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Standing Watch - 125 Years of Conservation Law Enforcement in New York State

Few people realize the great tradition of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) Division of Law Enforcement (DLE). The oldest law enforcement organization in New York State remarkably began with a contingent of eight men appointed as Game Protectors in 1880. Since then, DLE has grown to a force of more than 300 uniformed Environmental Conservation Police Officers (ECOs) and plainclothes investigators. Their dedication to duty has its roots in a long and proud tradition of fish and wildlife enforcement, that also includes environmental protection today. 2005 marks the 125th anniversary of DEC's DLE, and here is its story.

The Early Years

The end of the 19th century was not a good time for fish and wildlife in America. Unregulated market hunting and habitat destruction had nearly exterminated many wildlife species; beaver were reduced to small isolated populations in remote mountain ranges, white-tailed deer were at their lowest historical numbers, and species like the passenger pigeon were fast disappearing. Many hills and mountains stood barren of standing timber, which had been cut for lumber and paper. Resulting runoff choked once pristine trout waters, and acids from tanning factories and pollutants from paper mills exacerbated the problem. In short, the country's natural resources were in serious trouble, as were those in New York.

Citizens familiar with the outdoors, primarily hunters, anglers, trappers, and foresters, became alarmed over these conditions, giving rise to the conservation movement. Influential men like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot gave this cause national momentum, resulting in legislation to criminalize, or at least regulate, past practices. The laws were useless without men to enforce them; hence the Game Protector profession was born.

Incredibly, the eight Game Protectors appointed in 1880 were charged with covering the entire state. Protectors were granted authority to enforce laws to protect deer, birds, and fish, and to bring legal action against those who chose to violate those laws. They could arrest without warrants, and seize nets as evidence. A total annual budget of $6,000 supported the $500 annual salaries and expense accounts for each.

Game Protector

The first annual Game Protector reports of 1881 provide a glimpse at the challenges faced by these early defenders of the state's natural resources: "Permit me to say....," stated Game Protector J.S. Collett of Otsego County, "that in searching for offenders I have not always been successful. They are shrewd, active, lawless men, and it requires time to run them to the ground." Game Protector Dodge of Prospect agreed, reporting that most of the violators are "...old offenders, and manage as carefully as a gang of counterfeiters, and have peaceable and law abiding citizens about them terrorized..." Public support of Game Protectors was sometimes lacking. Twenty men were arrested for taking ducks at night on Long Island's north shore in 1911. Although all were found guilty, their sentences were suspended.

Wartime Service

During WWII, game protectors assisted other law enforcement agencies protecting the home front. While several officers served in the armed forces, the remainder worked with the FBI, rounding up aliens and saboteurs, and investigating reports of mysterious parachutists landing in remote areas. Many protectors were involved in civil defense as air raid wardens, auxiliary firemen, and police. They patrolled power lines, dams, canal locks and bridges, and lent a hand collecting scrap tires to assist in the war effort.

Post War Years

After the war, veterans returned home to improved working conditions, a shorter work week, and more leisure time. There was increased public interest in the state's natural resources and their use for outdoor recreation. Fishing and hunting attracted the lion's share of attention from a new breed of outdoor enthusiast. For example, the number of licensed hunters and anglers in New York State doubled from 1945 to 1952.

This unprecedented pressure on fish and game demanded an attendant increase in resource protection. Unlike many neighboring states, New York's natural resources were regulated by legislation. Therefore, any change in hunting, fishing, or trapping, even as simple as a size or creel limit, required action by the State Legislature.

Growth and Change

By 1950, the Bureau of Law Enforcement counted 160 uniformed Game Protectors among its ranks. The Bureau also included 979 "special game protectors," civilian volunteers deputized by the Bureau of Law Enforcement and given peace officer status. Only a few of the "specials" (as they were called) aggressively pursued violators, and the role of special game protector was abolished in the early 1970s.

As the budget for the Conservation Department and the Bureau increased during the 1950s, new boats, walkie-talkie radios, and even motorcycles and airplanes were bought for enforcement details. Game Protector training was improved to include use of these new technologies. To attract recruits, the starting annual salary for Game Protectors was increased to $2,771 by 1952. However, Game Protectors were still required to provide their own cars, had one day off in seven, and were expected to be on call 24 hours a day. It was during this time that the enforcement work force began to specialize. In 1950, Oyster Protectors and Shellfish Protectors joined the new Marine Protector Unit to address the growing demand for marine resource protection.

