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Josh Brokaw

Josh Brokaw is running for Sheriff on the Truthsayers party line.  Originally from Anderson, IN, his family moved to Pottstown, PA when he was a child.  Brokaw went to college at the University of Chicago.  He then lived in Williamsport, PA, where he wrote for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette before moving to Ithaca at the beginning of 2015 to write for the Ithaca Times. 

Truthsayers is also a local news Website he founded after leaving the Ithaca Times.  This is his first run for elected office.  Brokaw says that as a journalist he hasn't gotten 'specific' answers from law enforcement officers, so he was inspired to run to get better answers whether he wins or loses.

Lansing Star Why are you the best candidate for Sheriff?

Josh Brokaw As someone who is coming from a different background than a career in law enforcement, I have a different perspective than my opponents on how people feel about law enforcement.  I certainly feel that one of my real strengths has been honed by my years as a journalist: approachability and a comfort with everyone from all walks of life.

I don't have a problem waking the streets in downtown Ithaca or knocking on doors at mobile home parks and saying, "Here I am.  I'm doing this.  I'm running for this office."  And people start talking about it.  If there's any of my strengths I feel very strongly about, it is my ability to listen.

I know politicians talk about that all the time -- "We're going to listen to you" -- but it has been my profession for the better part of a decade now to really take in what people are saying and give a voice to their story, and give credit to their story on an equal basis.  Someone who's poor, as well as people who come from official or moneyed interests.  I try to treat everyone equally.

That aspect of my candidacy is where, as a leader of the Sheriff's Department and somebody who is holding a county-wide political office... you should be always immediately in touch with the concerns of the people.  From what I've been hearing on the campaign trail, it's not necessarily the case anywhere from concerns about speeding through Varna or on some of these country straight-aways.  I've certainly heard people say "sit out in our driveway".  We could use it -- new ways to deal with old problems.

Listening and not having anything to lose... no position that I am afraid to stake on trying new ideas.  Here are all the options.  Let's talk about what we can do, rather than coming from a book that was written by people long before me, and from a culture... My experience in talking to people in law enforcement is that it is certainly a "do what you're told" culture, and not necessarily the best place to be encouraged to be creative.

Lansing Star What would you say the top couple of issues are that need to be addressed in the next four year term?

Josh Brokaw The jail is in bad shape.  Everyone seems to know that, as far as the Legislature goes, as far as the Sheriff's Office knows, as far as just people who have been in the jail.  Some of the fixes are easier than others.  I think it's important that we look at the quick and easy stuff, as I learned from someone who spent a fair amount of time in the jail.  There is no library available, which, as a book guy, seems silly to me, especially since we have so many books floating around this community.

The policy was that you had to send a new book to someone directly from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  There was just a change in that policy where anyone can send something in.  It still has to be from the mail.

We talk about program space in the jail.  Can we figure out a place to put the civil office to clear up some space to have more group meetings?  There are AA, NA, some mental health groups that go up there.  But room to get more people in the room, room to have different activities than sitting in a circle sort of things.

You could have some yoga practitioners in there.  People working on mindfulness, meditation.  More clergymen coming in.  More of an openness to connecting community with people who are already in there.

And, of course, improving things like the air quality, which the Legislature has learned through a long letter they received from a corrections officer that that's not good right now at the jail.  That sort of infrastructure thing is not just the Sheriff's Office.  That's Legislature.  That's county budget.  But we need to do whatever we can do in the short term as we are looking at longer term solutions.  And also planning for longer term solutions -- how low can we keep our incarceration numbers?  And looking at the distinction between who really needs to be incarcerated as a threat to public safety, and who are the people who... maybe we don't need to be arresting them.  Using diversionary programs.  Whether that's law enforcement assisted diversion or some other program.

Of course the County just did a big study on Alternatives to Incarceration.  It was found that we don't think we need to expand the jail to keep from doing board-outs.  But we need to be paying attention to it every month.  Not just when we hit our peak and now we're going to do a big study, and we have some solutions now that the consultant told us what to do.  We need to be always thinking about it and processing how we continue to balance the public safety with the practicalities of space.

