TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County legislators got their first look at the proposed Reimagining Public Safety reform draft proposal on Tuesday, producing the same relatively tepid reviews that the plan got from other local politicians.
Several of the legislators expressed similar concerns that Ithaca Common Council members had when assessing the proposal, in that looming budget questions combined with the unclear cost of each of the 19 recommendations make it difficult to gauge their interest in the plan, or how much of it they’d want to implement. Other criticisms ranged from the plan being too far-reaching and radical to whether or not the city and county should actually collaborate on the reform package to the political impacts on the Sheriff’s Office.
Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino, joined by Drs. Sean Eversley Bradwell and Belisa Gonzalez of Ithaca College, began the presentation by addressing one of those points that has commonly been raised by politicians during the early parts of the Reimagining introduction, saying that while there are no budget estimates now, they were being prepared and would likely be available by the weekend. He discussed the previously covered recommendations, emphasizing the parts that would impact the county directly or in conjunction with the city, as opposed to just city recommendations.
The presentation covered many of the same points that have been reiterated at other public meetings introducing the plan. Watch the full presentation, by Molino and featuring some others, here.
Afterwards, it was time for legislature discussion. There is no vote scheduled until March 30 for the Tompkins County Legislature on the plan, and the City of Ithaca is scheduled to vote on the proposal the next day, March 31. Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing) said he wasn’t comfortable with the report’s recommendations, largely because of the impact they would have on the sheriff’s office and the fact that in Tompkins County, the sheriff is an elected position.
“I don’t see how we can apply (the COVID-19) methodology to this issue for the simple fact that we have an elected sheriff,” Sigler said, drawing a parallel between the Community Justice Center, which would be established to help implement the reform proposals, and the Emergency Operations Center that the county started on the fly early in the pandemic to assist with COVID-19 response. “I support an elected sheriff, and he answers to, frankly, a much wider elected base than I do. I don’t really know how to reconcile that. (…) A lot of the changes that we’re looking for have to come from our sheriff at the county level. One of only three jobs in the whole county that’s elected county-wide, and there’s a reason for that and I think it’s served us well.”
Citing another common objection that has bubbled up since the report’s introduction, Sigler said he felt that law enforcement officials weren’t consulted deeply enough during the formulation of the report, particularly rank-and-file officers. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, also in attendance, said he felt they had satisfactory involvement of law enforcement during the process, saying that “dozens” of law enforcement’s recommendations had been included in the final draft report and saying any notion that none of their ideas had made the cut was “flatly false.”
“The entire thrust of the report is that we need more people, we need more bodies doing public safety response in the City of Ithaca, we just need them doing different things,” Myrick said, addressing an initial concern that the plan to rebuild the Ithaca Police Department in a significantly different form would hoist more burden onto the Tompkins County Sheriffs. “We need two specialized units that can respond to all of the calls for service that we have in the City of Ithaca so that we have a more robust public safety response, not a less robust one (…) This will result in a heavier investment on the CIty of Ithaca’s part in both law enforcement and public safety response.”
Sheriff Derek Osborne, speaking after much of the debate, struck a moderate tone, being sure to not criticize or endorse any specific parts of the proposal. It was his first opportunity to speak directly to lawmakers and the public at the same time since the draft was introduced last week.
“We have to keep our sights on what the focus really is here, which is that we’re providing public safety to everyone in Tompkins County, including our marginalized communities and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” Osborne said in his comments. “There’s been mention of me being an elected official, we all know that, I certainly don’t want that to be a hindrance in our ongoing communication regarding this process.”
He continued that he doesn’t want the report viewed as gospel, and thinks it should serve as a jumping-off point with negotiations and give-and-takes until a final product is reached.
“I don’t take this report as being an end-all,” Osborne said. “I’ll be satisfied as long as I remain involved in the process moving forward with this report and the recommendations, and that we continue to discuss them and modify them as need be.” Osborne said he wouldn’t get into specifics with each recommendation, but that he and Undersheriff Jenn Olin had been preparing a response of sorts to assess the feasibility of some of the recommendations, from their standpoint.
Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne followed him, acknowledging that the report was really only a first step in the process despite the quick turnaround to a vote.
“If this report, this process solved the problem of systemic racism in law enforcement, I’d be a very happy woman,” McBean-Clairborne said. “But it isn’t going to, it’s a continuous process. It’s a stepping stone, it’s a start. You’re right, Sheriff, we’re going to go back and forth and things are going to be modified. We’re dealing with human beings.”
Fellow legislator Deborah Dawson echoed some of Sigler’s sentiments, though she spoke before Osborne defused some of the tension over his status as an elected official.
“We need to remember that our sheriff is elected, which makes this a different proposition than what’s okay to do in the city,” Dawson said. “How the sheriff runs his department, within reason obviously, is up to him, and his accountability with how he does that is to the voters in the county, not to us. (…) For the purposes of transparency and citizen involvement, there should be some kind of review board, advisory board, some interaction that allows the sheriff and the public to have conversations about what his deputies are doing and how the community perceives it, and if he properly defines good conduct and properly punishes bad conduct. I think we’d be stomping all over the electorate if we had a review board that said ‘Derek, your officer screwed up and here’s what you’re going to do to that officer.'”
Legislator Martha Robertson suggested adding an additional county Public Safety Committee meeting before the March 31 vote, which committee chair Rich John said he would be open to. The next scheduled Public Safety Committee meeting is on March 18. Robertson asked some clarification questions about certain parts of the program, including what the difference of the unarmed Community Solution Workers would be from the existing police officers or Community Outreach Workers, of which there are already two, positions funded by the city and county.
While there had been some sentiment that the city and county should divide the report, with the city only considering the portions that would include them and the county only considering the portions that would involve them—though both municipalities would theoretically vote on the portions that involve them working collaboratively—the feeling was left relatively untouched after John’s comments.
“I think there’s collective impact of doing this together,” John said, though he acknowledged that the next few weeks may convince the county that it is better to split the report into a county and city section. “Having a consistent, collaborative approach is going to be much stronger. I think we send a much better message out to the community if we can do this as a joint project, and we have a much better chance of reaching the other policing agencies in our county to bring them in to align with what we’re doing if we’re doing it as a joint project.”
Republican Dave McKenna offered the strongest objection to the plan, criticizing the roll-out and stating clearly that he does not support the plan as currently composed. He did acknowledge that his viewpoint could be somewhat adulterated by the fact that his son is a police officer. He said people he has heard from, likely constituents from his district in Enfield and Newfield, are “outraged” by the plan. Democrat Mike Lane, meanwhile, also called the roll-out “self-aggrandizing” by Myrick and argued that enhanced training would be the only way to legitimately and sustainably change policing culture (Myrick reiterated his apology for parts of the roll-out early in the meeting).
“I’m not sure how we attack that fear, but you got to think about your police officers as well,” Lane said. “There have been some really rotten police officers, we’ve heard about them nationally. But most of the police officers are darn good people. (…) This report, I don’t care if the governor said it needs to be done by the 30th, I don’t care what he says. If we’re not ready to go, I’m not going to vote for it. I’m not going to vote for recommendations that I don’t think should be made.”
McBean-Clairborne closed the debate by sharing her thoughts, her most explanatory quotes on her view of the proposal that she offered all night. She pushed back on some of the discussion’s focus on the potential impact on law enforcement, referring to the book “The New Jim Crow” while doing so.
“The purpose behind this was to really address these systemic issues of Black and Brown people, people of color, marginalized groups, who are being killed, and more than killed, their interactions with our public safety systems have not been good,” she said. “Some of them end up being dead, some of them end up with them being imprisoned wrongfully (…) Let’s not lose focus on who we’re supposed to center in this. We respect our law enforcement that are doing things and doing them well. We want them to go home to their families. (…) The one group of people that people are allowed to hate are criminals.”
“Approach this with conviction,” she concluded, referring to racist police violence. “The kind of conviction where we’re saying that, in Tompkins County, we’re going to stand up and be a model that this is not something that is going to come to our community or be there in our community.”