drugs. It’s easier for dealers to get people addicted to this drug because it is so highly addictive and then they have a customer for life, unfortunately.
NNYB: What is the solution and how can we apply innovation toward this solution to get on the right side of this problem?
O’NEILL: Arresting the dealers, focusing on the dealers is obviously a priority, but personally I really think that we have to get to people before they get involved in this drug. I think we need to get the message out to the school-aged kids. Sadly, like middle schoolers, so they don’t ever think to try it. The vast majority of people that try heroin become addicted to it.
NNYB: One thing that you as Jefferson County sheriff have that most counties do not is an international border. Does that present different challenges?
O’NEILL: I’m sure it does. We probably have a greater chance of being noticed by terrorists. There’s trafficking that goes across the border whether it’s over the bridge or across the river or across the lake. It certainly comes with a different set of challenges. We put our boats on the river and the lake in the summer and we run snowmobiles along the border in the winter if we have enough snow. There are some landlocked counties that probably never deal with border patrol or customs or immigration issues.
NNYB: What has been one of your biggest challenges in your first 12 months?
O’NEILL: One of my biggest challenges has been getting the agency members to realize that the changes that I make are 100 percent in the best interests of the agency. Zero of the decisions that I make are for any benefit of my own. When I make a decision, especially a big one, something that changes the daily life of someone working here, I think long and hard about it. It needs to be changed because it’s in the best interests of the agency. All of my decisions are based on that.
NNYB: Have you had to tighten the reins on discipline at all?
O’NEILL: I think we dot the i’s a lot more and cross the t’s more than was done in the past. I grew up in a world, both in my career and at home where if you said you were going to do something, you did it and you did it correctly. We didn’t grow up by any stretch of the imagination in a harsh household. It’s courtesy, common courtesy, to be where you say you’re going to be and do what you say you’re going to do to the best of your ability. I’m asking the people at the agency to do that and I’ve gotten very little resistance.
NNYB: Where do you hope to focus your attention in the next few years?
O’NEILL: I would say my priority is to continue to shine a positive light on the agency and let the community know that we’re here for them. We’re keeping them safe to the best of our ability. We’re fair and we’re professional and we’re skilled, experienced and committed to doing a great job. That’s what I do every single day. Aside from that school safety is top priority for me. By school safety, I’m not talking about being ready for an active shooter scenario. I’m talking about stopping bullying. Putting some personnel in the school, even if it’s not a police officer, every single day. Somebody that the students recognize as a trusting soul that they can go to and say this happened at my house, is this normal, I’m getting bullied. At a younger age, I want kids to have somebody to turn to. That’s community policing.
NNYB: Some people are cynical about bullying in schools. What can and should be done?
O’NEILL: The cynical people say back in the day we just took it out on the playground and we straightened it out. Back in the day, you didn’t have 200 friends liking something disparaging you said about somebody else. It’s the social media that amps it up to a degree that it’s not even comparable to when we were growing up. Taking it out to the school yard and settling it is way in the past. Because kids’ lives revolve so much around social media, if you’re brought down in the eyes of your social media environment, I can’t even imagine how overwhelming it would be for a kid that might have self-esteem problems to begin with.
NNYB: In 1984, if you think back to your first year as a trooper, it was a much more male-dominated industry. What led you into this field and what strategies have you had to employ in your career?
O’NEILL: In 1974, when my Dad was a captain with the state police in Middletown we would go to the barracks and pick up his paycheck every two weeks. In ’74 that was the first time that females graduated from the state police academy and I saw them there. I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do. Dad supported me in spite of the fact that I don’t think any dad wants to see their daughter go into police work. He supported me 100 percent. Dad gave me a role model. In 1984 there were only a handful of women in my class, but the very first day we were told, and I believed, that we were all the same. I felt that way through my whole career. I felt that if I did what was asked of me, and sometimes volunteered to do a little bit more, I would succeed. I never separated myself from the rest of the pack as a woman trying to do something that wasn’t historically or traditionally a woman’s job.
NNYB: What would you say it’s like for young women coming into police work in 2016 versus in 1984 when you started out?
O’NEILL: The work itself I doubt is very different at all. I had been assigned to the state fair for my very first assignment and I had met people that had never seen a woman trooper before. That I’m sure doesn’t happen anymore. When a female deputy pulls someone over, the first thing they think isn’t oh my god it’s a female. They just think, okay it’s a deputy, which is different than when I came on. I was a trooper, but to the public I was a female trooper. To me I was just a trooper.
NNYB: As the first female sheriff in New York, what has the reception been?
O’NEILL: I couldn’t have felt more welcome from the Sheriff’s Association, from all the other sheriffs. I never felt unwelcome when I was a young trooper in the academy. I think it’s how you carry yourself when you don’t expect to be treated differently. Some of the sheriffs have been sheriff for 40 years or more and they told me to call me any time I needed help, any one of us will help you. I did take them up on that. I couldn’t feel more welcomed. If they notice that I’m the only woman in the room, they don’t show it.
NNYB: What’s your best advice for any young woman aspiring to serve in law enforcement?
O’NEILL: Go for it. I don’t think there is anything stopping young women from becoming anything that they want to be except whatever is holding them back in their own minds. If they do think there’s obstacles there, that’s the obstacle. I never acknowledged that there was a glass ceiling. If you don’t acknowledge it, it’s not there. That’s how I’ve always felt. I don’t even like to hear other women talking about busting through the glass ceiling. It’s not there.
The Colleen M. O’Neill file
Job: Jefferson County Sheriff
Family: Mother, Marcia; father, Al (deceased); sister, Peggy; brothers, Sean and Michael; fiancée, Mark Daye; four dogs, Tanner, Tessa, Lilly and Alex
Education: Thousand Islands High School, SUNY Cortland
Professional: retired from New York State Police after 32 years on the job in 2012 as a BCI senior investigator stationed in Alexandria Bay
Best Book You’ve Read and Would Recommend: “Lincoln on Leadership” by Donald Phillips
— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.