Another immediate priority, and of course, being the "outsider candidate" I don't know everything that's going on.  I do know that New York State is among 30-plus states that don't require peace officers to do any sort of what's called "de-escalation training".  This is another piece of my platform that I think is fairly easy to get going.  De-escalation meaning how do you take a situation and respond to it without using lethal force?

Beyond the Hornbrook Road incident there are no very recent instances of that sort of immediate reaction where an incident goes bad and we have an officer-involved shooting.  But it only takes one minute.

The Philando Castile shooting, for example, in Minnesota... the public radio station there did a whole podcast series called "74 Seconds".  They named it that because it was 74 seconds from the time of the traffic stop until the officer shot Mr. Castille.  We have to always be doing training on how are you not coming into a situation with your adrenaline already up for our police officers.  How do you stop, wait, listen?  That's the idea of de-escalation training.  That's something I think we could get all the deputies through in a relatively short time.

It would, perhaps be a little bit of an over-budget request for a year to do it properly.  But it's not something that, as I'm looking at the officers' training regimen, and looking at what the State offers, it's not something that's regularly practiced.  There are all sorts of firearms trainings, and there are some for distinguishing mental health issues from intoxication or something like that.

We need to put more of an emphasis there, less of an emphasis on just using the firearm or using the taser.

Lansing Star How bad is the drug problem in Tompkins County?  If budget were no object, what would you have the Sheriff's Department do that it is not currently doing to reduce drug related crime?

Josh Brokaw We know just knocking drug dealers off the streets doesn't work.  The War On Drugs is a failure.  So long as there is a black market for something so profitable, and we don't have enough jobs for everyone, every time you knock out a dealer there's going to be another one there.

I don't think adding stiffer sentences or trying to take out more dealers is going to be any sort of fix to the problem.  Whether you have all the budget in the world or not, you're really just chasing a dragon you're not going to capture there.

The people are the best first responders.  No matter how many officers you have on the streets, they're never going to be everywhere.  They're not always going to get called, even though you should always be pushing the good Samaritan program, telling people that they're not liable if they call 911 in a situation where someone's overdosing.

As many trainings and situational awareness information we can give to as many people as possible... that's the first priority, keeping people alive.

If you have no budget restraints, really the thing you do is build housing.  One could imagine something like those cottages out in Caroline, The Boiceville Cottages, with a mix of people with some room for people who are coming out of rehab.  Because a lot of the issue in this issue is people people, even if they do get to the point where they go to jail, they detox -- as I heard one person say, the joke is you go to the Tompkins County Jail, they give you some Cool Aid, and tell you to wait it out.

We definitely need to improve medically assisted treatment and improve our screening for detox at the jail.  But even if you get someone all the way through the process, get them into a rehab for 28 days or whatever the max-out is now, they they end up coming back and they're put into a house with a lot of other people who are in the same situation in downtown Ithaca... this is a small place where you're immediately put back into those triggering situations.

Perhaps even not worrying about budget, how do you get people into these comfortable situations where they can find something to entertain themselves, to keep themselves busy, something fulfilling, and get the treatment they need?

Lansing Star The County is studying shared facilities for the Sheriff Department and the Ithaca City Police.  Would moving the Sheriff Department downtown make it easier or harder to perform Sheriff Department functions?  Likewise, if local departments were to merge, how would that impact law enforcement outside of the city?

Josh Brokaw I'm going to throw another idea out.  I don't mind the idea of, perhaps, having the civil -- pistol permits, the clerks, the paperwork -- downtown.  That might make some sense if you're talking about paying tickets off.  But I like the idea of seeing if we can actually decentralize where we're basing the road patrol deputies.

There used to be a substation in Newfield.  I believe the State Police still have some sort of presence there.  if we could use either existing facilities, do some shared facilities, or how many old garages are sitting there on the state highways?  When you go out towards Newfield, towards Enfield, up Lansing and Dryden way could you imagine a small office?

I was talking with folks from Speedsville the other day.  They're way out there.  They see a deputy maybe once every three months.  Could you imagine a lot of these little substations where it's known that perhaps a deputy is based there for a daytime shift.  They sit there and do the paperwork, and their calls are in that quadrant.  One, it gives you a space where it gives you a little more of that neighborhood patrol, even in rural areas.  So people know that if I go down to the station at noon on Tuesday there's probably someone there unless they're out on a call.  And I can talk about an ongoing issue with a neighbor... a noise thing or fireworks every Friday night or something like that.  There would also be the advantage of less driving around and less driving back to the station, whether on Warren Road or downtown.  And give you a little big more community presence.

