Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa announced his bid for a second four-year term Thursday and made it clear that growing up in the Town of Plattekill had a lot to do with his career path.
A former Marine and a former state police investigator, Figueroa, a registered Democrat, was elected sheriff in 2018 when he beat incumbent Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum by a tally of 42,445 to 36,078.
A 1983 graduate of Wallkill High School, Figueroa made the announcement from his home via a Zoom call before about 70 supporters that included New York State Senator Michelle Hinchey, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, Town of Esopus Councilwoman Evelyn Clarke and Steven Kelley, President and CEO of Ellenville Regional Hospital.
“My parents (Hilda and Juan) moved us up here from the Bronx and I don’t know where I’d be today in my life if it wasn’t for my mom and dad bringing us up here to Plattekill,” Figueroa said. “I could have done anything else in my life, but this is a way to give back not only to my community here in Plattekill but to my mom and dad.”
Figueroa then showed a framed picture of his late mother that was just out of sight of the Zoom feed.
“As you think I’m sitting here alone in my room, I’m not,” he said. “Actually, my mom was staring at me the whole time. I think family support is extremely important. I think knowing who you are and your experiences in life is what you bring to the table when you run for an office like this. I’m so humbled to be the sheriff of Ulster County.”
Figueroa noted that it was his old Wallkill High teacher John Lenio who inspired him to seek a life in public service. Lenio administered the oath of office to Figueroa after he was elected.
“He was a tremendous teacher,” Figueroa said. “Again, here’s another individual where I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t go to Wallkill High School and learn from him. The Marine Corps taught me so many things. I got to see the world. I got to see how other people live. Our great nation – although we may have flaws – compared to other places in the world we are very fortunate and very lucky. I am proof that the American dream still exists. I guess my life experiences have brought me to where I am today. Of course, with all the great folks of Ulster County.”
Figueroa, 57, said it was a challenging first term due to the pandemic. But he believes he accomplished a lot in his first four years.
“When I got elected, I made a lot of pledges,” Figueroa said. “I changed policies regarding immigration enforcement in our office. I wanted to make sure everybody in this county got treated fairly whether you were a citizen or not. This is the land of the free. We are a country of immigrants.”
Figueroa also said he updated the Sheriff’s departments’ “use of force policies,” updated complaints against personnel and diversified the Sheriff’s office.
Figueroa said he’s proud of the work he’s done to fight the opioid crisis. When he took office in 2019, Figueroa said he pledged to provide innovative and humane solutions to fight addiction. Within months, Figueroa said he launched the first phase of ORACLE (Opioid Response As County Law Enforcement) to promote awareness, education and prevention of addiction.
A $900,000 Bureau of Justice Grant that was announced on May 18, 2021 will add crucial services and staff to the ORACLE program, Figueroa said.
“Again, that was not alone,” he said. “That was with the help of the Ulster County Executive, the Ulster County Legislature and the Department of Health. For the first time in the history of law enforcement here in the Hudson Valley and Ulster County, we have a social worker and peer advocates that go out on calls. Instead of putting people in jail, we’re actually going to help them. Because we know these people are sick. They’re committing small crimes to support their habits. We know that we have to change what we are doing in law enforcement.”
More than 400 individuals and their families have been helped by ORACLE, Figueroa said.
Figueroa said his office also arrests “dealers who are profiting and pedaling this poison out into our streets. We had to send a message that we can not allow people to make money by putting drugs out on the streets and causing people to die in our county.”
Calling Figueroa a “rock star” and a “nationally recognized leader in this community,” Ryan said what sets Figueroa apart is how he does the job.
“What comes to mind for me is a big heart,” Ryan said. “You can see that smile. Having that sense of compassion ultimately driving what he is doing with his own team, with our community and reaching out to people who have felt they haven’t been engaged by the Sheriff’s department and law enforcement. That’s what really sets Juan apart.”
At this point, no one else has announced his or her candidacy for Sheriff, a position that pays $101,727 annually.