TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Three local residents are running for Tompkins County Sheriff. Two are running on the Democratic line and will face off in a primary Thursday.
To help the community get to know the candidates and get their questions answered, The Ithaca Voice and WRFI are co-hosting a live candidate forum that will be broadcast on WRFI 88.1 FM in Ithaca from 6 to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Visit the Facebook event for more information. The event will be live streamed to the Facebook event. Leading up to the event, we have collected questions from the community for the candidates. Click here to submit a question. Questions can also be submitted via phone. Call 607-318-5445 and press “6” to leave questions on WRFI’s comment line. Question submissions end Sept. 10.
Derek Osborne and Ken Lansing are vying for the democratic vote in the primary Thursday. However, Lansing is also running on the Independence line and will appear on the ballot Nov. 6 regardless along with Truthsayers reporter Josh Brokaw, who is running on an independent “Truthsayers” line.
The state and local primary is from noon to 9 p.m. Sept. 13. Sample ballots are available here. The general election is Nov. 6.
Independent journalist Josh Brokaw, creator of the news site Truthsayers.org, has secured a spot on the ballot after getting over 1,450 signatures. He is running under the “TruthSayers” name. Brokaw formerly worked as a reporter for the Ithaca Times. Brokaw has no prior experience in law experience, but said in a news release announcing his bid for sheriff, “We always need to be questioning our presumptions and listening to the people with true compassion and understanding. As a journalist, those are traits I can bring to the sheriff’s office.”
Brokaw is originally from Central Pennsylvania and attended the University of Chicago, where he received a bachelor’s in political science. He moved to Ithaca in 2015 to work for the Ithaca Times.
Brokaw said while campaigning he encountered many people surprised that anyone can run for sheriff. In 2016, legislators discussed doing away with having an elected sheriff and instead discussed appointing a sheriff. However, that discussion was eventually tabled.
Why is Brokaw running for sheriff?
Brokaw said from his professional and personal seat as a journalist, transparency is important to him. Brokaw said reporters receive a lot of news releases from police agencies, from shoplifting incidents at Target and other arrests, which often turn right into news stories. He said these agencies drive what people are seeing for public safety news.
“But when you get a press release about the SWAT team going out at four in the morning for a no knock warrant and then they get eight grams of coke and sometimes a handgun and sometimes not. And you know, they always say, ‘Heroin package for sale,’ but that could mean a couple hundred dollars worth. Which, if you know anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be addicted to heroin that’s like a day supply. So you get these releases and then when you ask, ‘Well why’d you feel the need to send out the SWAT team? Why are you sending up the heavy artillery?’ Basically they say, ‘You have to trust us. You know we have our reasons.’ And that’s not good enough. If we’re going to have police in military gear on the streets of Tompkins County, especially for 4 a.m. raids, which is pretty much when they go out for these, we need to know why. They need to show their work. And you can’t just say you have to trust us because we’re the professionals when there’s been a number of incidents in this office, specifically, that did not come out professionally.”
How does he expect to change that by becoming sheriff?
“I think as far as what the sheriff does, it really is a 95 percent administrative position. It’s a leadership position. So as far as dealing with what government looks like and how you read reports with full of acronyms and how you interpret what the state is trying to tell you I’ve got all that down. I’ve been reading those reports. I’ve been reading, I’ve been sitting in the same meeting rooms with all these other folks,” Brokaw said.
Brokaw said a large part of what deputies do is connect with people every day on patrol, and said talking to people and being comfortable and open with people has been a part of his work as a journalist. He also said a lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking to law enforcement.
“So how do we bridge some of that gap, some of that fear and really stand down some of this escalation of fear between the public and law enforcement?” Brokaw asked. “I don’t think you’re going to do that with a career law enforcement officer in these offices. Civilian control is something we could give a try.”
How will he make critical decisions and lead police operations, such as in scenarios like the Hornbrook Road incident in Danby?
“We certainly can’t do worse than how that ended up,” Brokaw said. “A man lost his life.”
Brokaw said Lansing and Osborne have had disagreements on that situation about who called who when. However, he said what strikes him about reading the after-incident reports is what came from them.
