The mayor with Chief John Barber.
Chief Barber

Ithaca, N.Y. — Ithaca police officers receive a small number of complaints a year despite substantial budget cuts and innumerable interactions with the public, Chief John Barber said in a recent speech.

Barber spoke on Aug. 20 at City Hall. (The Voice missed that part of the meeting, but a video of the speech was posted on the police department’s Facebook page earlier this week.)

In it, Barber gives a defense of his officers and explains why general criticisms of the department after an incident involving two unarmed teens have been unfair.

Here are 5 key points and arguments made by the chief:

1 — A lack of community policing is not IPD’s fault

Chief Barber said he has asked Ithaca to fund a community police program but that it hasn’t done so due to budgetary constraints.

“I am fully committed to a community policing program, and I would like nothing more than to have a community policing unit,” he said.

“…I do not have the ability to have officers get out of their cars and wander very far away or to do effective community policing due to the staffing cuts.”

Barber said he asked for support for a “Community Action Team” — among the reforms included in the mayor’s recent proposals — in July.

“I beg you for support for that unit,” he told Ithaca officials.

“Our officers have adopted the philosophy of community policing.”

2 — Police face significant manpower shortages

Ithaca police officers are doing the best they can with diminished resources, the chief said.

“Over the years, especially since I’ve been chief, I’ve been before council and I’ve spoken … about the need to increase the staff in our police department,” Barber said, “when you strip our police department and take away all our ancillary units, and we become a reactive department, you start to see problems.”

In a separate email from before the Aug. 9 incident came to light, Officer Jamie Williamson emailed The Voice detailing the extent of the cuts to police.

“The Ithaca Police Department has seen our staffing levels drastically reduced over the last four to five years,” he said.

“Due to these staffing cuts we are only able to provide those services that are critical to our community. To put it plainly, we are at the ‘mission critical’ stage.”

Cuts include eliminating or not filling positions in the Criminal Investigations Unit, the Special Investigations Unit, the Fleet Manager position, the Warrant Officer position, the Traffic Division, the Commons Unit and the Patrol Division, according to Williamson.

(Among the proposed reforms by the mayor is growing the police department by 10 percent.)

3 — There are few complaints despite a large call volume

Barber stressed that the police department handles a large call volume mostly without complaint.

“It’s a busy, busy department,” he said. “We handle over 20,000 calls a year.”

The 20,000 calls represent only those that become written reports, he said. Total public-police interactions probably amount to more than 100,000, according to the chief.

“And during these interactions, most of them go exceptionally well,” Barber said.

Barber characterized the number of complaints received by the department as “a small number.”

He added that of those complaints received, a good deal of them are quickly resolved.

“Oftentimes, those complaints are resolved simply because it’s a misunderstanding,” he said.

That’s despite the demands of a difficult job that requires difficult decisions, he said.

“…Officers are making split second decisions and they’re doing it with the information they have available to them at that very moment,” Barber said.

4 — Police make personal sacrifices to serve the city

Acknowledging that the officers are paid for their work, Chief Barber said his officers make personal sacrifices to protect Ithaca.

“My staff makes plenty of sacrifices to serve this city: time away from their family, missed birthday parties, missed holidays, etcetera,” he said.

“They are doing an honorable job.”

In his email, which predated the recent events, Officer Williamson also touched on the sacrifices made by IPD’s rank-and-file.

“Officers are often working 12 hour shifts several days a week to make sure the shifts aren’t shorted,” Williamson said. “But they’re getting burned out.”

“They work hard to keep this community safe, and I applaud them for the work they do.”

5 — Violent crime can put Ithaca police officers’ safety at risk

In 1996, Ithaca Police Investigator Michael Padula was stabbed in the neck and killed while on the job.

In October 2012, Ithaca Police Officer Anthony Augustine was shot during a chase in the West Village by a fleeing suspect.

Chief Barber appeared to reference both tragedies in his speech to the city officials, citing an officer’s death and another’s shooting.

“When (police) leave their home to go to work they don’t know if they’re going to be returning that night,” Barber said.

“I would ask that people do not lose sight of that.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.