TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Crime is almost always a topic of discussion locally, despite its relative rarity here compared to other cities and counties nearby. Still, it’s a nearly constant concern for area residents, particularly as discussions continue about what direction to take police reform in both the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County.
There’s been a narrative for the last few years, truly ramping up in the last year or so as the aforementioned police reform movements have evolved, that Tompkins County (the narrative is more prevalent in the City of Ithaca) has seen a fearsome rise in crime that threatens the health and happiness of those who live here. The numbers have not proven that sentiment to be reality, at least not as of June 2021, though that has done little to diminish the narrative or perception.
Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne recently published his office’s Annual Report recounting 2021, revealing crime incidence rates handled by the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. They do not include incidents that were dealt with by the Ithaca Police Department, though a 2021 crime report from IPD has been said to be forthcoming for several months.
Read the full, comprehensive report at the bottom of this article.
There were a few crimes that rose quite a bit from previous years: kidnappings and abductions had only happened an average of three times in 2018, 2019 and 2020, but there were 18 in 2021. Generally, theft incidents were up in 2021, indicative of some of the economic downturn experienced at least partially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and otherwise, according to Osborne.
“We haven’t seen anything shocking regarding crime statistics,” Osborne said. “Things that have seen an increase are Aggravated Assaults, Impersonation, Thefts from Buildings, and Theft of Motor Vehicle Parts. Impersonation includes several categories, including thefts from mailboxes, etc. So most increases are seen in areas of theft for personal gain which seems to match issues with our economy during COVID.”
That sentiment indeed matches with the statistics compiled by Osborne’s office, shown below. Certain trends can be explained by similar issues seen around the country: The drop in shoplifting occurrences could coincide with less big businesses reporting thefts, as larger companies that can more adequately handle losses adopt a more reserved policy on shoplifting; the rise in theft of motor vehicle parts can likely be attributed to a rash of catalytic converter thefts.
Other than that, most offenses either stayed steady or dropped a bit—miscellaneous offenses not identified directly here, listed at the bottom of this grid as “all other offenses,” were quite a bit lower than years past, dropping from around 800 in 2018-2020 to 529 in 2021.
There were two murders/non-negligent homicide cases in Tompkins County, which appear to stem from the car chase/shootout that stunned those in Lansing last March, along with the death of 14-year-old Sophia Nickerson when she and a friend were struck by Robert J. DeFelice, who was later found to be intoxicated. DeFelice was sentenced to 7-21 years for aggravated vehicular homicide.
Other headline-grabbing cases handled by Osborne’s office last year included an Enfield stabbing that ended with the suspect taking their own life, a pair of adults that drowned in the Cayuga Inlet in Newfield, and the November manhunt that spanned throughout Cayuga Heights, though was ultimately only partially successful.
Osborne said that his office has focused on “cultural competency” training for the last several years, which has been reflected in their training. He said as the county becomes more diverse, those types of trainings will become more and more crucial.
“There’s always a balance to be struck between standard law enforcement training that we are required to hold, such as firearms training, and those that build cultural competency and trust,” Osborne said. “The [Crisis Intervention Team] training was the most beneficial in 2021, as it is key to creating positive outcomes for those suffering from mental illness.”
Included in this year’s report is a statistical view of use-of-force incidents in 2021 involving Tompkins County deputies. Osborne said he personally reviews all use-of-force incidents, and deemed each one justified in 2021. There were 22 incidents total, which included 17 “escorts/joint locks/takedowns/empty hand control techniques,” four taser discharges and one “less-lethal weapon utilized” (possibly a beanbag gun or something of the sort).
Among those 22 incidents, 11 involved white people, 8 involved Black people, two involved Asian people and one involved a person of Pacific Island descent. Separately, there were 25 shows of force by county deputies, 15 firearm displays and 10 taser displays, with similar racial distributions.
Osborne emphasized that his department has introduced more controls and reviews of use of force and show of force occurrences—the difference between the two being something like removing a taser from its holster but not actually using it. Both types of force incidents trigger a Defensive Action Report that has to be completed and submitted, and Osborne stated that all uses of force are reviewed via body camera footage by supervisors.
“First-line supervisors are also required to randomly review body camera footage from everyday interactions to look for policy violations, constitutional violations, training opportunities, or ways to improve,” Osborne said. “Force is used as a last resort during our interactions, and I strongly feel our deputies do a great job de-escalating incidences whenever possible. Our low use of force numbers provides proof of this. […] .139% rate of force for all calls for service, and 5.51% of all arrests is extremely low.”