Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a short series aimed at weighing the pros and cons of appointing, rather than electing the Tompkins County Sheriff’s position.
ITHACA, NY – Every decade, Tompkins County reviews its charter and considers changes. One issue that has showed up multiple times throughout the years is whether the Tompkins County Sheriff should be a position that is appointed by county officials, or elected by members of the public.
Currently, the sheriff position is elected with four year terms. Under a new law proposed by the Charter Review Committee, the sheriff’s office would be split into two separate roles.
The Sheriff position would remain elected, but its role would be reduced to overseeing the jail and serving court documents. The new law would create a new position, called Commissioner of Police. This position would be appointed by the County Administrator, and would take over the primary law enforcement duties.
If the Tompkins Legislature approves the law, it would be subject to a vote by public referendum during the November elections this year. If a change is made, it wouldn’t take effect until the end of current Sheriff Ken Lansings term in 2019.
A public hearing for the proposed change will be scheduled for August 16, if approved by the Tompkins Legislature during their meeting Tuesday evening.
The case for elections
Peter Kehoe, Executive Director of the New York State Sheriff’s Association, who attended a county meeting on the topic last week, explained why he believes that the position should remain elected.
1 – People’s Choice
“The Sheriff is the only police officer who is chosen directly by the people and accountable directly to the people,” says Peter Kehoe, Executive Director of the New York State Sheriff’s Association. “I think that’s a valuable attribute of the office, and I think the citizens lose something. And why any citizen would want to give that up would mystify me.
“Do you want your sheriff to be chosen by you? Or do you want your sheriff to be chosen by a select few politician’s in the establishment. And who do you think the politicians are gonna pick? They’ll pick someone who is favorable to them, not necessarily to the citizens,” says Kehoe added.
2 – Playing Politics
Kehoe says that when sheriffs are appointed, it turns the position into a highly politicized one that may be prone to cronyism.
3 – Why create more bureacracy?
Kehoe called the approach of splitting the position into two distinct offices “nonsense.” He says it will only create more bureaucracy and longer administration chains — the Sheriff would have a deputy sheriff, the Commissioner would have a deputy commissioner and so on.
4 – Qualifications
One of the reasons that has been expressed for wanting an appointed sheriff is that it would allow the county to ensure that it could get the most qualified candidate. Kehoe questioned the logic of this, saying that as far as qualifications go, he feels that any elected sheriff across the state would match up with any appointed police chief or sheriff.
“If you follow the the logic, or the illogic of it, they’re saying the citizens aren’t smart enough to select the head of the police unit… but it’s okay the citizens are smart enough to elect the person who is going to head up the jail, which is a very serious position?,” Kehoe says.
He also notes that the draft version of the law doesn’t actually establish any official qualifications for the police commissioner role. The draft law currently reads: “The Commissioner of Police shall be appointed by the County Administrator subject to the approval of the County Legislature and shall serve at the pleasure of the County Administrator.”
5 – Demographics
Currently, only three other areas in New York have appointed sheriffs: Nassau and Westchester Counties, and New York City.
As for why only a select few areas currently appoint their sheriff’s, Kehoe says that it is because those counties already had a number of town and village police forces that handled most of the policing. He explains that in these counties, the sheriff’s office serves a primarily administrative role and doesn’t have nearly as much power and so having them be elected isn’t as important.
Kehoe says that movements toward appointing the sheriff positions in other states usually occur in larger metropolitan areas for those same reasons.
6 – “It’s all a power grab”
“It’s all a farce, it’s all a power grab. Every legislator and tin-pot government bureaucrat that I know wants to have his own army, his own little police department,” Kehoe says. “They want to control the police in Tompkins County so they can tell the police in Tompkins County what to do and what not to do, who to investigate and who not to investigate. That’s all its about is power. Take from the people this power and derogate it to themselves.”