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The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the promotion of public safety through the prosecution of criminal offenses defined under State law, committed within Tompkins County. The District Attorney’s Office is committed to a progressive strategy of diverting individuals from the traditional prosecutorial model toward alternatives to incarceration focused on addressing the underlying individual needs that lead to involvement in the criminal justice system.
The Mission of the Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office is:
To do the right thing, in pursuit of justice, while honoring the Tompkins County Values of Integrity, Accountability, Community and Respect;
To exercise the authority of this office with honesty, fairness, humility and candor;
To hold individuals, ourselves and the criminal justice system accountable for our actions and our decisions;
To promote a safe, healthy, and just community by implementing evidence-based approaches to reducing crime, supporting victims in healing, and demonstrating our commitment that our criminal justice system must be fair for everyone; and
To commit to embracing a culture of inclusiveness where we treat others with dignity, understanding and compassion.
From the Desk of the District Attorney
Reimagining Public Safety (RPS). As District Attorney, my primary focus is public safety. Every person in Tompkins County deserves to live in a place where they are both physically safe and treated with dignity and respect. We should be able to trust the system to work equitably to address conduct that threatens our personal well-being and the sanctity of our homes and businesses. I recognize that we can and must do better, and it is incumbent upon the elected leaders in Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca to embrace this process in good faith with an open mind.
I want to express my commitment to the goals of the Reimagining Public Safety process. Our justice system must address its longstanding inequitable impact on our community. Pursuit of this goal necessitates both an unflinching look at the functioning of our current system and an application of thoughtful changes.
From the very beginning I repeatedly expressed my willingness to assist with the reimagining process. I emphasized the unique perspective my office has with regard to how IPD operates. The District Attorney’s Office relies on the local law enforcement agencies, including the Ithaca Police Department, for the justice system to work effectively.
Though I was designated a technical advisor to the working group, my efforts to provide a background presentation about the local system, the alternatives to incarceration, and the quality of work product we need from IPD were rebuffed. I have been compiling data and analyzing the demographics from our local justice system and I have valuable insights to share.
As a result, I’m concerned that the RPS Working Group has operated without full knowledge of how the local justice system functions. This is reflected in the report. Without an understanding of the interaction between the Ithaca Police Department, the courts and the District Attorney’s Office, a vital piece of the equation is missing, relative to any organization that responds to calls for service.
In a typical scenario in the City of Ithaca:
*IPD responds to a call, investigates, collects evidence, takes photographs, and interviews witnesses.
*IPD determines if charges are applicable and files them with the City Court.
*All paperwork and investigative work product is then sent by IPD to the DA’s Office.
*The attorneys in the DA’s Office review the case, the evidence and the equities, and decide on next steps, whether that is dismissal, diversion, substance abuse or mental health court, probation, or trial.
When it is necessary to file criminal charges against an individual it is critical that the first responders are trained to investigate and collect evidence. If the point is to insist on equity in all interactions with law enforcement, we must conduct thorough and accurate investigations to preserve the rights of all parties involved. Often, we only have one chance to document an event and there can be irreparable consequences if a proper investigation is not conducted. As District Attorney I need assurances that any new approach would not impair the quality of investigations. For example, under the proposal submitted by the working group, an unarmed civilian responder could be the first person to interact with a victim of sexual assault. If evidence is not collected timely and properly, the entire case could be jeopardized. What tools will the civilian responders be equipped with to document an incident? Will they have body worn cameras? Will the civilian responders be trained in the collection of evidence? Public safety could be compromised if we are unable to support a criminal prosecution because of insufficient evidence.
The report, on page 30, questions how to measure success, asking “did the presence of the Division of Community Solutions reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes, like arrest or use of force?” Reducing the use of force by law enforcement is essential. While arrests are inherently negative, they can result in our ability to provide services and the support and supervision that may be necessary to address the underlying conduct.
I support all of the training suggested by the report (crisis intervention, procedural justice, implicit bias, enhanced communication techniques, trauma informed training, brain development, conflict resolution, critical thinking/problem-solving, collaborative public safety, data collection, among others) but these suggestions don’t go far enough. For example, there is no mention of the training that would need to be provided to the dispatchers who take the calls and determine whether to send an unarmed civilian or an armed police officer.
The opportunity to reimagine and improve our public safety institutions in Ithaca and Tompkins County is one that we should take with the utmost seriousness. This is a chance to rebuild the community’s relationship with the police and regain the trust of its most vulnerable citizens. Taking this process seriously means listening to all stakeholders. It’s not too late to get this right, but that will require a more cooperative effort than we have seen so far.
Tompkins County DA Matt Van Houten was one of the signatories of the JOINT STATEMENT FROM ELECTED PROSECUTORS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT LEADERS CONDEMNING THE CRIMINALIZATION OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE AND GENDER-AFFIRMING HEALTHCARE.
I am proud to announce that I am one of the fifteen prosecutors selected from across the nation to participate in this extremely important effort to bring more innovation and best practices to prosecutors’ offices in smaller jurisdictions.
From: Institute for Innovation in Prosecution <email@example.com>
Sent: Wednesday, June 9, 2021 11:29 AM
To: Matthew Van Houten <MVH@tompkins-co.org>
Subject: Launching the IIP’s Beyond Big Cities Initiative
I was one of more than 60 elected district attorneys to sign a joint statement condemning the attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021. The joint statement, prepared by the Institute for Fair and Just Prosecution, can be read here.
