TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– On the same night as the City of Ithaca Common Council special “Meeting of the Whole,” Tompkins County Legislature heard public comments regarding the “Reimagining Public Safety” draft report released last month. Only about a quarter of the speakers added their voices to the conversation regarding reform, including some former and current law enforcement officers and two individuals actually involved in the data-gathering portion of the report.
Peter Meskill, a former Tompkins County sheriff, and his son Mike Meskill, a current Ithaca police officer who works in crash investigation, both spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting about one recommendation in the draft report that asks to limit the amount of traffic stops performed in order to limit unnecessary contact between officers and civilians. The thinking behind the recommendation is to free up time for officers to attend to other pressing issues, as well as to prevent traffic stops from turning into racial violence, as was seen in the cases of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Walter Scott in South Carolina and Sandra Bland in Texas.
Former Sheriff Meskill argued, however, that these violent incidents have not happened here in Tompkins as a result of drivers being pulled over, and that more traffic stops are actually a good thing.
“When I was Sheriff we did a study with a grant from the New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee. The results proved that positive proactive traffic enforcement reduces accidents, injury and death,” he said.
His son Mike Meskill, who again is actively an officer with the City of Ithaca and works with the crash investigation team, reiterated this point.
“Without proactive enforcement of these type of infractions the roadways will become more and more dangerous,” he said. He added, that he thinks he has taken “hundreds” of impaired drivers off the road. The younger Meskill added another point to his argument –– that demographic data from the city align with traffic stop data (essentially saying traffic stops do not appear to be racially motivated.)
Coincidentally, data gathering was actually the other main topic of the public comment portion of the meeting. Officer Matthew Schweiger, who also spoke during the Common Council public hearing to the same point, critiqued the draft report recommendations for not being representative enough, due to the limited time-frame of Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order and the nature of the research. Schweiger cites this portion of the report which lays out flaws in the “community forum” portion of the input.
Belisa Gonzales, a researcher at the center of collecting reflective community feedback, defended the findings included in the draft report, clarifying that the public “community forums” were not inclusive as they were public events sought out by members of the community with strong opinions to share. She added that the more purposeful outreach efforts and “focus groups” were actually more reflective and informed the draft report more heavily.
“The focus group data with the folks we were charged with making extra efforts to reach out to because the executive order 203 (people of color, homeless people, people recently released from incarceration, people dealing with addiction), those focus groups were conducted and the data was collected in a methodologically sound way,” Gonzales said.
Richard Rivera, another person involved with the data collection and creation of the draft report also spoke at the Legislature meeting, saying that even after the recommendations have been released, the people from marginalized groups who he spoke to, felt reflected in what is being proposed.
“Rarely did I hear anything negative about the recommendations,” he said. “They are hopeful that the recommendations will build a new relationship.”
Public feedback is continuing to be gathered, a point reiterated by Legislature Chairwoman Leslyn McBean-Clairborne who asked that anyone with anything to share submit letters to the city, the county and show up at comment opportunities.
“We want this to be as engaging a process as possible and hear from as many voices as we can,” she said.