Ken Lansing is facing off against Derek Osborne in the democratic primary Sept. 13. Lansing is also running on the Independence line. Ahead of the primary, The Ithaca Voice and WRFI are hosting a live candidates forum with Osborne, Lansing and independent candidate Josh Brokaw. To learn more click here and to submit a question for the forum, click here.
ITHACA, N.Y. – Tompkins County Sheriff Ken Lansing is on the ballot again this year, seeking a third term in the county’s top law enforcement position. On Sept. 13 he will face challenger Derek Osborne on the Democratic Party’s primary ballot. Lansing is also running on the Independence line. Independent candidate Josh Brokaw will also be on the ballot in the Nov. 6 general election.
Ithaca Voice reporter Devon Magliozzi sat down with Lansing to discuss what he’s learned during his first two terms and what he’d like to accomplish with a third.
Why run in 2018?
Lansing was first elected Tompkins County Sheriff in 2010, and he previously told the Voice that he would retire from the post in 2018. He decided to run for one more term, he said, at his colleagues’ urging.
“The men and women have stepped it up and said they want me to come back, and the union voted on that and they’re supporting me. I’m not just hanging my hat on that, but I’m sorry, that should speak volumes.”
Lansing said of his staff, “You can’t ask for a better bunch of people. They work very hard. They’re very committed to this job.” He said some members of his staff will resign if voters choose a new sheriff. “You lose some of them if I don’t get elected.”
He said he is humbled by the loyalty of staff who told him they want to retire under his leadership. “It’s very humbling, but nonetheless, these are these are facts. I’m not making this up.”
Lansing cited his management experience and his commitment to the county when asked why voters should choose him in the upcoming race.
“I’m the person for the job right now with the people that I have working here with me, that’s how I see it. That’s why I’m running. If I didn’t think that I could handle this and move on and continue to strive for what we’ve been accomplishing and more, I wouldn’t run,” Lansing said.
Lansing said reducing the number of inmates in the county jail has been a goal throughout his tenure and would be a priority in his third term. He said the county has been moving in the right direction thanks to jail diversion programs and drug treatment services.
“You know the diversion programs, giving them the education and giving them the necessary means and tools so when they leave here they’re okay – we believe it’s helped. I really think it has,” Lansing said.
He said some jail inmates are given work assignments with significant responsibilities. Inmates facing minor charges can be designated as “trustees” and assigned work in the kitchen and garden, for example. According to Lansing, these assignments keep people from coming back to jail after being released. “If you give them something they can grab ahold of, it’s huge,” he said.
Alongside educational programming and work assignments, Lansing has expanded access to drug treatment in the jail. “We got into drug treatment because, as we all know, the opioid epidemic is crazy. We now offer Vivitrol for people that meet the criteria.” Lansing said treating addiction is key to keeping inmates from returning to jail. “I feel that’s part of diversion because it’s why a lot of people are in here, the drug problem,” he said.
He also mentioned his 20 years volunteering on the Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services board and said law enforcement agencies across the county are working to supplement in-custody treatment with community-based services.
Efforts to reduce the jail population have been working already, according to Lansing. “I’ll tell you right now, our numbers in the jail have been the lowest I’ve ever seen. We’re in the low 60s, mid-60s, we even hit the 50s a month or so ago, which is unheard of. So it is working.” At the time of publication, the county’s jail census lists 66 inmates.
If elected to a third term, Lansing said he would seek to improve jail facilities to allow for more diversion programming. The Sheriff’s Office is working with LaBella Associates, an engineering and architecture firm, to plan renovations to the Public Safety Building.
One renovation option under consideration is to relocate office space to create more room for inmate activities. Adding classroom space, Lansing said, “would be very very very beneficial for the programs that we are implementing and more that we want to do.” Current programs include adult education classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, behavioral therapy sessions and creative writing groups. Lansing said additional classroom space would help staff “accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish: that’s people not coming back.”
Another possible renovation would reorganize the jail into pods. Lansing said pod systems are popular in new jails because “it is easier to manage and supervise the inmates” when they are clustered in groups.
