TC Sheriff at forefront of NYS law enforcement reinvention
The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department, which recently launched its Unarmed Sheriff’s Clerk pilot program, is at the forefront of New York State’s efforts to reinvent law enforcement operations.
Effective July 5, Tompkins County civilians Sam Pulliam and Tara Richardson began their full-time roles as unarmed sheriff’s clerks. Although still considered “in training,” the duo began taking non-emergency calls for the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.
Comparable programs have begun to spring up in other cities across the United States, including Denver, San Francisco and Portland, though many of these pilot programs are aimed at deflecting mental health-related calls from armed police officers.
But the TCSO diverts a series of non-emergency calls to its new civilian clerks. At this time, clerks can assist callers with concerns that fall into several categories, including deer car incidents, certain types of traffic complaints, DMV-related lost property, phone scam issues, and complaints of fraud and theft. If necessary, a call can be forwarded from the clerks to an assistant.
The unarmed clerk pilot program, part of the Reimagining Public Safety plan and funded by the Legislature, will run for three years. Pulliam and Richardson are embedded in the office’s Highway Patrol Division and are overseen alongside Armed Deputies by a Highway Patrol Sergeant.
At least regionally and locally, this has never been done before. And coming up with a plan to differentiate calls for different responses is entirely new,” Sheriff Derek Osborne said.
The City of Ithaca has drafted proposals to create an unarmed responder division within the Ithaca Police Department, but that plan is largely in its early stages and could take years to fully implement. .
Unlike their fellow Armed Assistants, Clerks will only work within the TCSO building and will not be dispatched to respond to incidents. And, given the obvious limitations with just two employees, there won’t be 24/7 coverage; once their work day is over, emergency and non-emergency calls will be handled by assistants as they have been in the past.
According to Osborne, the pilot program has the potential to solve two distinct problems: providing an alternative to armed responses from the sheriff’s office and deflecting some of the more minor calls to ease the pressure on highway patrol deputies. Osborne explained that, in the past, he felt there were not enough deputies on the TCSO Highway Patrol.
“So for me, it’s kind of a win-win situation. It solves both problems,” Osborne said.
But building a pilot program from scratch isn’t easy, which Osborne acknowledged. He said it was difficult to start a new unit without a predefined training program to fall back on.
With that in mind, Osborne asked the community to be patient and keep an open mind as the pilot program evolves.
“Take the time to learn what it really is and what it isn’t. It is a pilot program. If there are any issues along the way, that there will be and that there have been, we will work them out over time,” Osborne said.
When asked why she applied for the job, Richardson explained that she wanted to be part of the effort to change the way people view law enforcement. She also said that the TCSO was welcoming and understanding as she got a feel for the position.
“Naturally there’s a lot to learn, but the environment and the training, I feel really good,” Richardson said.
Pulliam echoed the sentiment that he received a warm welcome from his new colleagues at TCSO.
“Everyone made themselves available to help us learn, establish, whatever. We did some rides which were great,” Pulliam said.
Reflecting on the job so far, Pulliam described the experience as rewarding but also quite difficult.
“We are learning to use software that we have never used before. We learn to look at situations in a different way than we did before. We are learning to be customer service for citizens who call for help and seek direction,” Pulliam said.
Looking to the future, Osborne is optimistic about the success of the program and hopes to expand it in the future.
“Hopefully when we get this going it’s obviously going to be a huge success…Hopefully over time maybe we can identify other types of calls that they could handle,” Osborne said. “And maybe one day we’ll see that, you know, maybe we’ll even add more positions.”
In addition to this pilot program, Osborne explained that the sheriff’s office has undergone many significant changes during his tenure as sheriff, which began in 2018. This includes efforts such as eliminating ghost letters and cars. blacked out, training and securing an increased county training budget as well as establishing a courtroom in the TSCO building, making the detention process much more efficient for everyone involved.
“We basically turned the place upside down and started from scratch. I mean, we’ve been working nonstop, largely on the shoulders of our undersheriff, redoing all of our policies and procedures in preparation for our state accreditation, which this agency has never been able to get,” Osborne explained.
Julia Nagel is a Cornell Daily Sun reporter who works on The Sun’s Summer Fellowship at The Ithaca Times.