In 1958 the State purchased the first vehicles for the Game Protectors to use in lieu of their personal vehicles. A 1958 tan, four-door Ford was the standard issued vehicle. In 1960, two-way radios were installed in the cars of protectors whose districts had lots of hunters. Popularity of the two-way radios grew quickly, and by 1963, the radios were installed in all protectors' vehicles.

The Modern Era

In the 1960s, people became concerned with widespread pollution of our land, air and water, and the environmental movement took hold. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and called national attention to environmental issues. This increased environmental awareness affected state policies and organizations, including the Conservation Department, which became the Department of Environmental Conservation in 1970. DEC's Bureau of Law Enforcement now had the additional responsibility to many existing public health and agricultural laws, including those relating to solid waste, petroleum products, air emissions, industrial chemical disposal, pesticides, and wetlands protection. In 1971, the Bureau became the Division of Law Enforcement, and legislation upgraded the newly named Environmental Conservation Officer from peace officer to police officer status with authority to enforce all NYS laws.

Along with this new authority came a need for increased training. In the early 1970s, the 240- officer force was trained at the State Police Academy in Albany, and the Division's training academy was established. Newly appointed ECOs were required to attend a rigorous 16-week paramilitary style training session, covering everything from physical fitness to all the laws of New York State. By 1982, the training sessions were increased to 26 weeks.

The K-9 program

The Division initiated its canine program in 1978. ECO Richard Matzell and a German shepherd named "Paws" completed 18 weeks of intensive training at the State Police Academy. Over the course of his 11-year career with the division, Paws was responsible for hundreds of arrests and helped locate many lost people, including small children. Today the program boasts eight canines stationed throughout the state.

1980 Olympic Security

New responsibilities accompanied police status; division staff were called upon to assist the state with public protection. In 1980 a detail of officers and supervisors were assigned to provide security at the Olympics in Lake Placid. Officers were assigned to patrol at Whiteface Mountain, Mt. Vanhovenberg, the athlete's quarters at the Olympic village, and the Olympic ski jump.

Bureau of Environmental Conservation Investigations

In 1982, DLE created the Bureau of Environmental Conservation Investigations to conduct investigations of inactive hazardous waste dump sites and transportation and disposal of hazardous waste. This enforcement activity grew in sophistication, and in 1990 DLE and FBI conducted a joint investigation of waste carters near New Paltz. An undercover Environmental Conservation Officer risked his life by "wearing a wire" while posing as a corrupt government official. As a result of DEC's involvement and the bravery of the undercover officer, two organized crime associates were convicted on bribery, racketeering, and money-laundering charges.

Today, the Environmental Conservation Investigators work on many unique investigations, ranging from illegal commercialization of fish and wildlife to timber theft, and continue to be a valuable asset in the Division's environmental law enforcement efforts, tracking down poachers and polluters.

Operation Berkshire

In 1987, what began as a simple investigation of an illegal venison market in Connecticut became a major wildlife commercialization case that encompassed seven states and one Canadian province. New York Investigator Stephen Canfield and Officer Jack Dickman of the Massachusetts Environmental Police spent two and a half years undercover, documenting many instances of illegal taking and sale of deer and bear. The three major defendants in this case plead guilty to 274 counts, were sentenced to jail and paid fines totaling $38,000. The investigation snared 28 people for almost 1,100 charges. More importantly it established a precedent for future fish and wildlife investigations in New York to include undercover surveillance as part of day-to- day operations. For further reading, see: Undercover! in the February 1990 Conservationist.

The Present and Future

Modern equipment, including improved radios, state of-the-art law enforcement vessels, 4x4 vehicles, snowmobiles, and ATVs have greatly improved enforcement and emergency response. DLE often responds to events that affect public safety and homeland security such as the Long Island wild fires of 1995, and the TWA flight 800 disaster. During the 9/11 tragedy, members of the Division assigned to New York City were among the first to respond.

While the Division has evolved into a top-rated police organization, it maintains a unique focus in the law enforcement profession because of its association with resource and environmental protection and public education. Through its Environmental Awareness Gives Life to the Ecosystem (EAGLES) program, DLE provides environmental and resource education for school- aged children.

Division staff maintain the values and work ethic of their dedicated predecessors, the Game Protectors. By working day and night for a mission in which they believed and to which they were committed, Game Protectors provided the standard for today's ECOs. DLE is dedicated to its mission of resource and environmental protection, a mission which all New Yorkers can be proud of.

