While the focus has largely been on creating an unarmed division to the Ithaca Police Department, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office has quietly been assembling a small unarmed team of its own. Sheriff Derek Osborne said two new employees, called sheriff’s clerks, started at the Sheriff’s Office on Monday, June 13. He explained in detail how the job would work at the June 7 County Legislature meeting.
“It’s a three-year pilot program where we hire two sheriff’s clerks to handle non-emergency calls for service, either over the telephone or here in-house at the sheriff’s office,” Osborne said. “I have no idea at this point how this is going to go, though I’m very excited about it and I believe it’s going to be hugely successful.”
The idea of the two unarmed clerks is to provide an opportunity for unarmed responses within law enforcement, and also free up deputies to respond to emergency calls, complete investigations and build community relationships. Osborne also noted that this is completely separate from the working being done in Ithaca, and it does not impact the police departments in the villages of Groton, Dryden or Trumansburg.
Showing a graph of call types received by the Sheriff’s Office, Osborne said serious crimes are few and far between for the most part, and that the vast majority of calls are related to traffic safety, property crime and property checks. That’s what the sheriff’s clerk will focus on.
There are seven call types in total that the sheriff’s clerks will tackle — car vs. deer, traffic issues/complaints, property complaints, vacant property check requests, fraud/telephone scams, larceny/thefts and noise complaints.
Osborne called the number of car vs. deer calls the Sheriff’s Office receives “astronomical,” and said that as the department currently operates, each one requires at deputy’s response. If there is no injury, the sheriff’s clerks will be able to handle that over the phone.
For traffic issues and complaints, Osborne explained that this was focused more on the calls they receive about persistent issues, such as regular speeding in a neighborhood. The sheriff’s clerks will take those complaints over the phone and then generate a report so that the patrol deputies are still kept abreast of the issue without having to take the time to take the report themselves.
Certain property complaints will also go through the clerks. Osborne specifically mentioned the loss of DMV-related items, which requires paperwork from the sheriff’s office.
“That doesn’t need an armed response,” Osborne said.
Vacant property checks are a common request from people going on vacation or out of town and want a deputy to swing by their home or business to make sure everything is in order. Those requests will go through the clerks, who will file them, so the deputies know to do those checks. The clerks will not do the property checks themselves.
Osborne said his office also gets a lot of complaints regarding fraud or telephone scams.
“These incidences nearly never have a suspect, and they’re very difficult to solve, if not impossible. Typically, if someone called in that complaint we’d send an armed deputy to take that report,” he said. “Now, it’ll be funneled through the sheriff’s clerk to start that process. If we need to, we can turn it over to the investigator later if a suspect develops.”
There are also many reports of larceny or theft without suspects. These are the incidents, Osborne explained, where something might have been taken days prior before being noticed.
“There’s no suspect and little opportunity to identify one,” he said.
He said these reports can be taken by sheriff’s clerks, and if a pattern is noticed in the areas in which larcenies are happening, that’ll go to patrol or investigators.
The last call type is noise complaints, which Osborne conceded is a bit more of a difficult one to try. When the call comes in about a loud party or loud music, it’ll go to the clerks. They will then use the records management system to identify who the noisy party is and then “give them a call and ask them to knock it off,” Osborne said. If that doesn’t work, they will send a deputy to respond in person.
Osborne said he worked closely with the dispatch center to work through the logistics of how to identify calls that are appropriate for the sheriff’s clerks to handle. The clerks will be under the supervision of the road patrol sergeants, which Osborne said will make it easy to switch a call from clerk to deputy if necessary.
During the first few weeks of training, the two employees will work normal eight-hour shifts, Monday-Friday. However, once they’re comfortable, the goal is to transition them to work four 10-hour shifts during the sheriff’s office’s busiest times, which is late afternoon and evening hours Thursday-Sunday.
“With two [clerks] it’s obviously not enough to have them on 24/7, but we will have them available at our busiest times. I think it’s the smart way to go,” Osborne said.
County Legislature could provide funding for more clerks in the future if the pilot is successful. For now, if a clerk isn’t on duty and one of those call types comes in, it will just go to a deputy like before.