“There is a man dead, there’s a house ripped apart. I’m not sure that the property owners ever received any compensation,” Brokaw said. “I’m not sure why the office feels the need to be serving DWI warrants at 8 p.m. on Dec. 30. Why is that that urgent?”
In essence the reports found that Tompkins County followed the book, Brokaw said.
“If something goes that badly you need to look at the book again,” Brokaw said. “You gotta rewrite the book. You can’t just sit there and say well our policies were followed so we did fine even though all this terrible s— happened. The SWAT team policy hasn’t been updated since 2009. … Obviously policy and practice are not always exactly the same thing, but there’s there’s an attitude that we don’t need to pay attention to what instructions we are at least theoretically giving people who are entrusted with the power of violence to keep the peace. Because it’s what we do when we give them a badge and a gun. Every officer we say you have the power to wage violence against people in the interest of peace. So they need to be making that decision. Every single officer. Every day. And so just making sure that the workforce is — deputies, corrections officers are — each one of them feels empowered to make decisions, but that they’re also not going out there with fear in their heart.”
What would he change as sheriff?
Brokaw said he would focus on distributing resources and perhaps having a satellite office elsewhere in the county, like Newfield. Regarding a platform or key issues, Brokaw said it seems reductionist to run on a platform that has a “five point plan that’s going to solve everything” but said some issues that are important to him are transparency and focusing on the jail.
“I realize these sound more philosophical, but in a sense that’s who I am. I’m a big picture person by nature,” Brokaw said.
Brokaw said from talking to people who have been in the Tompkins County Jail, he said it is not in good shape and does not have enough recreational space for programs. He said people also need a proper place to detox in the jail.
Why does he think people should vote for him?
Brokaw said he wanted to run to ensure there was a choice in this election.
“A lot of people are interested in change,” Brokaw said.” You can’t represent every person’s feelings all the time because everyone’s got their own take. But talking to all those folks, people don’t want to be scared of law enforcement but they are. Not everyone. And that’s not to say that everyone who works in law enforcement is scary. But we need to do some real mediation on that front. Real talking between people, getting to know one another. And I don’t think that’s necessarily going to happen with someone who’s ingrained in law enforcement culture.”
Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth 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. The winner of that contest will square up against independent candidate Josh Brokaw 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 62 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.
More information: Facebook.
Former Tompkins County Undersheriff Derek Osborne was born and raised in Cortland, and that is where he started his career in law enforcement. He worked for the Cortland Police Department for six years and transferred to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office as a road patrol deputy in 2001.
At that time he moved to Freeville, but now lives in Lansing. After working as a road patrol deputy for a couple years. From there, he was promoted to investigator, then senior investigator, then captain and finally undersheriff under Sheriff Ken Lansing around 2011. He was undersheriff for four years until he retired in 2015.
After retiring, he worked with federal inmates in Syracuse pending release taking part in community reintegration efforts. He currently works at CFCU.
Why is he running for sheriff?
He said he has never had the opportunity to shine and take that last step.
“Honestly, I didn’t have an intention of running when I left or for quite some time, I just haven’t liked what I’ve been seeing the last few years,” Osborne said. “The budget overruns, the personnel issues, and some of the things the sheriff has said publicly have been very concerning to me. I just feel like a sheriff can do more than what’s being done now and I believe the sheriff’s office can do more for the community than what’s happening now, so I want to change that.”
Osborne is critical of Lansing and said one of the biggest things that concerned him regarding the current administration was an interview Lansing had with former Ithaca Voice editor and founder Jeff Stein, during which Lansing talked about a conspiracy of powerful people in the county to see him ousted from political office.
Osborne also said he doesn’t feel like “(Lansing’s) heart’s in it. I feel like he was somewhat absent for a number of years and then all of a sudden now the election is around, and now of all a sudden he’s trying to gain all this support.”
In 2015 after retiring, Osborne wrote a nine-page letter accusing Lansing of providing misleading information about the Hornbrook Road incident in Danby. In December 2014, there was a 61-hour standoff on Hornbroak in Danby. Police were attempting to apprehend resident David Cady on a DWI warrant. During the incident, the home was destroyed and Cady ultimately died of a self-inflicted injury. In the letters, Osborne was critical of Lansing not being reachable at the onset the incident and for blaming Osborne. Read the letter as well as response from Lansing at the time here.