Division of Law Enforcement Timeline
Year Event
1830s The eastern elk is extirpated from NY. Declared extinct in 1880.
1836 The health hen is extirpated from NY with the last recorded shooting of one in Commack Hills. Declared extinct in 1932.
1840s The wolverine is extirpated from NY.
1850s Wild turkeys are extirpated from neighboring states and become a rare sight in NY.
1860s Moose are extirpated from NY.
1870s Deer are believed to be extirpated from Vermont. In 1878, Vermont purchased 17 deer from NY to repopulate.
1871 Bounties established on wolves and panthers. Both are soon extirpated from NY.
1875 The Labrador Duck becomes extinct when the last known one is killed on Long Island.
1880 NY Governor Alonzo Cornell appointed 8 persons to be known as Game and Fish Protectors (GPs), whose duty it was to enforce the state statutes for the preservation of moose, wild deer, birds and fish, and any other game laws. Their salary was $500 per year, plus no more than $250 for expenses. The first Game & Fish Protectors were: John S. Collett, William P. Dodge, Daniel B. Norton, S.J. Palmer, John Liberty, John H. Jessup, George M. Schwartz, Stephen V.R. Brayton.
1893 Special Game Protectors were created to assist Game Protectors, who numbered 36 statewide.
1898 Deer population numbers hit an all-time low at only 500,000 nationwide. By comparison, there are over 18,000,000 today.
1908 The first hunting license required. Cost $1.10, brought in $115,000 that year.
1908 The last NY native mountain lion is reported killed.
1910 Bayne-Blauvelt Law prohibits the sale of most wild game.
1912 Buck Law restricts deer take to bucks with antlers that are 3 inches long. Protects doe population and improves hunter safety.
1913 Merit system used to rate Game Protectors. Those that make 1st grade get extra $100/yr. Criteria includes: Initiative, knowledge, conduct, and quality of work.
1913 First trapping license required
1914 Game Protector Sam Taylor murdered, the first line of duty death for the division.
1914 Force increased to 131 Game Protectors and 3 Oyster Protectors
1915 Wood duck nearing extinction (it is now the most abundant waterfowl in eastern US)
1916 First uniform of "olive drab forestry cloth" adopted, which GPs required to provide at their own expense. First department issued revolvers & holsters.
1917 First firearms training and shooting contest. Result of Taylor's death.
1917 "Secret Service Force" of Game Protectors established to provide undercover infiltration of hunting clubs and camps. It focused on the Adirondacks, which was the last place to find deer in significant numbers.
1921 Game Protector force was reduced from 131 to 90. NYS Troopers directed to enforce Conservation Law with negative consequences including a drop in license sales and a dramatic increase in complaints and violations. Sportsmen petition NYS for shorter seasons fearing the worst.
1923 Game Protector force reinstated to full staffing.
1925 Game Protector force increased to 150.
1926 First NY fishing license required.
1930 Game Protectors begin prosecuting their own cases in court.
1932 New uniforms and firearms are purchased with state funds for the first time.
1936 GPs required to talk at 5 schools per year. Education becomes part of enforcement.
1938 First Annual Training School for Game Protectors held in Delmar (first training in 20yrs)
1942 GPs go to war. Approximately one third of the GPs enlist or work for the defense industry. Some help the FBI round up saboteurs and spies.
1948 First "portable" radios purchased (walkie-talkies). They weigh about 20 pounds.
1949 Hunter education gets its start in NY thanks to the NY Conservation Council. GPs partner with NRA instructors for first mandatory hunter safety courses in NY. NRA course only covers safety and marksmanship. Instructors are overwhelmed. Some courses last as little as 15 minutes.
1950 First archery license
1950 Force increases to 160 Game Protectors. Marine Enforcement Unit created with 5 officers and 3 patrol vessels.
1952 Educational role of GPs continues to expand. Hunter Education is taken over by law enforcement. GP Bryan Burgin is appointed as the first Hunter Training Coordinator for the state.
1953 GP force increased to 180 Game Protectors.
1958 First state purchased patrol vehicles issued. They are unmarked tan Fords.
1959 Seelye Law is passed giving protection to the beds and banks of streams - no modifications or alterations to streams without a permit,
1960 First mobile radios installed in some patrol vehicles.
1963 Marine Enforcement Unit increased to 19 officers.
1964 Game Protector title is changed to Conservation Officer.
1964 Mobile radios installed in 210 patrol vehicles and 4 Long Island patrol boats
1968 Force increased to 217 Conservation Officers.
1970 Statewide radio communication system completed. All base stations and towers operational.
1970 All DEC programs, including law enforcement, are brought under the modern 9 region system. Prior to this, every program had different geographic regions. The Conservation Department becomes the Department of Environmental Conservation. Conservation Officers become Environmental Conservation Officers.
1971 The Bureau of Law Enforcement becomes the Division of Law Enforcement and Environmental Conservation Officers are given full statewide police status.
1971 ECOs are issued the first marked patrol vehicles.
1972 The first modern era formal training is held at the NYSP Academy, lasting 16 weeks. All current ECOs are rotated through in 1972 and 1973.
1974 The "1st Basic Academy" for new ECOs is held.
1978 ECO Dick Matzell and K9 Paws graduate from canine school. Matzell's idea for a DEC K9 unit quickly gains traction as he makes great cases. In 1981, DLE adds 3 more K9 units.
1980 The 100th anniversary. The ECO force is now 238. ECOs participate in the security detail at the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games.
1982 The Bureau of Environmental Crime Investigations (BECI) is created, mainly to enforce hazardous waste laws. The unit consists of 25 investigators (ECIs) and 3 supervisors.
1985 The Division of Law Enforcement Honor Guard is created.
1989 First environmental crimes violation hotline is established: 1-800-TIPP-DEC.
1996 ECOs respond to the crash of TWA Flight 800 in Long Island Sound.
2000 Modern era Marine Enforcement Unit is created.
2001 ECOs respond to the World Trade Center terrorist act on September 11th.
2006 DEC Law Enforcement Dispatch operates 24-7 starting on February 1st.
2006 The Division of Law Enforcement Pipe and Drum Band is created.
2015 There are 288 Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs) and 37 Environmental Conservation Investigators (ECIs - plain clothes) working statewide.
Image of ECO tie tac and collar ornament