I think budget-wise there's enough empty space, or you could get some semi-trailers or shipping containers... there are all sorts of ways you could do it.  It would also give you a safe space you don't know for a Craig's List sale, or swap kids for custody on the weekends.  If you go here on Friday there's a deputy here or a camera in the parking lot.  That would give a little bit more presence.

Lansing Star The Hornbrook Road standoff seems to have been a defining incident for the Sheriff's Department.  it was just in the news ago about a week ago.  If you could go back in time, and if you were Sheriff at that time, what would you do differently, if anything, and why?

Josh Brokaw My first question about that incident is, is it absolutely necessary to be serving warrants for a DWI at 8pm on December 30th?  I know you've got to serve them some time.  But it seems like doing it right in the middle of the holidays is going to be an accelerating factor.  We know people are more stressed -- sometimes they're happy and sometimes they're more stressed during the holidays.  There are all sorts of extenuating factors there.

Secondly, the thing about what I've heard my opponents say about that incident is that they argue over who was where when, who called who at what time.  But what I've also heard from them is "We followed the book.  So it wasn't good.  We're still sad about it.  But everything that happened was by the book so we did OK."

To me, what that incident says is we need to rewrite the book.  We need to take a look at the book, see what it says.  I know, for one, the SWAT Team policy, at least as it's written in the City of Ithaca, has not been touched in nine years.  There hasn't been any rewriting of how they do what.

I think you have to allow some amount of flexibility.  I know Mr. Cady's wife had asked, from what I understand, to be able to talk to him directly.  It doesn't seem that wish was honored.  I understand there are protocols, but when you're talking about a spouse or someone that close to a situation if they say "I want to talk to them.  I want to at least have some sort of communication..." you've got to try that before saying "No, we can't have that because something bad could happen or has happened in another situation like that.  I think you have to respect that sort of familial request.

All the reports from that are so fuzzy.  I don't want to armchair-quarterback too much.  But it's really hard to see why they felt the need to rip the house apart when there had been radio silence for quite a long time.  I wonder, in those situations, when you're talking about a single shooter it seems like the only way we know how to respond is with this very large overwhelming response, when it would seem to me, tactically, admittedly as a layman, that it's not so much a numbers game as a "where the person is" game.  an intelligence game, whether it be a standoff like this or a school situation, we need to think about do we need to flood the zone, as it were , with 40 people surrounding the house?  Or is that sort of response , maybe, accelerating the situation and not making it come to a peaceful conclusion?

Lansing Star Is the Sheriff Department making the best use of its Web site and social media to provide information to the press and the public?  Also, the Department used to produce an annual report that included, among other things, annual county crime statistics.  Should this be revived?

Josh Brokaw A lot of my reason to get into this race was considerations of transparency and information flow.  I don't think it's necessary that we send out press releases every time someone shoplifts from target.  Those press releases just become new stories.  the media is just going to run with what they have.  But I think people do need to understand that a lot of times when you're talking about that sort of story, it's really coming directly from the Sheriff's Office or the Police Department.  There is not a whole lot more information in there than what they have.

What we need to think about is, is the information we're sending out useful?  If there's a situation, say an evacuation situation or, God forbid, some sort of active shooter or terrorist situation, is the information were giving out useful for people to make themselves ready?  Or to know that a threat has ended, rather than just creating fear?  Or are we just doing this with the idea that if we do this, for instance sending out press releases about shoplifting, that we will shame people into not doing it?  Obviously that doesn't seem to be the case, because people still commit property crime from poverty or addiction or what have you.

That's really what we should be focusing on.  Every time the SWAT team goes out there should be an after-action report even if nothing happened, because people do wonder why the big trucks are out.  We should say "This happened.  We didn't find them."  Or whatever.

I see the number of calls when driving by the fire stations.  They have their little flashing signs that say "40 EMT calls this month".  You're right, I don't believe the County Sheriff does (annual reports) right now,  I follow a site in Seneca County.  and they send out a monthly report on the number of warrants served, the number of evictions... that's pretty low hanging fruit and that certainly would be something to give an idea of what sort of resources we're using and what sort of resources we need o keep up with the needs of the community.

