5 Questions with Ulster County
Sheriff Juan Figueroa
Juan Figueroa has always been moved by a sense of service to people in his community and country. A U.S. Marine Corps and New York State Trooper, he was elected Ulster County Sheriff in 2018. He is driven by the importance of racial diversity and respect, regardless of personal differences.
Q1. What motivated you to run for Sheriff?
When I was young, my parents moved us from the Bronx to Walkill in Ulster County. Going from an all Latino and Black high school to one that was nearly all Caucasian was a culture shock. At first, I was angry, but my father told me that America is made up of all different types of people and that I needed to learn to work with everyone. He said, “How you maneuver through this, is how you maneuver through life.” 

Three years ago, the current Sheriff at the time was making comments about national issues unrelated to law enforcement, and I didn’t like what I was hearing.
Instead of staying on the sidelines and complaining about it, I decided to try and get involved. My sense of service in the U.S. Marine Corps and the NY State Police prepared me for this challenge.

I am now the first elected Puerto Rican/Latino Sheriff in New York State. At the time, I didn’t think of the historic nature of it—it was just a way for me to give back to my community. But now, I also realize the significance for people who look like me. Although the county is 88 percent white, this area nearby the Catskill Mountains is also nicknamed the “Spanish Alps” (Las Villas of Plattekill) because of the Latino population that has settled here, beginning around 1910.

Representation matters. Serving our communities matters. And, being a caretaker of the seat for the people who elected me matters. 
Q2. What changes have you implemented?
One of the things that I’m most proud of is the team we have at the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office. Prior to my election, there had been minimal personal changes in nearly two decades. Now, we have the first Black Superintendent of Jails and first woman Supervisor in the Criminal Division. We’ve also brought in and trained an Equal Opportunity Employer Compliant Officer. Earlier this month, we appointed a new Superintendent of Corrections, who is the first-ever woman to join the executive staff of the Sheriff’s Office.

It boggles my mind that in 2021, these are firsts, but nonetheless they are and I’m very proud of these highly qualified professionals.

We are also intentionally making sure that we have different points of views represented in the Office. We’ve actively looked to hire women, as well African Americans, Spanish speaking officers and staff. Just two years ago, we only had one Spanish speaking person in our criminal division. Now, we have three.
Q3. What is something you are most proud of?
Look, I was an outsider when elected. I had never even set foot in Ulster County Law Enforcement Center (UCLEC). I knew some of the old timers from my time as a NYS Trooper, but I knew I needed to earn respect. To do that, it’s important that I do what I say. The people of Ulster County voted for me because of promises I made and goals I set. Fulfilling those promises is a priority for me and I believe I’m accomplishing those things—acquiring new equipment, adding personnel to our investigation team and drug task force, securing funds for a new river boat patrol unit, and leveraging grant funding for programs in crisis intervention.

Another source of pride is the ORACLE—Opioid Response as County Law Enforcement—program. We received a 9 hundred thousand dollar grant to assist those that are addicted and their families. For the first time in the Hudson Valley, we will have a social worker and peer advocates imbedded with law enforcement to tackle this issue.

I’m also not a “yes” person. If I disagree, I say it. And if you disagree with me, tell me. I’m not concerned with political party or precedent. I’m concerned with doing what’s right.
Q4. Are you concerned with the anti-law enforcement sentiment in the country?
We are living in a challenging time. It’s an era I call the “people’s audit” where we are being made to take a look at ourselves and have difficult conversations that need to be had. And that’s fair, because first and foremost, we work for the public.
As a person of color, you often feel painted with the same broad brush as another person of color. I don’t like that feeling, nor do I like being stereotyped as an entire profession. I am someone who believes in personal responsibility. I also believe that our jobs as police officers are to put together cases based on evidence. Too often we’re seeing issues in communities, particularly with Black and Latino people, where they’re being treated poorly without evidence, and it’s troubling. 

Law enforcement officers need more implicit bias training to combat the unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that have come about in the system. We also need to find more ways to talk 1:1 with the people in our communities and talk about our life experiences. I often share my stories to our staff and my peers. I tell them about how a white couple mistook me for a parking attendant after I waited outside of Madison Square Garden, having just attended the same event as them, and what’s it’s like to often be the only person of color in the room.

It is up to us to help build back trust in our communities. Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding of the justice system, and we need to do a better job sharing our policies and dashboards and statistics. There needs to be a more universal application of de-escalation techniques and making sure people understand what is within their rights as individuals and also those of law enforcement officers. We also have got to be transparent. Being truthful to yourself, and the people you serve, guides me and my actions, and I am grounded by my honest conversations with others.
Q5. Why is it important for kids to come to the Sheriffs' Camp?
I truly believe the time kids spend at the Sheriffs’ Camp has the potential to change their lives. As a Puerto Rican-American, I never went to camp when I was a kid, but at age 18 went to Boot Camp. It was the first time I was ever away from my family and it changed the way I viewed the world.

From a practical sense, kids are learning how to fish, sail and swim. Many of us take the ability to swim for granted, but here in Ulster County we have a lot of swimming holes—and also a lot of fatalities—often from Black and Latino kids who never learned how to swim.
Kids need to know that we care and we need to help break down the barriers they face. Too many grow up feeling like they are not treated like everyone else and only see cops as people who show up when something bad happens. We need to find ways to humanize the uniform through genuine interaction.

That’s one reason I’m a big fan of the Sheriffs’ Summer Camp experience. Even before they get to camp, we help get the kids medical physicals, arrange for their transportation and provide a BBQ lunch send off. There is no cost to families for any of this.

At camp, kids get to meet friends from all walks of life and interact with law enforcement in a positive environment. They play pick-up basketball games, build camp fires and have conversations in the dining hall. When we see each other as human beings, it can really impact attitudes and behaviors in the future.
Established in 1979, the New York State Sheriffs’ Institute comprises all 58 elected and appointed Sheriffs of New York State. Our programs include: the Sheriff's’ Summer Camp; Crime Victim Notification Services; and Criminal Justice Scholarship Program. The Sheriffs’ Institute is a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization.