TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Legislature passed the Reimagining Public Safety draft proposal on Tuesday night after several hours of debate and discussion, not just then but over the last several weeks since the plan was initially introduced. It was the first major hurdle for the proposal, which is now being separately considered by the City of Ithaca Common Council on Wednesday night. The approved proposal is due back to New York State by April 1, as mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The county did not vote on some of the more controversial points of the proposal that only impact the City of Ithaca, most notably the first recommendation detailing the replacement of the Ithaca Police Department with a Community Solutions and Public Safety Department, made up of armed and unarmed community workers. Additionally, they declined to make a definitive decision on what to do with the SWAT vehicle that is slated for repurposing, opting instead to wait to see if the City of Ithaca wants to keep it or give it to the county.
Regardless, the legislature voted to approve the proposal and will now wait to see what the City of Ithaca decides to do with their portion, since some of the recommendations call for joint work between the two municipalities. The vote was 11-2, with only Mike Sigler and Glenn Morey both voting against its approval. Here is the proposal as it was presented in the agenda, though subsequent changes are noted throughout this story:
Before the vote, there was obviously a long, extensive discussion. It began with some introductory comments from various legislators setting up their thoughts before amendments were proposed.
“The report is an imperfect document as well, it would have been better if we had more time,” said legislator Rich John. “We are working with an April 1 deadline, and that’s unfortunate in a way, on the other hand, it has forced us to address this issue in a meaningful way, with a deadline in mind.”
Directly after John’s comments, the legislature began introducing potential amendments to the resolution. Legislator Anne Koreman wanted to bypass the “evaluation” portion of one of the recommendations, which called for the evaluation of the creation of an independent Tompkins County Public Safety Review Board. Her suggestion, though, was shot down.
Afterwards, legislator Martha Robertson wondered why the Community Justice Center hadn’t been included in the resolution, since it has long been talked about as the mechanism through which most of the reforms would take place. She had proposed an amendment to reinclude it in the final resolution, though her request was also defeated.
“I don’t want to say it’s none of the state’s business, but it isn’t, it’s our business and we will do it,” John said. He did say that the Public Safety Committee is dedicated to forming a Community Justice Center, but separate from the entire draft proposal. “I’d prefer we keep it parallel to how the city is doing it.”
Legislator Shawna Black echoed John, and worried that some legislators might bail on their support for the resolution if the Community Justice Center, a $250,000 project, is included in the resolution. The majority of county legislators essentially wanted to refrain from locking themselves into a certain framework by which they’d have to achieve the reforms as opposed to marrying the county to the idea of establishing a Community Justice Center.
Robertson continued to object, saying that she felt the county was being too deferential to what the City of Ithaca was planning to do and that the issues of “fleshing out” the Community Justice Center, which prevented some legislators from supporting it, existed similarly with nearly every proposal. Legislator Henry Granison agreed with her, but the pair’s efforts were futile.
“What’s serious to me is adding in there that the legislature will commit funding,” Legislature Chair Leslyn McBean-Clairborne said. “That’s much more serious, that we will commit funding to fleshing out something to accomplish these recommendations rather than a specific tool like the (Community Justice Center), because we don’t know if that’s what it is.”
Public comments were few but lengthy, though largely in opposition of the proposal for a variety of reasons: criticism of the draft report’s survey and findings, questioning whether or not the planned changes were too sweeping, etc. Still, there was one of the four commenters speaking out strongly in favor of the proposed changes.
Probably the topic that dominated most of the debate was the ownership of the SWAT truck, which the draft report says should be repurposed for use by the Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response.
“If the legislature decides you don’t want to take ownership of the truck, the city will retain ownership and we will still pursue a repurposing,” said Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. Legislator Martha Robertson commended that, but asked if using the vehicle for Department of Emergency Response purposes was going far enough, if the SWAT vehicle was as much of a lightning rod as Myrick has suggested (she used the phrase “lipstick on a pig”).
Further responding, Myrick said he endorsed the recommendation as it appeared in the draft report, which calls for its repurposing. He said that would be better than just getting rid of the vehicle, since at least it would then still provide some benefit to the community.
“Failing that, if that doesn’t get enough votes from legislature or Common Council, I think we can still go beyond a rebranding,” Myrick said.
More discussion followed, including Sigler wondering if the repurposing of the SWAT vehicle would indicate the end of the SWAT team in general, to which Myrick said no. Eventually, the group decided to strike Recommendation 13 from the final resolution.
Legislator Henry Granison then offered a slew of amendments, only one of which was approved: to develop comprehensive outreach plan to connect law enforcement and residents, which may include community policing. That amendment was approved and added as an 18th recommendation, to be considered Wednesday at the Common Council meeting with the other recommendations. Granison also offered an amendment to evaluate a potential residency requirement for the Tompkins County Sheriff’s deputies to have to live inside the county. Mike Lane said he wouldn’t be able to support it, citing officer’s fears over possible retribution against their families.
“The idea is wonderful, but things do happen,” Lane said. “Where they choose to live, we ought to respect that.”
Robertson, though, said that the county is large enough and that it would help the public understand that police officers are part of the community. She suggested the idea of “carrots instead of sticks,” citing the City of Ithaca’s abandoned plan that placed at least one police officer as a tenant in West Village, a low-income housing complex in West Hill that often faces crime reports.
Osborne said that such a requirement would disqualify “most” of his deputies, since they live in neighboring counties and commute to work. Robertson, instead, suggested they evaluate tools to encourage police officers to live in Tompkins County, which was accepted by Granison but failed to pass the legislature. The amendment eventually failed.
McBean-Clairborne closed the amendment process by encouraging those on the legislature and in the public to keep in mind the goals of Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 and to try to center the struggles of marginalized communities, particularly those of Black people in interactions with law enforcement. As she has consistently said, she wanted to emphasize that even with the passing of the resolution, the work is far from over—a message she seemed to be communicating to both the public and fellow legislators.
“We know this isn’t just a law enforcement issue,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I want to ensure the community: this is not the end of it.”
There was brief but vivid debate over the actual resolution once all the amendments had been discussed and voted on. Frankly, after weeks of negotiating and back-and-forth, legislators seemed eager to finish the vote once they had sifted through all the amendments and come to an acceptable final resolution.
“We do need to work on that with police, and the police know it too,” Sigler said of frustrations with police conduct and police’s ability to solve cases locally. He also endorsed consideration of the plan extended by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association in response to the formal Reimagining proposal as a gesture of good faith, since the IPBA has consistently said they felt left out of the proposal planning (though this has been disputed by others involved). “They’re going to say ‘You didn’t really listen to us.’ (…) I don’t think we’ve sold this to the people who it will impact.”
Sigler reignited his criticism of the proposal’s rollout and his belief that the police weren’t involved enough in the proposal formulation, though that has been rejected by those involved in its formulation. He also criticized the involvement of Richard Rivera, a local homeless advocate who spent 40 years in prison for killing a police officer during a botched robbery in New York City. Rivera’s role was mostly conducting outreach to gather feedback from marginalized communities, such as the homeless, but his involvement has become a sticking point for some—including a story in the New York Post this week.
Dawson noted this after Sigler finished his comments.
“My views on policing are quite a bit different than a person of color or a member of the LGBT community whose interactions with law enforcement have really sucked,” Dawson said, clarifying her vote in support of the proposal.
McBean-Clairborne specifically said she wanted to amplify recommendation seven, which calls for a community healing plan between the public and the police department. Those were some of the final words of the night, as the legislators and city residents turn their attention to Common Council at 6 p.m. Wednesday.