Sheriff Derek Osborne

Sheriff Derek Osborne ran on a platform of increasing community engagement, embracing diversity, dealing compassionately with drug addicts while protecting their victims, keeping within the budget and managing overtime, striving for prompt crime response time, and dealing with county jail inmates to curb criminal behavior in a positive and meaningful way. Now that he has been Sheriff for eleven months, Osborne says he has been busy working on all of those things.

"I've set out to fulfill everything I talked about during my campaign and as time goes on, things do come up and you do get busy.  But I think we're going in a very positive direction and I'm happy with the progress we've made in such a short amount of time.  We're coming into the close of the year and we're well under our budget, so I'm very happy about that. The community engagement been huge. That was the primary focus that I set out for this year, and we're doing a good job with that."

Deputies participate in things like helping bringing food to local food banks, and local events.  A big effort has been made to show a friendly face to school children.  Osborne deputies have made over 150 school visits this year across Tompkins County.  Many of the visits are informal, just to say hello to teachers and students in the hallways.  Some are more formal such as one Osborne did with a corrections officer when they visited the Lansing Elementary School to talk to first graders.

"That's the big thing for me, not just deputies out there enforcing the law," he says. "We get enough of that. We have to arrest people all the time. We have to solve crimes, but I want people to realize that we're part of the community. We live here, we work here and we are the people's Sheriff's office for sure."

He says the schools have welcomed these visits, and the deputies enjoy their visits.  It was as simple as asking day shift deputies to take an opportunity to stop into a school in their patrol zone in between calls.

"It's as simple as that," Osborne says. "We're not asking them to be school resource officers, we're not asking them to be armed security. It's just a face for the kids in the schools to put a name to, and to be a part of our community. And it's been very well received."

Osborne says another simple change made a big difference: the decals on the side of sheriff vehicles was changed to give patrol deputies a more obvious presence in the community.

"It's amazing what kind of a response we got to that," he says. "I felt like our cars were a little too discreet.  A lot of them were blacked out with ghost lettering. You couldn't tell they were police cars.  They serve a purpose at times, but not enough to keep cars like that on our fleet -- we're too small of a department. I want every car we have to be as noticeable as it can be to thwart crime from happening, and so people can easily recognize us. There's no mistaking it's a police car. It doesn't have that scary look to it."

When Osborne took the reins of the Sheriff's Department in January he inherited a controversy over whether the Sheriff's Office should share facilities at a new location in Ithaca.  After much debate the Tompkins County legislature decided against the merge.

"I was not a fan of that," Osborne says. "Now the County is looking at, um, a couple other options to expand, not expand us, but what really drives us is our space needs for the jail. Our corrections division doesn't have enough programming space for inmates. People are walking over the top of each other. So it comes down to a matter of do we expand the jail and into this side of the building -- we'd have to put the road patrol somewhere else. Or do we look at building a whole new building to house, both operations? The County is studying that now and trying to determine what would be most cost effective. Either way, it's going to be expensive."

Jail crowding was long a problem for the County, with prisoners routinely having to be boarded out to neighboring communities.  For years previous sheriffs asked for and were granted variances to avoid having to expand the jail here, but eventually the State said no more variances would be granted.  Osborne says that the jail should be expanded to provide more programming space, but in terms of the number of inmates he says it is now manageable.

"With all the alternative programs that county's implemented, our jail numbers are way down where we used to run 80 to 90 inmates. Today we have 50," he says. "I'm not really convinced we need a bigger jail. What we need is a better designed jail to accommodate what we have and to do more with. Our jail was designed on a very outdated model, with linear hallways and provides for bad supervision."

Currently there are bout 27 full time deputies on the road patrol side, plus a handful of part timers that work in the airport, four investigators and the Lieutenant.  When you divide them into shifts, you don't have very many active deputies to cover a county that is 492 square miles.

For a long time there have only been three or four road patrol officers plus a supervisor to cover the  of Tompkins County at any given time.  That means that there are not enough deputies to respond to a lot of 'nuisance crimes' that are reported.  Osborne shared some good news: the County has agreed to bring on a few more deputies.

"The Sheriff's office has struggled with staffing, especially in the road patrol," he says. "We've never had what I feel we should have to adequately serve the County. Near the end of this year, as part of the budget process for next year, I asked for six new positions.  I got two."

The Sheriff's Office has a backlog of around a dozen requests from around the county where residents have asked for help reducing traffic problems, such as speeding on their streets.  Rather than simply add more officers to the current road patrol Osborne has decided to create a special shift, starting in the evening and going into the early morning hours.

"These deputies will be able to be assigned to those specific target areas to help with these issues and hopefully make our County safer and make people feel a lot better about things. So I'm excited about that. That's a huge step. We haven't had a staffing increase in many years."

But will it be enough?  Two big issues threaten to stretch the department thinner, even with the two new additions.  First, a lot of large developments are springing up within the Sheriff Department's jurisdiction, especially in Lansing.  When Osborne asked for the six new positions, growth around the county was one of his arguments.

"The County has grown over the years and our staffing hasn't matched it," he says. "And I think the legislature gets that. They were very, very good along with the County Administrator, who I had to work closely with to make this happen. So I can't say anything negative about them. They voted for the staffing increases almost unanimously. But I think it's important that, as our communities grow, just like everything else, you look at your utilities and how that's going to be impacted; what do we have to add to our infrastructure to make this happen?  I think you have to look at public safety too and make sure our public safety can match the increase in population or the condensed housing that often leads to a lot more calls for service."

The second issue is new state mandates that go into effect January 1st.  The changes remove bail as an option for almost all misdemeanors and some minor felonies, as well as requiring that all evidence be turned over to the attorneys of the accused within 15 days.  These changes are expected to force changes to how deputies operate, because they will involve more paper work and evidence gathering in an expedited time frame.  That could very well mean less time and resources for road patrol and the normal operation of law enforcement departments state-wide.  While Osborne says he wants to wait and see how the changes actually impact staffing next year, he may find he has to request still more deputies just to keep the current level of service.

Over many years municipalities have decided not to create their own police departments to deal with growing populations and crime in their communities.  Cornell University, Ithaca College, TC3, Cayuga Heights, Dryden, Groton, The City of Ithaca, and Trumansburg all have their own police departments.  That leaves the rest of the county to be policed by the Sheriff's Office, State Police, and State Park Police. There is also an FBI office in Ithaca.  The Lansings have both balked at the expense of creating new police departments, citing cost as a major factor.

Osborne says that the County doesn't need more police departments, but, instead, should be looking at how the Sheriff's office can better serve these growing communities.

"That came up during the co-location discussions. Do we really want the Sheriff's office moving out of Lansing -- because that's the area that seems to be booming the most in Tompkins County that doesn't have their own police force," he observes. "I think we just have to keep in mind what our needs are. With these two new positions I can have the flexibility to assign them to those areas where I need them, and if that means one or two days a week they're going to be in the Village of Lansing, I can do that. The traffic definitely is increasing. Uh, there's no doubt and I think it's only going to get worse than with all this growth."

As the end of his first year approaches, Osborne says he loves being Sheriff and how that enables him and his deputies to do what they do to serve Tompkins County.

"I love the community. I love working and talking to people. I love working on that engagement piece it allows me to work on It's so important to me," he says. "They have our office just exist as a law enforcement entity, but it's so important to me that we are invested in this community. People know what we're doing. We're transparent, we seek complete professionalism, whether it be through improving our policies, becoming accredited, being out and about, having people see us. That's my favorite part. All those things."