Ithaca, N.Y. — A federal official with the Department of Justice brought a few dozen members of the Ithaca community together with the police chief, mayor and other city officials Wednesday morning.

Why I shop downtown — Marty

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The idea — said Linda Ortiz, of the US DOJ’s Office of Community Relations Service — is to figure out how to mend a sense of mistrust between the police department and some community members.

Ortiz specifically cited the Aug. 10 incident in Ithaca in which local unarmed teens had a gun drawn on them — and the divide revealed by the ensuing protests. (An internal review later found the sergeant’s actions were justified.)

“This is not a police problem. This is both community and police. And both parties need to work together, because the police department cannot do it by themselves and the community cannot do it by themselves,” Ortiz said.

“It has to come from both. It has to come from both.”

Protesters in Ithaca respond to the Eric Garner decision. The non-indictment of the officer who killed Garner touched off protests in Ithaca referenced at a meeting on Wednesday. (Mike Blaney/IthacaVoice)

DOJ plays mediator

Ortiz emphasized that her role was simply to begin a small part of the process of bringing community members and police officers closer together. She stressed the importance of finding productive, actionable middle ground between the two camps.

In late November, Ortiz began meeting with Ithaca police officers and some community members — how many, and which ones, was a subject of contention — to come up with ideas for improving relations with the community.

Those solutions were then read by Ortiz at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I have hope and I have faith that there are people in this room that are not just here to say, ‘I don’t like this, I don’t like that,’” Ortiz said, “but pick things or highlight some items your community talked about and your police department talked about that you think you can add value to.”

Ortiz read the following list of ideas that came out of the prior meetings:

— A closer partnership with GIAC

— A police athletic league

— More police ride-alongs for community members

— “Community based schools”

— Schools with SROs (resource officers in schools)

— An open house at IPD

— History lessons on policing over the years.

— Making training of civilians and police a permanent member of the culture, not just when there’s a crisis.

— Protocols for crisis management

— Incentives for police officers to do more community engagement

— Presentations in high schools

— Other community meetings

Skepticism, optimism

But many at the meeting thought these initiatives sounded woefully insufficient. James Ricks — who has been vocal in recent protests — questioned IPD Chief John Barber and said that the proposed ideas don’t address “the elephant in the room.”

“The problem is cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it,” Ricks said, citing an officer in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ricks praised Mayor Myrick’s proposal to put body cameras on city cops. But he said he remained troubled by the death of Eric Garner and the decision not to indict the officer who killed him, given that this incident was videotaped.

“I saw … a man murdered in broad daylight videotaped and absolutely nothing done about it,” Ricks said.

It quickly became clear that Ricks wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated about the pace of reforms, their implementation or the process leading to their creation.

“We don’t consider Cayuga Heights a ‘white community’ … why is there a ‘black community?’ If I showed officers a history of West Village and they saw the documents that created (it) … we would have a different kind of education,” Eldred Harris said at the meeting, which was held at the Tompkins County Mental Health Department on Green Street.

Harris said that both police officers and community members need to understand the history of racial oppression that led young black men to think that “standing on the corner is a career path.”

Mayor Myrick, Chief Barber explain measures

Attending the meeting were Chief John Barber and Mayor Myrick, who helped explain the DOJ process and addressed community members’ concerns.

Chief John Barber emphasized that “police brutality is not acceptable in this city — not under my leadership, and if something is found to have happened appropriate action will be taken.” Barber said he didn’t have any complaints of excessive force in the city of Ithaca.

Meanwhile, Myrick acknowledged worries about grand jury proceedings but noted that this falls outside the jurisdiction of his office.

“I hope that today we can focus on what the city of Ithaca can do because of course grand juries are outside the control of the city,” he said to Ricks. “But your point is well taken and it’s something we’re going to have to figure out.”

Myrick faced some questions about why his proposed reforms didn’t gather community feedback before being announced.

He responded that his initiatives were just a beginning and that he has always planned on incorporating community responses into his reforms for the department.

“I sense a sense of urgency around this problem …,” Myrick said. “We can’t wait until all the ideas are on the table to begin implementing the ideas we know are good now.”

“When I put together a plan it’s not a publicity grab, it’s not ill-considered and it’s not outside my level of expertise and authority to do so.”


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Jeff Stein

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