Switching to a pod system would require expanding the Public Safety Building, which Lansing acknowledged is controversial. Lansing said that when he proposed building pods, “Some people first panicked because they heard we are making more cells.” He said this panic was misplaced, however, because the total number of beds in the jail would not increase. If pods are built, existing cells will be converted into classrooms. Lansing said the rearrangement would help accommodate additional programming.
Areas for improvement
In addition to reducing the jail population and modernizing jail facilities, Lansing cited community outreach as an area where his office could improve. A 2017 study of the county’s law enforcement agencies showed that residents want the sheriff’s office to work more efficiently with city and village police departments.
“In reality,” Lansing said, “we work very well together. We have since even before I became sheriff. It was very good, but we’ve even made it better.” He acknowledged, though, that public perception is important. He said that if the community wants better collaboration, “We’ve got to be more open or explain what we’re doing.”
Lansing said public outcry following a high-profile incident in 2014 has likewise taught him the importance of effective communication. At the start of Lansing’s second term, his office was involved in a 60-hour stand-off that ended with a Danby resident’s death by self-inflicted gunshot. To end the stand-off, the sheriff authorized the use of an armored vehicle, called a rook, to tear down a wall of the resident’s home.
Lansing said he stands by his handling of the incident. He said his decisions minimized risks to the community. “A lot of people said, ‘Why didn’t you just drive away?’ But how could we do that? He shot at us, number one, and number two… the man was wanted for driving while intoxicated. If we left and he decided to get in his car and drive, and he went down and killed a family of four or whatever, I should be hung in the square… And (the public) would say, “Why did you leave?’”
Lansing said his deputies’ restraint at the scene kept the incident from escalating and endangering community members. “We could’ve used deadly physical force just knowing that he had a gun, let alone shooting at us. We didn’t. We never fired a live round at him and I’m proud of the men and women that were there because they saw the muzzle flash and they could have returned fire and they didn’t. That speaks volumes to me.”
Of his decision to tear down the home’s wall, Lansing said “buildings can be rebuilt, lives can’t be replenished. That’s why we did it that way.”
Even so, he would be reluctant to use the rook again because of the public’s critical response. “Would I do it again? Every situation is different, but I’d surely give it a lot more thought because of the reaction from the people,” he said.
Meeting new challenges
By and large, Lansing plans to stay the course if he is given another term as sheriff. Still, he said he is open to working with other law enforcement agencies, community organizations and experts to find new solutions to the county’s challenges.
Lansing said he is open-minded about safe injection facilities. “(Addiction) is a big job for all of us to conquer, so I’m open to anything.” He would rely on public health experts to determine how SIFs can help. “The doctors know better than I,” he said.
He said he worries about enabling addiction by giving people access to opioids, but that it would be cowardly to hide behind the law and simply say that SIFs are not allowed. “I could take the easy way out – ‘Not allowed.’… But I don’t because that would be cowardly on my part, to be honest with you. You’ve got to look at it and realize it’s a problem and be open to suggestions to help to stop the revolving door.”
Lansing is also open-minded about reducing bail amounts set by the corrections department prior to arraignment, so that fewer people are held in jail awaiting arraignment hearings. “Bail originally was to make sure you came to court. Now it has been expanded to make sure you come into court or if you’re a danger to the community. Both are important, obviously. There is need for bail, unfortunately, for some people. But I know in the past it probably has been overused. There’s no doubt about it.”
He said the corrections department has already been experimenting with setting low bail amounts to reduce the jail population. “We can take 50 bucks and send them on their way, and if they don’t come to court a warrant is issued. It seems to be working very well so far.”
Lansing wants an opportunity to secure his legacy by wrapping up the projects he has already set in motion. “Somebody else comes in and they’re the sheriff, who knows what he or she would say or agree with,” he said.
Even with eight years under his belt, though, he hopes to keep learning on the job. “No matter how long you’ve been in the business or how old you are and how much you’ve experienced, if you think you know it all it’s time for you to leave. And I never feel that way. There’s always time to learn and be advised of how to do things better.”
Endorsements: Tompkins County Deputy Sheriffs Association; Doug Robertson, retired Village of Dryden police chief; Harlin McEwen, retired police chief in the City of Ithaca; Central New York Community Action Program Council, UAW Region 9; UA Local 267; and Pastor Michael Kelly, of Newfield United Methodist Church.
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