Ithaca, N.Y. — What does it take to mend community-police relations in Ithaca?

Why I shop downtown — Carmen

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Local leaders have publicly wrestled with some big ideas: body cameras on cops; a police residency requirement; a new Ithaca police satellite on the west side.

But at a meeting in Ithaca Monday night that lasted over three hours, it was the unglamorous, everyday work — not just the sweeping and headline-worthy — that became clear as being equally essential.

“It’s the small things that can make the big things productive,” said Marcia Fort, director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, which hosted the meeting in its gym.

“It’s the logistics that can make it successful — the locations, the food, the hours, the child care.”

Alderperson Seph Murtagh was one of many city officials who attended the meeting in the GIAC gym Monday night.

Consider the heavy lifting required to put on just one event:

— Six trays of hot food, donated by volunteers, so attendees wouldn’t have to pick between dinner and the meeting; dozens of folding tables covered with tablecloths.

— Two people to provide daycare in the “peewee room” of GIAC, so parents could attend while having their kids looked after.

— Dozens of hours from unpaid volunteers like Ithaca resident Jaimi Hendrix and the time of officials like Fort; planning meetings from city leaders; countless email exchanges and phone calls.

— Sacrificed weeknights from nearly 100 local residents, city officials and a group of Ithaca police officers during the quiet stretch between Christmas and New Year’s.

“I think there are people who think, ‘We can do a little hop-scotch and get to where we need to be,’” Fort says. “But we didn’t get to where we are quickly; these are long-standing problems (created) over a long period, and it’s going to take time.”

The primary purpose of the meeting held Monday was modest by the organizers’ own admission: To get community members’ input of their “vision of community and police relations” — plans that can then be passed on to the mayor and police chief.

“This is one meeting. This is one initiative of a lot that are taking place,” Fort said.

The meeting of nearly 100 people later split up into “working groups” of about 10.

Fort said that an Aug. 10 incident in which two unarmed Ithaca teens had a weapon pulled on them by a sergeant spurred an increase in interest in police-community relations.

Protests over that incident drew on anger over national events — particularly the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner — and led to several expressions of frustration with police over the last few months.

Earlier this month, an official with the Department of Justice held a meeting in downtown Ithaca to discuss similar topics. But that process was criticized by some for a variety of reasons, leading others in Ithaca to seek to restart the process.

The event Monday began with an information session before the large group of nearly 100 people dispersed into smaller “working groups” of about 10 people. After nearly three hours of the meeting, community members then took turns sharing what their working groups had found.

Some suggested new rituals to get community and police to interact more frequently. One person said all officers should have to read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” Many called for giving a community or civilian police board far greater powers — including, potentially, the ability to issue subpoenas.

Others spoke of the difficulty of fixing what they see as an irredeemably oppressive institution, in particular emphasizing decades- or centuries-old tensions and perceived racial animus of police.

But despite the magnitude of the task, the meeting should leave Ithacans hopeful, Fort said.

Fort noted that Police Chief John Barber was in attendance, as was Mayor Svante Myrick and at least five Ithaca Common Council members (Ellen McCollister; Graham Kerslick; Cynthia Brock; Seph Murtagh; and JR Clairborne). There were also at least three other Ithaca police officers at the event, according to Fort.

Before the last part of the meeting began, Fort noted that it had run over-time and apologized. But nobody got up to leave; the crowd had barely thinned since the meeting began.

“People have made a conscious decision that they care about what is happening in their community,” Fort says, “I think we are seeing progress-in-action.”


Other Ithaca Voice coverage of Ithaca’s community-police relations:


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Jeff Stein

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