TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The Community Justice Center, one of the centerpieces of the Reimagining Public Safety proposal, took a step toward becoming a reality last week when the Tompkins County Public Safety Committee approved a resolution that would fund $144,380 of the center on the county’s behalf.

It was passed unanimously by the committee. The resolution is now slated to go before the county’s Budget Committee on May 10 and the full legislature for a final vote on May 18. The City of Ithaca will soon be considering similar expenditures to fund the center. You can watch the Public Safety Committee’s whole meeting here.

It’s the first legislative step forward for the public safety reform effort in the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County since both municipalities voted to submit the Reimagining draft at the beginning of April. The purpose of the Community Justice Center (CJC), as it has been presented throughout the process, is to assist the county and city implement the numerous recommendations aiming to change local law enforcement in accordance with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order, enacted in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.

“I hope this is a chance for all of us to reset,” said Deanna Carrithers, Tompkins County’s Chief Equity and Diversity Officer and one of the architects of the reform proposal, the wake of the approval. “I respect every colleague on this screen, and all the hard work that pre-dates my being here in Tompkins County. (…) The memo does not spell out any details, what it tells us to do is make sure we’re engaged with everyone on this screen. That’s the purpose of the memo, showing us how to move forward, and giving notice to our colleagues at the city as well with the same expectations of how do we bring IPD to the table.”

As currently composed, the Community Justice Center would have two dedicated employees of the county, who would be contracted out to work with the City of Ithaca as well. The Tompkins County Legislature will receive a report from county leadership on the CJC’s progress and any further necessary budget requirements for recommendation implementation prior to any more expenditures beyond the $144K.

This vote was a preliminary step, as was made clear throughout the meeting, but there was an air of significance in the sense that it starts the process, in earnest, of bringing the Reimagining proposal’s to tangible fruition.

“This is an important step forward, among many steps,” said Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John, who had urged that the county move swiftly to prove to the community that the county is adamant about public safety reform. “We feel some pressure to move this along, we really want to send a message to the community that we passed the reimagining resolution, and we want to advance it.”

The discussion was fairly straightforward. Legislator Shawna Black noted that she would like to see other places considered for the center’s location, since it would be near the Mental Health Services building owned by the county (at least, theoretically). Acknowledging that people seeking mental health services are often ashamed or embarrassed because of the stigma attached to getting treatment, Black said she wouldn’t want foot traffic from the CJC to discourage people from using the mental health resources that are already in that location.

“I don’t want it to have a negative feel to it going out the gate,” Black said. “Because we have such a stigma around mental health in this community.”

Black suggested placing the CJC at the Office of Human Rights or the Human Services annex building, which County Administrator Jason Molino said they would keep in mind going forward.

Reigniting his trepidation at the government overstepping Sheriff Derek Osborne, as an elected official, fellow legislator Mike Sigler questioned how Osborne and his office would be involved in the CJC. Molino said that Osborne’s office would be involved along with the entire chain of law enforcement and human services—hopefully generating more transparency, community involvement and equity in criminal justice system outcomes.

“A lot of these initiatives are going to involve the District Attorney’s interaction, Assigned Counsel’s interaction, they’ll probably involve (Department of Social Services’) interaction,” Molino said. “Frankly, most of the Human Services will be called to participate as we start to map out what these recommendations look like.”

Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten agreed with that sentiment.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com