TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislature has voted against moving forward with a proposal to co-locate the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Ithaca Police Department at a shared site. The 5-8 vote came about a year after the county and city agreed to commission a preliminary study to identify possible shared sites, and after significant debate during Tuesday’s meeting.
A vote for the resolution on the floor would not have assured co-location was in the future for the two law enforcement agencies; it would have been an incremental step toward a final decision, authorizing staff to define the scope and estimate the budget for an in-depth feasibility study. A vote against the resolution, however, effectively scuttled the possibility of co-location.
“If we vote it down today, it’s dead,” Legislature Chair Martha Robertson said about an hour into the night’s tense discussion.
Legislators Robertson, Rich John, Anna Kelles, Dan Klein and Leslyn McBean-Clairborne voted in favor of moving forward and pursuing a feasibility study. John (District 4, City of Ithaca), who chairs the Public Safety Committee and has led the effort to evaluate co-location, said the county would be passing by an opportunity to make local criminal justice more efficient if it didn’t proceed with a study.
“This is a generational decision we would be making at this point if we vote not to go forward with this study.” John later added, “I don’t know whether (a shared site) is a good idea. I can tell you that if we think we know right now, we don’t. This is a multivariable problem.”
Legislators Shawna Black, Deborah Dawson, Amanda Champion, Henry Granison, Anne Koreman, Mike Lane, David McKenna and Glenn Morey voted against pursuing a study, with Dawson (District 10, Villages of Lansing and Cayuga Heights) leading the opposition. (Legislator Mike Sigler was excused.)
Dawson said it was common sense that the Sheriff’s Office should remain at its present location, Warren Road in Lansing, given that about 65% of calls for service come from the northeast portion of the county. She also argued that the two agencies have incompatible institutional cultures that would be exacerbated at a shared location.
“Co-location will merely force personnel in each of these departments to confront these differences … every working hour,” she said, citing each agency’s workplace culture, salary scale, benefits scheme, overtime policies and union representation.
Why pursue a shared site?
Locating the Sheriff’s Office and IPD at a single site could potentially improve the efficiency of each department while cutting costs, advocates for further study argued Tuesday. By building a shared location, the county and city would not be consolidating the two departments. Nevertheless, a preliminary feasibility study found a shared site would facilitate some joint police operations and members of the county’s Municipal Courts Task Force said it could speed up criminal justice processes.
Attorney Ray Schlather and Judge Scott Miller, members of the task force, spoke in favor of studying co-location. Schlather said a shared site would facilitate central arraignment and booking, which would mean that after making an arrest, an officer or deputy could get back on the road more quickly. After making an arrest now, officers need to supervise the arrestee until a local magistrate is available for an arraignment. A centralized booking facility and arraignment process would create a holding cell for both law enforcement agencies and a process for faster arraignments.
“If we could do central booking and central arraignment, we could achieve some significant efficiencies in our criminal justice system,” Legislator John said.
While the question of whether to rebuild or relocate the county jail is independent from the question of whether to co-locate the sheriff’s road patrol division with IPD, some legislators who voted in favor of further study said they wanted more information about the possibility of moving the jail to a more central location.
Robertson and Kelles both said it is difficult for family to visit people who are held at the county jail on Warren Road, and said that if the county eventually decides to rebuild the jail, it would be worth considering a downtown location.
An initial feasibility study identified 100 Commercial Ave. in the City of Ithaca as a preferred site for a shared sheriff’s office and IPD complex and said the site would be suitable for a jail building. Tuesday’s discussion was carried out with the assumption that other co-location sites would be studied too, though.
While advocates for further study listed some possible benefits of a shared site, their most consistent case for moving forward was that the county needs more information to reach a responsible decision.
“I feel like we’re already making this decision without having all of the information,” said McBean-Clairborne after listening to her colleagues’ arguments against co-location. She emphasized that she was not voting in favor of co-location at this point, but in favor of getting more information.
Robertson similarly accused colleagues of pre-judging the results of a feasibility study before one had been carried out. To her, she said, it sounded like those opposed to moving forward “are afraid that a study might prove that your preconception is wrong.”
The case for scuttling co-location
Those who voted against moving forward were not opposed to further study per se, but rather argued it would be a waste of time and money because they are opposed to co-location itself.
While co-locating the two departments would not have meant combining them, Dawson objected that creating a shared site was a way of initiating a slide toward consolidated departments in the future.
“I’m not sure whether we’re trying to arrange a shotgun marriage here or just move the kids in together because it’s cheaper that way,” she said.
Dawson said working alongside IPD officers, albeit in separate buildings, would heighten deputies’ dissatisfaction with their lower pay and benefits over their careers. With two different mangers — the appointed police chief and elected sheriff — she said it would be difficult to create a shared workplace culture.
She and others further objected to moving the sheriff’s office to the City of Ithaca on the basis that most calls for service come from Lansing, Dryden, Groton and the northeast portion of the Town of Ithaca. While deputies often respond to calls from where they are patrolling, rather than from headquarters, some legislators worried relocation would delay responses to calls in the county’s northeast.
Legislator Black pointed out that when first responders call for back-up, additional deputies often come from the main office building. She said the call volume in Lansing is high because it is a commercial center and is only going to increase as the Econolodge is used as an emergency shelter and when the Alcohol & Drug Council’s detox facility opens.
Kelles countered that the legislature’s responsibility is to consider what’s best for the whole county, not individual districts or municipalities. “When we’re asking for the entire county what is the best-case scenario, I think we have to do a study to answer that,” she said, later adding, “It behooves us to evaluate whether or not at least the shared location of the administration and road patrol would save significant amounts of money for our taxpayers.” She pointed out that Lansing does not pay for a local police department despite its growing population and commerce, whereas City of Ithaca residents pay for both police and sheriff services.
Dawson said it would be inefficient for Lansing to have its own police department and is common sense to keep the sheriff’s facilities closest to high call volume areas.
With co-location off the table, the county and city will proceed independently with plans to improve their public safety facilities. Each says their law enforcement office buildings are in disrepair, and a study is already underway to evaluate options for renovating or rebuilding the jail.
The county could still move toward centralized booking and arraignment. Regardless of where the police and sheriff’s offices are located, a central booking and arraignment facility could be built adjacent to the county jail. Such a facility would require support from Albany, though. Current state law requires that arraignment takes place in the jurisdiction where a person is arrested, or if no magistrate is available, in the nearest jurisdiction with an available magistrate. The state would need to change the law to allow Tompkins County to arraign people in a central facility rather than in municipal courts.
The city had already approved staff time to define the scope of a co-location feasibility study, but without the county’s participation, will move forward with finding its own site for the police department.