Lansing Star Is road patrol adequate in the county?  Again, if budget were no object, how many deputies would it take to adequately patrol the whole county (excepting municipalities with their own police)?  Would it be worth hiring new deputies to reduce overtime?

Josh Brokaw Honestly I don't feel that I have adequate information to make a really informed analysis of the situation.  I would have to wait until I got hold of the entire file and sat down with some help that are really good analytics people.  As I was canvassing and gathering signatures people talk about response time.  Response time is not as quick as you would like it to be.  That's partly what's informing the idea about decentralizing, the substation idea.

The unfortunate thing about law enforcement is you're always reacting.  You're trying to cut down on how long it takes you to get somewhere when something bad is happening.  You're not going to automatically be there.

I heard from a couple of people including one person whose mother had worked in county dispatch.  She had had an issue getting deputies moving to higher priority calls from traffic stops, because there's a tendency to kind of take a car apart at a traffic stop, to get involved.  We don't have to be doing a lot of searching for needles in haystacks on your average traffic stop.  If that's cutting down on response times to more important problems, that's a problem.

Lansing Star How effective do you think Alternatives to incarceration has been?  Should it be expanded?

Josh Brokaw There is certainly a consensus in county government to expand Alternatives.  I think in the next four years, what we'll be looking at that's perhaps the most leading-edge of law-enforcement policy is the diversion program.  How that's going to look in Tompkins County is going to be very important.

The LEAD program doesn't seem to be getting a lot of momentum.  Right now the city has a request for an agency to take it on, but is only offering about $80,000.  The County doesn't seem to want to put any money into it yet, as well as other entities.  There's been a lot of talk about "Well, we're ready to do it whenever it happens" but it doesn't seem like we're really rushing to get to starting to divert people to case workers instead of jail.

Obviously Tompkins County has a lot of the starting with mental health court, drug court.  Those work for some people.  On the other hand someone told me drug court has a 13% to 15% success rate, at least on your first run through.  It's not for everyone and it's not keeping people out of jail more because people are remanded to jail when they test dirty, as I understand it.

So we just keep refining the systems we have.  The issue we have in this county, putting my reporter hat on and sitting in those meetings, is that we like to talk about what we're doing really well, or where we're doing better than our neighbors.  We need to keep the blinders on and say here's what our programs are.  This is what we're doing well.  This is what we're doing poorly, and not worry about what the Joneses over in Schuyler County are doing.  Just keep improving every day.  That's my general ethos.

Lansing Star Has the county waited too long to expand the jail?  Is the jail adequate to handle the current level of incarcerations and those anticipated over the next decade?

Josh Brokaw I think my opponents will probably say this and the report that CGR put out, and everyone seems to be happy that the numbers are down right now.  There seems to be an 82 bed capacity right now in the jail.  We've been in the 50s or 60s in recent months in terms of the number of people incarcerated.

I haven't had enough time to go over what a new jail would look like.  There are probably a lot of different things we could do.  We're going to need a lot of single cells for people for probably a long time.  The idealist in me wants to say we can build a farm out in the woods and everyone would kind of go and get some sunshine and stay in the fence and be happy.  You're probably going to need some sort of classification.  But can we do it more dormitory style, perhaps?

I think the biggest issue right now is purely that when they built the Public Safety building, I think it was in '86, they did some weird stuff with the heating, the cooling, the air flow, the plumbing... everything I'm hearing from facilities people is that it was just a wonky building that wasn't particularly well done.  So we're going to have to deal with that.  I think we can keep it under the current capacity, but you can't be putting corrections officers and deputies and inmates in there and say "here's some really bad air.  Breathe it all day."  So we have got to get that done before anything else.  That's going to be a lift it's going to take everyone to figure out.

Lansing Star What haven't we talked about that voters should know about your candidacy?

Josh Brokaw If you have ideas or complaints or just want to chat I'm very available.  I'm busy right now, but will get back to you.  You can get to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call or text me at (607) 339-6788.  I'd love to hear your experiences and hear what you've got to say about how we can do better.

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