District Attorney Van Houten is one of the nearly 100 criminal justice leaders who signed the joint statement on December 3, 2020, calling for an immediate end to the Federal Death Penalty.
I recently participated in a webinar put on by the Institute for Innovative Prosecution, focusing on mental health interventions and the specific work of the San Antonio Police Department in Texas. I think this is something that we can learn from in our community and I’m hopeful that we can integrate this into our discussions as part of the Reimagining Public Safety task force.
Message from Tompkins County Administration:
Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative Updates, Announcing Series of Community Voices Public Forums, Additional Input Opportunities
Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca are announcing a series of community engagement opportunities and seeking the public’s input to help reimagine public safety. The collaborative effort follows an executive order from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo requiring all municipalities with police departments in New York State to adopt a plan for reinvention by April 1, 2021. Members of the Ithaca and Tompkins County community are encouraged to review public forums and presentations shared by City and County officials and provide input.
The County and City will be hosting a series of Community Voices Public Forums for community members to share perspectives and visions for reimagining public safety. Community members are encouraged to provide input based on their recent interactions with law enforcement and thoughts on the role of trust in policing and public safety.
The first Community Voices Forum will be held on Friday, November 6 from 4:30pm – 6:00pm, using Zoom’s webinar function for live comment, livestreaming on YouTube. Members of the community are invited to participate. The moderator will use a timer displayed on the screen and participants will speak one at a time. Officials from Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca will be present, and all input shared in public forums will be archived and shared with working groups developing the reimagining public safety plan. Forums will occur weekly on Fridays through December 4, 2020 at 4:30pm, with the exception of November 27. An additional forum will be held on Saturday November 14.
Additional opportunities for community input are available and are listed below, online, and on a document being distributed widely throughout the community:
- Fill out this online form
- Leave a voice mail with input by calling 607-274-5465
- Submit a paper input form. Download here or pick up at the Tompkins County Public Library (Starting November 5)
- Mail Attn: Reimagining Public Safety
- 125 E. Court St.
Ithaca, N.Y. 14850
- 125 E. Court St.
- Drop Off:
- Mayor’s Listening Post (Mailbox)
108 E. Green St.
Ithaca, NY 14850
- Tompkins County Drop Box
125 E. Court St.
Ithaca, NY 14850
- Mayor’s Listening Post (Mailbox)
- The Tompkins County Public Library is offering hours at computer stations to watch community forums and submit feedback. (Starting Nov 5th)
- Open at 101 E. Green St, Ithaca, NY 14850, Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-1pm, and Saturdays 3pm-6pm
- Mail Attn: Reimagining Public Safety
A timeline of the reimagining public safety process, a list of working group members, and details on how the community can submit input are available online, and on this downloadable paper input form.
Members of the community who would like to receive updates on the process and announcements of future community forums via email can fill out this online form.
I am proud to sign the joint statement from more than 68 elected prosecutors across the nation, pledging to protect the reproductive rights of our constituents. Thank you to Fair and Just Prosecution, https://fairandjustprosecution.org/, for putting this together. (Joint Statement From Elected Prosecutors )
Message from the County Administrator Regarding Police Reform in Tompkins County:
I will be hosting a public forum on police reform on Thursday, October 15 at 5pm. The forum will be streamed on Tompkins County’s YouTube channel and is part of the collaborative effort to reform policing with the City of Ithaca. As you may know, all municipalities with police departments are required to submit a policing reform plan to New York State by April 1, 2020 in response to State executive order 203 following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota earlier this year.
You are invited to review a prepared overview of Tompkins County governmental departments that report to the Public Safety Committee of the County Legislature and provide input on police reform via this survey. You can also provide input through the YouTube chat function during the forum. Additional engagement opportunities, including ways for individuals to engage without internet access, will be shared with the community in the coming weeks.
The forum kicks off a series of public engagement opportunities that will be shared as Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca work with the Center for Policing Equity to review data and create reform plans. During the forum, I will provide a high-level overview of Tompkins County governmental departments, as well as share trends from community responses to the survey and outline next steps in the police reform process.
Please feel free to forward this information to anyone you feel may be interested, and I hope to see you Thursday evening.
We have an opportunity to reinvent public safety here in Tompkins County and I am very much looking forward to participating in this process. The County task force should be starting its work soon and the voice of the District Attorney is extremely important in that dialogue. The Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School has published a five-step policy plan that I think is insightful and well written. Five-Step Policy Plan
The Institute for Innovation in Prosecution is a valuable resource for prosecutors who are committed to evolving and improving the criminal justice system. The 2020 document, Prosecutorial Culture Change: A Primer, is a well written paper that I have distributed to the attorneys in this office. While we already employ many of the recommended practices, there is always more to learn and we embrace our obligation to constantly improve. Prosecutorial Culture Change: A Primer.pdf
The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office is committed to implementing the best practices from progressive prosecutors across the country. Studies like the Brennan Center for Justice’s “21 Principles for the 21st Century Prosecutor” are extremely important and reflective of our local criminal justice system’s focus on the implementation of practices that promote public safety while treating individuals with dignity and respect. https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_21st_century_prosecutor.pdf