ITHACA, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Legislature officially approved new security measures at the county’s Human Services Building on West State Street/West Seneca Street, as employees’ fears about the immediate surroundings in the neighborhood have resulted in expanded security at the building’s entrance. 

Legislators hesitantly embraced the move, noting the inherent problems with putting more security at the front of the building, including an armed guard and a metal detector. But most acknowledged that it was a necessary move. 

“I hope the sad irony here doesn’t escape people’s attention,” said Lee Shurtleff, (R-Groton) at Tuesday night’s meeting. “I’m saddened more than anything to have to do this. We spent a lot of time here reimagining public safety. One of those areas is to take a look at how we can unarm responders, and there’s various efforts going on to do that, and here we are in the busiest facility we operate, arming our responders. […] We’re off the track here. When we have 300-400 employees in that building who are unsafe and how many constituents that are availing themselves of the services down there, it’s terrible.” 

Legislators Shawna Black, Veronica Pillar, Randy Brown and Anne Koreman all shared similar sentiments—that the problem is complex given the population that often frequents the DSS building and the county’s efforts to not increase police duties or presence, but that a better current solution doesn’t seem to exist. 

“The whole idea about Reimagining was how you deal with people without policing,” said Legislator Travis Brooks. He said he preferred more security guards instead of police, but understood that wasn’t feasible because of union issues. “But in this situation, you have to keep people safe. To find ourselves here, it is unfortunate, but what people need in this community and what people are going through is a lot more stressful and strenuous than it has been in the past.”

Brooks and Legislator Greg Mezey also noted that they believe the need for more security at the building are a result of a failure by the city to properly police the area. 

The bill provides funding for six months, with the intention to review again during the 2023 budget formulation process in October. The building will be staffed by Tompkins County Sheriff deputies, but won’t pull any of them off of their regular schedules or patrols. 

Earlier this month, at the Tompkins County Government Operations Committee meeting, County Administrator Lisa Holmes brought forth the resolution that would add extra security to the front fo the building. In the resolution, she called for adding a magnetometer — a metal detector that can detect things like handguns — to screen visitors and armed security guards to address any incidents that may arise. Currently, she said the building only has unarmed security guards and no way to screen for weapons.

At the meeting, Holmes cited recent violent incidents as the motivation for extra security. She noted that, most notably, there was a shooting on West Seneca Street after which a suspect went through the building’s courtyard while fleeing the scene, sending the building into lockdown. Holmes said that the county has prided itself on the accessibility of services, but extra security is needed to help maintain this level of access.

“I believe we’re at a point now in the area of the human services building where I believe a higher level of security is warranted and would improve the environment and the access for the public and the safety and security of the public and the staff,” Holmes said.

Holmes said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to have face-to-face meetings or interactions has been waived for various DSS meetings. However, despite the fewer number of people in the building over the past couple years she said there are still violent incidents.

Additionally, Holmes said that she is expecting DSS to reinstate in-person requirements in the next couple months, meaning more people will be coming in and out of the building. 

Kit Kephart, Tompkins County Commissioner of Social Services, said at the meeting that employees felt better and safer in the building after the last incident when deputies were in the building for a few days.

“We have also seen an increase in concerns where people are coming into our building and they are agitated,” she said.

Kephart said that because of the pandemic, employees are seeing people come to the building in rougher shape and in need of the services provided. She also said that people come into the building experiencing mental health crises or medical problems or overdosing. Kiphart also said that there are sometimes long wait times to see someone and the wait can agitate people.

“We’re seeing increased risk,” she said. “We are getting reports from our security staff that they are aware that people come in and they are carrying weapons.”

In an interview with The Ithaca Voice Holmes said she reached out to colleagues in other counties to see what kind of security they had in their DSS buildings and the consensus was a magnetometer and armed security guards. She said that, often, these were added after a tragedy occurred, but she wants Tompkins County to add these security measures before a tragedy can happen.

“The accessibility of the building pairs with the priority of safety for all visitors,” Holmes said. “We want to have a building environment that is both accessible to the public as well as safe for the public and the staff that enter the building.”