ENFIELD, N.Y. – About 40 people gathered at the Enfield Grange on Thursday, Nov. 1 for a final chance to ask questions of the three candidates running for Tompkins County sheriff. Grange Master Carol Baker presided over the Q&A, during which members of the public asked candidates about their experience, plans to improve the department and views on hot-button topics from marijuana legalization to police violence.
Incumbent Sheriff Ken Lansing, retired Undersheriff Derek Osborne, and journalist Josh Brokaw will square off on the Nov. 6 ballot on the Independence, Democratic, and TruthSayers lines respectively.
On many issues, the candidates largely agreed: they all said they want to increase the office’s community engagement, especially in rural parts of the county, and they all embraced putting cameras in patrol cars to protect deputies and residents. But the candidates differed in their approaches to implementing change, with Lansing and Osborne promising to build on their law enforcement experience and Brokaw touting his outsider perspective.
Candidates were asked how they would reach out to residents of Enfield, Newfield and areas of the county where many residents struggle to make ends meet.
Lansing said he would continue to run the DARE program in schools and would explore starting a “resident deputy” program to encourage deputies to increase their involvement in community organizations and activities.
Osborne cited his past efforts to build relationships in communities while working as a deputy, such as stopping into schools at lunchtime, but acknowledged that increasing community outreach is difficult when most road patrol shifts are staffed with just three deputies and one supervisor.
Brokaw, who has not worked in law enforcement, said he would bring new ideas to the table. In addition to exploring the possibility of opening satellite offices across the county, he said he would consider hosting local office hours where residents could speak with deputies.
On the question of whether sheriffs should be elected or appointed, Lansing and Osborne both said they feel strongly that voters should choose their sheriff, while Brokaw said he has no strong feelings on the matter and could see both sides.
Asked whether they support the legalization of marijuana, Brokaw drew laughs and applause from the audience with an immediate and enthusiastic, “Yes.” He clarified that he would support, “A reasonable recreational marijuana roll-out where [having] some plants is okay, as opposed to ‘you have to get stuff from corporations.’”
Lansing was non-committal about whether he supports marijuana legalization in the future, but said technology that now makes it possible to identify drivers under the influence of drugs would help with road enforcement if it were legalized. Lansing was clear that in the meantime, “We enforce the laws, we don’t make them.”
Osborne acknowledged that the sheriff’s office is bound by state law, but said after talking to constituents on the campaign trail, “I am open-minded to opening up marijuana use.” He did not speak to recreational use specifically but said patients should have the opportunity to explore medical marijuana as an alternative to opioid prescriptions.
One of the forum’s more heated exchanges came when an attendee posed a question to Lansing about past statements he made to The Ithaca Voice, saying he kept folders of information on people in the county. The audience member described himself as a “Fourth Amendment stickler” concerned about surveillance and abuse of police authority.
Lansing refuted the charge that he improperly keeps information on people. He said the file he referred to in the interview with the Voice contains letters, memos and emails that people had sent him “with their dissatisfaction,” and gesturing with his fingers, said it was about a centimeter thick. Of other sheriffs, he said, “They’ve got filing cabinets. I don’t have filing cabinets.”
When an audience member asked a pointed question about “screen tests” – a slang term for slamming the brakes on a patrol car so the person in the back seat hits the screen separating the front and backseats – all candidates agreed to explore putting cameras in patrol cars.
Characterizing screen tests as “an old school technique,” Osborne said putting cameras in the back of sheriff vehicles could help ensure passenger safety.
Lansing said “as a product of the 1970s” he has heard of screen tests, “but things have surely changed since then … No administrator is going to condone any of that kind of treatment as long as it is proven that it occurred.” He said he is open to putting cameras in patrol cars and said body cameras, which the department now uses, are also a useful tool for keeping deputies and the public safe.
Brokaw agreed that cameras are a good idea, but went a step further by suggesting changes to hiring practices within the sheriff’s office. To ensure “everyone we’re hiring has the ethic of protecting and serving,” he said he would invite civilians to participate in hiring.
In their final group appearance before voters, the candidates each reiterated their central pitches. Brokaw touted his approachability and willingness to listen; Osborne highlighted his patrol and administrative experience, and Lansing asked voters to reward his 45-year commitment to law enforcement with another four years to finish projects he has started.
Osborne and Lansing competed in a Democratic primary on Sept. 13. Osborne won 61 percent of the vote over Lansing’s 39 percent, and is therefore running on the Democratic party line in the general election. Lansing will appear on the Independence Party line. Brokaw, an independent candidate, was not on the primary ballot and will be listed on the TruthSayers line in the general election.
Featured image: Candidates answered questions from about 40 people at the Enfield Grange (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice).