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Politicians Bicker Over Flag-Pin Use; EMT patch displaces Stars and Stripes on deputies' shoulders

TROY, N.Y. -- Rensselaer County Republicans who support flying the American flag can't agree on where county deputies should wear the flag emblem on their uniforms.

The party's universal support for displaying the flag has boiled away in a dispute over whether it should be in the traditional spot on the shoulder, which is backed by GOP county legislators, and or in its new location on the chest where Sheriff Jack Mahar, a fellow Republican, moved it. The deputy sheriffs are wearing patches on their upper right arms that identify them as trained EMTs in place of the traditional flag patch. The deputies now wear a flag pin above or below the badge on the left side of their chests.

Mahar said opening up the right shoulder allows the EMT patch to be appropriately and prominently displayed so people know the deputy is trained to provide medical assistance. The department has just completed training its 23 road patrol deputies to certify them as EMTs.

"We had to rearrange parts of the uniform to do that. We could remove the flag and place it on another part of the uniform," Mahar told the county Legislature Tuesday night.

"People recognize us as deputies by the uniforms we wear," Mahar said.

The sheriff pointed out the decision to make the change was carefully considered, balancing patriotism with informing the public about deputies' training. And, he added, as a Marine Corps veteran he flies the flag outside his home every day.

But Republican legislators weren't happy Wednesday about the move away from the traditional shoulder display of the flag.

"I'm disappointed. I was a captain in the Army. I have the same respect for the flag he does, especially now we're at war. The flag should be left on the shoulder," said Legislator Kenneth Herrington, R-Brunswick, who triggered the sheriff's response with questions about the change.

Legislator Michael Stammel, R-Rensselaer, who chairs the county Public Safety Committee, said legislators were surprised by the change. He added that it is the sheriff's prerogative to decide where the deputies wear the flag on their uniforms.

"I believe we should be rallying around the American flag and not minimizing it," Stammel said. "It's always stood right out there on uniforms."

Kenneth C. Crowe II can be reached at 454-5084 or by e-mail at kcrowe@timesunion.com

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