ITHACA, N.Y. — Santa Claus rappelling down to the Ithaca Commons has been a local tradition for over a decade. On Saturday, Santa plus a team of six elves made the descent down Center Ithaca to a crowd of hundreds. Though it’s a quick descent, it takes a lot of coordination and training behind the scenes.

Santa and his team of elves are members of the Ithaca Police Department’s SWAT Team. Before the rappel, The Next Jennaration and the Fall Creek Brass Band performed to warm up the crowd. At about noon, some of the crew dressed as elves began to rappel down Center Ithaca onto Trolley Circle, where a crowd of hundreds cheered them on. As the second set of elves descended, the cheers for Santa really began. Then at last, Santa — or Officer Rich Niemi — rappelled down to the crowd, working slowly so there were no beard-snag incidents this year.

Though the rappel only took about 10 minutes in total, the team including rappel master Sgt. Derek Necheporek began to set up ropes and gear at about 9 a.m. The event is a lot of fun for the community and the officers, Necheporek said, and also serves as an extra training exercise. In Ithaca, where there are many bridges and gorges, local emergency responders regularly train in rappelling.

Members of the IPD’s SWAT Team get ready to rappel down to the Commons Dec. 1. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

“We train quite a bit here in Ithaca because of the nature of where we live,” Necheporek said. “The gorges that we have and the high bridges.”

There are about 20 people on the SWAT Team, with a smaller group on the rappel team. They train about three times a year, Necheporek said, not including Saturday’s festive descent.

Up on the roof of Center Ithaca, out of sight of the growing crowd Saturday morning, Necheporek and officers got everything in order so the rappel would go smoothly.

At about the time the Ithaca YMCA’s Santa 5K and one-mile Elf Run/Walk a couple blocks away kicked off at 9 a.m., they began setting up ropes, harnesses, and other rappelling equipment, “Just making sure that everything is absolutely right,” Necheporek said.

The first thing Necheporek said he did was to look for the most solid structure on the roof to use as an anchor. Steel beams attached to a heating and air conditioning apparatus served as the anchor Saturday. Next, he said he finds the best spot for the ropes, make adjustments and do some practice runs before donning the elf and Santa gear.

“It’s just a lot of fun,” said Necheporek, who has been a part of the rappel for eight years. The whole crew seemed to have fun, egging the crowd on by peeking over the edge as they got ready for the rappel. Right around noon, they began to descend. Aside from a fast start by Santa, everything went smoothly.

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the rappel Saturday. All photos by Managing Editor Kelsey O’Connor.

Members of the IPD’s SWAT Team get ready to rappel down to the Commons Dec. 1. (Photo by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.