NYSDEC Officer Down Honor Roll

We forever mourn the loss of our beloved officers who died in the line of duty

Samuel S. Taylor: End of Watch - April 5, 1914

Fatally shot while attempting to apprehend two men hunting protected birds in Oneida County. His killers fled the state and were never brought to justice.

John H. Woodruff: End of Watch - November 27, 1919

Disappeared on Thanksgiving Day while on patrol in Schenectady County. His remains were discovered in a shallow grave on April 4, 1921. His murder was never solved.

Harvey B. Cruikshank: End of Watch - June 8, 1926

Killed by lightning during a severe storm while on patrol in Washington County.

William T. Cramer: End of Watch - September 29, 1929

Fatally shot while attempting to apprehend two men hunting protected birds in Queens County. Cramer had been shot by poachers before. In 1922, he was shot three times in the head while attempting an arrest. He was not expected to live but made a remarkable recovery and returned to duty only to be killed 7 years later.

Paul J. DuCuennois: End of Watch - October 16, 1932

Drowned while patrolling by canoe on Jabes Pond in Warren County. DuCuennois was known to be a strong swimmer and it is unclear why he fell out of the canoe. Two men who had a history with Ducuennois supposedly witnessed the incident but were never formally accused of foul play. Suspicion over the incident continues to this day.

Charles W. Gaffney: End of Watch - November 16, 1934

Died of a heart attack while patrolling the Moose River in Lewis County.

Lawrence N. Kessler: End of Watch - November 26, 1935

Died in a car accident while on patrol in Genesee County.

John M. Robbins: End of Watch - December 29, 1940

Died of a heart attack while on duty in Warren County.

Earle W. Brown: End of Watch - October 30, 1941

Died of natural causes while on duty in Oswego County.

Clarence J. Webster: End of Watch - November 16, 1944

Died in a car accident while on patrol in Washington County.

Martin E. Salway: End of Watch - November 15, 1953

Died of a heart attack while checking hunters in Genesee County.

Paul N. Campbell: End of Watch - November 8, 1958

Died of a heart attack while on foot patrol in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area in St. Lawrence County.

Benning W. DeLaMater: End of Watch - June 24, 1961

Drowned when his patrol boat capsized on the Hudson River in Albany County.

Marshall D. MacNaught: End of Watch - February 8, 1968

Died of a heart attack while investigating a complaint in Delaware County.

William F. Becker: End of Watch - March 11, 1981

Drowned under suspicious circumstances at a marina in Southold, Suffolk County. His death is still a matter of great controversy to this day.

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