Osborne said he didn’t want to sit back and see Lansing run unopposed again.
Why did he retire from the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office?
Osborne retired after 20 years at the sheriff’s office. He said he was too opposite from Lansing and it was a good time to go.
“I didn’t like or appreciate his leadership, or lack of leadership, and it was just my time,” Osborne said. “I felt like I just couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I felt like the longer I was there, the more I was a part of it.”
What is Osborne’s platform?
The key issues Osborne lists on his website are honor, pride & integrity, community engagement, diversity, the drug epidemic, fiscal responsibility, crime response and corrections.
Having stepped outside law enforcement, Osborne said he now has a citizen’s perspective of law enforcement. Osborne said based on a criminal justice and jail study published in 2017, many people in the community feel disengaged from the sheriff’s office.
“If a relationship does exist, they feel like it’s the community actually the one pushing it, not the sheriff’s office,” Osborne said. “That really hurt. It was easy to say, ‘yeah I’m not there any longer’ but that’s not what the sheriff’s office should be about. If I was the sheriff, I would really take those statements to heart and I would be proactively trying to change that. I haven’t seen that happening. I haven’t seen any changes since those comment came out.”
Osborne said if he was sheriff, he would be asking what he is going to do to turn this around. He said he likes some of the community-building initiatives the Ithaca Police Department has taken like coffee with the chief. He also said deputies should have more of a presence in the community and take the time to meet and talk with people.
“In my campaign, going door to door and talking to people, I was surprised at the number of people who didn’t even know who the sheriff was,” Osborne said.
One of the biggest concerns Osborne said he has heard from people while campaigning is about traffic enforcement and speeding in their neighborhoods.
Another key issue Osborne said is to increase diversity in the sheriff’s office, which will involve encourage more people to take the civil service exam and make people interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement. He acknowledged the challenge in doing that when many people have only had negative experiences with law enforcement.
How will he balance the budget?
“It’s all about managing your resources, which is the people,” Osborne said. “Overtime was at a historic low while I was there and it wasn’t because I was managing the budget and the money and the overtime itself, I was managing the people. If you manage the people and know how they work, the overtime and the budget takes care of itself. It’s not rocket science.”
What is his stance on reducing jail population and alternatives to incarceration?
He said working in re-entry in Syracuse after retiring from the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office opened his eyes to another aspect of law enforcement.
“I spent a whole career arresting people and I’m not going to deny that there were a lot of times that I had a lot of fun doing that, I mean especially when it’s somebody that has done something horribly wrong. You want to apprehend them and make them pay, you want to do it for the victims,” Osborne said. “But working in Syracuse made me realize there’s a whole other gamut to the criminal justice system that I wasn’t really seeing or focusing on. Yeah, there’s a time and place for enforcement, arresting people, that’s all fine and good. … But if we’re not helping these people be more productive citizens, we’re really not solving anything. They’re just going through the cycle and we arrest them again a month later.”
Osborne said one time at the Tompkins County Jail, he realized a father and son were incarcerated at the same time.
“That really strikes you,” he said. “Now I’ve incarcerated two generations of a family. What is not happening to stop this? I don’t think it makes you a weak law enforcement person if you’re concerned about recidivism. I think it makes you more well-rounded.”
What should the sheriff’s role be in the community?
Osborne said being sheriff requires being a leader and mentor, and a person in the community that people trust.
“You have to be that person the community trusts and knows that if something happens you’re going to be there, knows if they have an issue or concern, they’re comfortable and they trust you enough to reach out to you or your department to report it,” Osborne said. “I’ve heard a lot of that from certain segments of the community that they will not call the police and that’s really sad.”
Why does he think people should vote for him?
“Honestly, if I’m lucky enough to get in this position, I’m going to give 120 percent. I want the community to know that. I want to make the sheriff’s office something everybody is proud of in this community and that’s my goal. And I will do it,” Osborne said.
Endorsements: Peter Stein, former Tompkins County legislator; Gwen Wilkinson, past Tompkins County district attorney; Cathy Valentino, past Ithaca Town supervisor; Legislature Chair Martha Robertson and Tompkins County Progressives.
More Information: Visit www.osborne4sheriff.com. [bg_faq_end]