TOMPKINS COUNTY, NY — The Community Justice Center (CJC) has seen its action plans for 2022 and 2023 approved by the City of Ithaca and the Tompkins County Legislature before the end of the year, opening the working runways to begin a slate of public safety reforms.
Among the plans is a pilot program for a joint response program, which would bring together law enforcement officers and mental health professionals to respond to a mental health crisis; A traffic study is to be conducted to ascertain whether there is any bias in who is stopped by the local police; In addition to a broad effort to implement a community recovery program to build understanding and repair trust between the police and the people of the county.
These initiatives, and others, arose in the 19 recommendations outlined in the Public Safety Reimagining Plan approved by the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County in April 2021. The action plan’s passage comes more than a year and a half since both the county and Ithaca embarked on their joint and separate public safety reform initiatives .
And although the process seemed slow, the approval of CJC’s action plans is nonetheless a significant milestone, says Mona Smiley, director of the Center for Community Justice.
“It was a big hitch, and it was a huge relief once that was done, because that allows us to move forward with the plans,” Smiley said.
smiley She stepped into her turn As director of the CJC in February 2021, until recently, he was essentially the sole figure behind the work of the center. However, she said Voice of Ithaca CJC has now filled a long open data analyst position to kick off the new year. For community members who have questions about the center’s work, Smiley said, “I’m open […] I would love if people wanted to contact me directly. said Smiley. We want to be transparent. And if we’re stagnant and struggling, that’s exactly what I can share with them. But if things are moving, I’ll be happy to give people in the community an update on exactly where we’re at and what we’re working on.”
With a launch tentatively planned for sometime in February, Smiley said the Joint Response Pilot Program is going into action with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. The pilot program will see a Licensed Clinical Therapist (LCT) accompany an appointed Deputy Mayor on calls involving a mental health crisis.
The staffing for the LCT will be staffed by the Tompkins County Mental Health Department which has been running a similar joint response program called the Mobile Crisis Team (MCT). The Joint Response pilot will be, in a sense, based on the MCT. Therapists from the Department of Mental Health’s clinic took on crisis response as an additional role they attempted to fulfill during their normal working day, but the demand for their services proved unsustainable in addition to their regular duties.
Within the larger national conversation of emergency and crisis response, an often pondered question is whether it is always necessary to have an armed officer on the scene, or if there are calls that can only be handled by mental health professionals. The main tension of this question is safety – does a police officer armed with a firearm make emergency response inherently more dangerous, or is it safer to have that level of force to respond to any threat that might arise while on a scene?
With the way the pilot is intended to be carried out, Smiley said, “there will always be an officer presence”.
While the sheriff’s office will begin the pilot program in the new year, it’s unclear if and when the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) will begin. The business plan details IPD’s participation in the pilot program, but Smiley said, “I’m not 100% sure that’s going to happen with IPD. I know they’ve expressed their agreement, and we’re interested in that.”
The city’s own controversial recommendation from the Reimagining Public Safety plan called for the Ithaca Police Department to be restructured under the umbrella of the Community Safety Department, which aims to house mental health and social service providers along with armed law enforcement professionals.
Both the co-response pilot program and the new section formation seem to be trying to achieve a similar, if not the same, goal. On the other hand, launching a pilot program with CJC is likely to start addressing the needs of those experiencing a mental health crisis faster than waiting for a new division to form.
The City of Ithaca, Mayor Laura Lewis, and the Ithaca Police Department did not respond to questions about the JRC Joint Response Pilot Program sent by Voice of Ithaca.
The CJC pilot program is an endeavor separate from the City of Ithaca that would potentially restructure the police department to include specialized mental health personnel along with police officers. After concerns were raised about a report detailing recommendations for the formation of this new department, the Joint Council of Ithaca created the Special Committee to Reimagine Public Safety.
The committee aims, in part, to make additional recommendations about what this new section might look like, if formed, and to tie up any loose ends in the process. It is worth mentioning that The Tompkins County District Attorney’s office has been excluded from the discussion about forming a new division Until the Special Committee began meeting.
Smiley said the recommendations of the committee, chaired by Alderbert George McGonigal, should not affect whether or not the City of Ithaca participates in the pilot programme. The CJC will also work with consultants to conduct a traffic study to determine if there is any bias in how police enforce traffic laws. The study proved to be a hurdle for the Joint Council of Ithaca, which had recently approved other traffic studies and was trying to decide whether to pay for two studies to do the same.
What was lacking was focus and why [the study] said Smiley. She added: “Long before I started – when they were in the planning stages of the recommendations – community members identified that they felt unsafe and/or were being targeted at the traffic stop. So this is really [why the traffic study falls] under the umbrella of reimagined public safety.”
Among the projects that have already formed working groups is the Officers’ Wellness Program, whose development the Supreme Judicial Council seeks to eliminate. Backend was able to get the program started, Smiley said, and that next steps would include talking with officers to structure the program.
Law enforcement and community members will be brought together in a “community recovery plan.” What this would look like, Smiley said, would be members of the BIPOC community, or any other member of the community who has been sidelined by the police in dialogue with police officers.
An outside expert would be brought in to start the process, Smiley said, but the program was supposed to continue. “We will have someone from law enforcement locally within our community, and someone from the community who will be able to keep the space on an ongoing basis,” Smiley said.
She added, “We have to be able to allow law enforcement to address their concerns or issues, as well as the community. So both sides are heard, and then they can come together.”