Ithaca, N.Y. — Proposals to make police live within the cities they patrol have emerged across the country amid protesters’ demands for more accountability from local law enforcement.
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In Ithaca, lawmakers are considering a five-year, county-wide residency requirement after police opposed an initial, more stringent plan to make officers live within the city’s limits for their whole careers. The new compromise, however, has left some officials questioning whether the plan is still worth passing.
Alderperson Steven Smith, who brought the plan to Ithaca’s Common Council, described the requirement as a compromise necessary to get police support for the requirement.
While he would have preferred a longer, city-wide requirement, Smith said the compromise is “certainly an improvement” on the status quo.
“That five years is, I think, a decent amount of time for people to see and experience what it’s like to live in Ithaca,” Smith said.
“What’s really important is people participating in our community — the closer they’re living to our community, the more they’re shopping where we shop, they’re using the community resources we use and participating in the community we participate in.”
But some of Smith’s fellow Common Council members have doubts as to whether the new requirement — which was initially floated as part of a package of police reforms by the mayor in August — does enough to justify implementing it. Currently, 37 of 63 IPD officers live within Tompkins County. Five live within city limits.
Alderperson Seph Murtagh said he had doubts if it is still worth approving.
“The goal of the residency requirement is requiring officers to live in the area … to resolve some of the cultural differences we’ve been seeing — but I’m not sure if it’s expanded to the county it will achieve the goal it was trying to achieve,” Murtagh said. “I’m a little bit reluctant to pass a law that’s been compromised to a point where it’s no longer effective.”
Alderperson George McGonigal called a city residency requirement “preferable.”
“If it’s just a requirement that they live in the county, I don’t see how that does anything,” McGonigal said. . “I think you get to understand the city better if you live in it… I don’t see this being any different, really, (than the status quo).”
Mayor Svante Myrick’s proposal to have all new officers live within city limits ran aground amid heavy opposition from the police department. Chief John Barber has said that the indefinite city-wide requirement would pose significant recruitment problems for the IPD, given that the overwhelming number of officer applicants live outside Ithaca.
Ithaca Police Benevolent Association Vice President Dana Haff, who is among the 26 officers who do not live in the county, added that another concern with the city-wide requirement is the high price of housing in Ithaca.
Living where they enforce the law can also cause officers and their families to face harassment in their daily lives, Haff said.
“We think we already have good relations” with the community, Haff said. “We don’t think forcing us or mandating us to live in a certain area is going to improve that.”
“That being said, it was important to the mayor and Common Council, so we did sit down and came to an agreement that the five-year residency requirement was a reasonable requirement.”
Smith commended the IPD for the “very professional” way they have managed protests in the wake of Garner’s death and the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo, noting that protests in other parts of the country have turned violent.
Smith emphasized that the proposed residency requirement is not a judgement on the cops’ work.
“The protests we’ve had in recent days have been very expertly handled,” Smith said. “If you look at videos, [IPD] chief [John Barber] himself is out there in the street, talking to people.”
Rather, Smith said the proposed requirement is “a reflection on the need to build community trust, because there’s still a trust gap between the community and the current police force, regardless of the work the current police force is doing,” Smith said.
Phoebe Brown, who participated in protests calling for police reform in Ithaca, said she also thought that community-police relations needed to be improved. But she said she wasn’t sure if the residency requirement is the way to do it.
“I don’t see it as a solution, and I think putting band-aids on something that is much bigger than it doesn’t help,” Brown said. “This is pretty much a band-aid for a much bigger issue.”
The plan isn’t final by any means, says Smith. Next, it’ll be discussed by a working group before the Common Council puts it to a vote. He said he hopes it’ll come up in front of the council in the new few months.
“I support it and think it’s a good compromise, but members of the Common Council still need to be persuaded, as well as the general public,” Smith said.