Ithaca, N.Y. — The Ithaca Common Council voted Wednesday night to allow the Ithaca Police Department to accept a $100k grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
The grant will go to fund equipment such as suits to protect officers from chemicals and nuclear radiation, a tactical robot, and night vision goggles.
The grant passed by a margin of 8-1. Only Council member Cynthia Brock of the first ward voted in opposition. Steven Smith, of the fourth ward, did not attend the meeting.
The vote came at the end of a long evening for city politics that saw over 250 people surround the City Hall to raise awareness of what they called police militarization and, some said, the racial prejudice of law enforcement.
Speeches were given by members of the public and by city officials on topics of race relations and the safety of the city’s children. Many called for further investigation into the incident which occurred Aug. 10 where unarmed teens had a gun pulled on them by an Ithaca police sergeant.
Over the past month, public officials in the city have been quick to draw a distinction between the incident on August 10 and the Ithaca Police Department’s Homeland Security Grant.
And when, by the end of the evening, the protesters had cleared out and the Common Council was left to makes its decision, the conversation between the council members appeared to largely take this distinction for granted.
The public, council members suggested, may have decided to hold their rally on this particular night — but that was only because they had mistaken the actual purpose of the Homeland Security Grant. These council members tended to say that the grant would actually improve safety.
However, council member Brock said the public’s views did in fact have a bearing on what the council was about to decide.
“I’m convinced,” Brock said, “that as we continue to equip and train our officers to use para-military tactics in our policing we will undermine out efforts to build relationships with our community.”
Barber defends IPD, backs equipment
Police Chief John Barber emphasized that the grant money will be used to purchase tools that will help keep officers and the public safe. He said he resented the notion, suggested in the public discussion, that the police force wasn’t doing an excellent job of engaging and communicating with the community.
“We are doing this already,” Chief Barber said. “Let’s face it: police officers are social workers.”
What the community needs, Barber said, is to become more educated on what the life of a police officer is actually like. He suggested bringing back the Citizen’s Police Academy as a way of familiarizing community members the responsibilities of police work.
Barber said that it is difficult for most members of the public to appreciate what it’s like making split-second decisions.
“There aren’t a lot of occupations that require split-second decisions,” Barber said at the meeting. “We don’t have the luxury of members of counsel – and I’ll just use you as an example – to sit back and debate and discuss and table, etc. We’re making these decisions at that very moment.”
Barber and the Ithaca police accompanying him said the equipment would help reduce violence during those volatile moments.
At the meeting, Brock expressed the worry that by seeking and accepting these federal grants, the Ithaca Police Department might be framing their mission in terms provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
“Their mission is to train and deal with counterterrorism analysis and IED awareness,” she said.
Counterterrorism is the explicit goal of the Department of Homeland Securities Grants Program.
An online overview of the grants program states, “A key focus and requirement of the HSGP [Homeland Security Grants Program] is to prevent terrorism and to prepare the Nation for the threats and hazards that pose the greatest risk to the security and resilience of the United States, and the greatest risks along the Nation’s borders; therefore, HSGP funded investments must have a terrorism-nexus.”
What exactly is a terrorism-nexus, and are the citizens of Ithaca comfortable with their police department having one?
That’s the question Brock raises. In an interview Thursday, Brock discussed some of the subtler effects of accepting these sorts of grants.
“The programs and the training we fund will reflect itself in the philosophy and services that our departments provide,” she said. “When we direct our staff towards anti-terrorism tactics and bomb prevention we reinforce in our staff that our attention should be focused on looking at our community as a threat.”
Real threats and community awareness
But, as Barber’s comments Wednesday suggest, the community can sometimes pose threats, and it’s because of the police department’s specialized equipment that they’ve been able to mitigate these threats in the past.
“This is grant specific money for tactical operations,” Barber said. “Our tactical team has been in operation for 16 years. It was formed after investigator Michael Pedula was murdered in the line of duty. […] We’ve had 172 call outs since its inception and every one of them has ended without loss of life to either a police officer or a suspect.”
In the meeting Wednesday night, Brock attested to the skill and professionalism of the Ithaca police. However, she said Thursday that citizens she’s spoken to Ithaca – and especially those living in her district, the first ward – do not feel that the police are there to serve them.
“The police are not providing an environment where the community feels protected,” she said. “People say they feel like they are under siege.”
Brock said that in order for a program like the Citizen’s Police Academy to be successful, it must be able to include communities and individuals which don’t normally participate in programs such as this.
“We need to make sure that people living in areas such as the first ward have opportunities to build relationships with the police,” she said.