The Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department—which recently launched its unarmed sheriff’s clerk pilot program—is at the forefront of the New York State push to reimagine law enforcement operations.
As of July 5, Tompkins County civilians Sam Pulliam and Tara Richardson have started their full-time roles as unarmed sheriff’s clerks. Though still considered “in training,” the duo has started to take non-emergency calls for the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office.
Comparable programs have started to develop in other cities across the U.S., including Denver, San Francisco and Portland, though many of these pilot programs are focused on diverting mental health-related calls away from armed police officers.
But the TCSO is diverting a range of non-emergency calls to its new civilian clerks. At the moment, the clerks can assist callers whose concerns fall under a number of categories including car vs. deer incidents, certain types of traffic complaints, lost DMV-related items, telephone scam issues and fraud and larceny complaints. If necessary, a call can be escalated from the clerks to a deputy.
The unarmed clerk pilot program, which is part of the Reimagining Public Safety plan and is funded by the legislature, will span three years. Pulliam and Richardson are embedded into the office’s road patrol division and are supervised alongside the armed deputies by a road patrol sergeant.
At least regionally and locally, it’s 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 a division of unarmed responders within the Ithaca Police Department, but this plan is largely in the early stages and could take years to implement fully.
Unlike their armed deputy colleagues, the clerks will only work within the TCSO building and will not be sent out to respond to incidents. And, given the obvious limitations with only two clerks, there won’t be 24/7 coverage; when their workday is done, both emergency and non-emergency calls will be fielded by the deputies as they have been in the past.
According to Osborne, the pilot program has the potential to address two distinct issues: providing an alternative to armed responses by the sheriff’s office and diverting some of the more minor calls to alleviate pressure on the road patrol deputies. Osborne explained that, in the past, he’s felt like there haven’t been enough deputies on the TCSO road patrol.
“So to me, it’s kind of a win-win situation. It solves both issues,” Osborne said.
But building a pilot program from scratch isn’t easy, which Osborne acknowledged. He said that it’s been challenging to start a new unit without a preset training program to fall back on.
With this 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’s not. It’s a pilot program. If there’s kinks along the way, which there will be and have been, we will work them out as time goes on,” Osborne said.
When asked why she applied to the position, 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 has been welcoming and understanding as she gets a feel for the position.
“Naturally it’s a lot to learn, but the environment and the training, I feel really good about it,” said Richardson.
Pulliam echoed the sentiment that he’s received a heartfelt welcome from his new TCSO colleagues.
“Everyone has made themselves available to help us learn, establish, whatsoever. We did some ride-alongs that were great,” Pulliam said.
Reflecting on the job so far, Pulliam described the experience as rewarding but also quite challenging.
“We’re learning to use software that we’ve never used before. We’re learning to look at situations in different ways than we’ve looked at them before. We’re learning how to be customer service to citizens that are calling in looking for help and looking for direction” Pulliam said.
Looking into the future, Osborne is optimistic about the program’s success and hopes to expand it down the line.
“I hope when we get this going, it’s going to obviously be hugely successful….I hope that as time goes on, maybe we can identify additional call types that they could handle,” Osborne said. “And maybe someday 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 term as sheriff, which started in 2018. This includes efforts such as eliminating ghost lettering and blacked-out cars, providing more training and securing an increased training budget from the county as well as establishing a courtroom within the TSCO building, making the detaining process much more efficient for everyone involved.
“We’ve basically turn the place upside down and started over from scratch. I mean, we’ve been working nonpstop, a lot of it on the shoulders of our undersheriff, redoing all our policies and procedures working towards our state accreditation, which this agency has never been able to get,” Osborne explained.
Julia Nagel is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at the Ithaca Times.