By Jay Wrolstad
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) visited Tompkins County earlier this month on a fact-finding mission related to a three-day standoff in the Town of Danby in late 2014 between area law enforcement and an armed Danby man who killed himself during the incident.
The confrontation occurred when Tompkins County Sheriff’s deputies attempted to serve a bench warrant to David Cady at his Hornbrook Road home and Cady refused to comply. When negotiations and other attempts to draw Cady out of the house failed, a SWAT team used an armored vehicle to open up parts of the home and found that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The incident prompted an outcry among Danby residents and others in the community who saw it as a disturbing overreaction by the police. A lengthy after-action report delivered by the Sheriff’s Department, which described how the events unfolded and the response by law enforcement, also identified measures intended to minimize the risk of a similar tragedy in the future. The report concluded that police acted properly given the potential dangers of the situation.
Still, there were calls by county and Danby officials, among others, for an independent review of actions taken by law enforcement and of the county’s critical incident response plan. As a result, a request for technical assistance was sent to, and accepted by, the DOJ.
On April 7, members of the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) met with representatives of the County Sheriff’s Office, the Ithaca Police Department and the SWAT team. They also held discussions with the county administrator and legislators, as well as with Town of Danby officials and residents.
The DOJ individuals involved in those talks were Tawana Elliott, a COPS senior program specialist, Capt. Charles Huth of the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department, Jeff Steger, a project coordinator for the Virginia Center for Policing Innovation, and Cedric Alexander, public safety director for DeKalb County, Ga.
County Undersheriff Brian Robison says that the formal request for a review of the Hornbrook Road incident was made by the Sheriff’s Department and Ithaca Police Department, as it was a joint city/county operation involving the IPD’s SWAT team. “There were still some unresolved questions following our after-action report and a desire to examine the scope of the operation,” he says. “The county legislature and members of the community wanted a review by an outside party.”
The DOJ recommended the COPS program as the best agency to conduct this review, Robison says, and the information they collected during their meetings here will be used for a study of the response by law enforcement to that incident. “From the beginning, the Sheriff’s Department wanted to be transparent about the follow-up, and we did provide a report describing what was done and what could have been done differently in this situation,” he says.
Town of Danby Supervisor Ric Dietrich, who participated in the April 7 talks, said the COPS team’s objective was to gather information from the community, not to critique the tactics used by law enforcement. “They were attentive, empathetic. I was pleased that they would spend time with us, and listen to us,” he says.
Dietrich says he looks forward to seeing the COPS’ evaluation of how the incident was handled by law enforcement and what the town can do to improve communications with police, and with residents, during incidents like the standoff that disrupt the community.
“Most residents want to feel that there concerns are being taken seriously, and this will help,” he says. “It is apparent that communication is key, especially in police-community relations. We want to know how can we do a better job in coordinating the efforts of police and public officials and get everyone on the same page regarding proper procedures in situations like this.”
Peter Stein, chair of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, offers a similar take. “It was a good conversation; no statements or judgments were made, there was no indication of wrongdoing in this incident or recommendations to do things differently,” he says of the meeting involving the COPS team and county officials. “My feeling is that, given the circumstances, I’m not sure there was a better path to take, even though this did not turn out well for the person involved.”
As for how the review will proceed, information from the DOJ states that the COPS Office provides technical assistance to law enforcement agencies looking for ways to better implement the principles of community policing.
That guidance is offered in three areas: collaborative reform, creating a long-term, holistic strategy to improve trust between police agencies and the communities they serve through organizational changes; critical response, targeting on-site assistance for agencies dealing with incidents, events or sensitive issues; and research and best practices, providing resources for those police agencies looking to implement change independently.
In the Hornbrook Road case, the focus will most likely be on critical response. The COPS team is expected to submit a response, based on the April 7 visit, with local officials in the near future. A follow-up visit will be made with an assessment team to determine the level of technical assistance required.
Deputy County Administrator Younger says, “Our technical assistance request still stands, and we are waiting to hear how the COPS representatives will respond to that. Federal officials can look at the technical assistance and determine what we can do regarding critical response. The request was for an independent review board on the federal level, and we also want to make sure we know how to respond to the community.”
By Jay Wrolstad