Gino Bush in City Hall on Wednesday

Ithaca, N.Y. — Gino Bush has denounced police at rallies in front of City Hall, criticized law enforcement in letters-to-the-editor, and said large numbers of Ithaca police officers are racists.

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So it would be pretty safe to assume that he’s not the biggest fan of Ithaca Police Chief John Barber. Right?

Apparently not. At a meeting of the Community Police Board on Wednesday, Bush declared his support for IPD’s chief and said he had been impressed by Barber’s openness and willingness to engage even with community members who disagree with him.

“I think he’s doing a phenomenal job,” Bush said of the chief at the CPB meeting. (Bush was once a member of the board.) “I’m glad he’s the chief.”

Gino Bush in City Hall on Wednesday

Which begs the question: Why would one most ardent critics of the Ithaca Police Department over the last few decades suddenly and publicly back its leader?

In an interview, Bush explained that it primarily boils down not to a shift in policing policy but Chief Barber’s “open door policy.”

“When I say open door policy, I mean we talk about everyday life. Sometimes if I have an issue I want to talk about, I talk to him about it,” Bush says, citing traffic and police-community interactions as among his top concerns. “He always seems to make himself available.”

How often does Bush pop in for a chat with the chief? “I can’t even count them,” Bush says, “there’s been so many times.”

The relationship goes beyond the office. Bush, 72, said he sometimes runs into Chief Barber in the street or while Barber is in his patrol car, and the two will talk.

The other week, Bush says, he saw the chief and his girlfriend on the other side of a local grocery store.

“He came all the way across the aisle to give me a hug,” Bush says.

See related: 5 key points made by Ithaca police chief in department’s defense

Critic of IPD

Bush has been at the center of controversies involving the police department at least twice — once, after he criticized the police following a 2010 shooting that left a civilian a dead, and again in 2013, after Mayor Svante Myrick recommended against the reappointment of Bush to the Community Police Board.

At the time, according to the city’s meeting notes, Myrick said that Bush “has been disruptive at meetings, and he has personally insulted individual members of the Ithaca Police Department by — among other things — condemning large swaths of white officers as racists and using demeaning and insulting racial epithets to question the integrity of black officers.”

Bush responded that he thought the mayor was caving to allegations from the police union and that the decision not to reappoint him came from a letter in The Journal about the history of racism in the U.S. and its connection to policing.

Getting to know the chief

Bush moved to Ithaca in 1980 and had a term on the police board in the 1990s. He stresses that he doesn’t oppose all officers and that he believes police are necessary, even if there is institutional racism that must be reformed.

He says he first met Chief Barber when Barber was a patrolman and Bush was working to set up a community watch in the city.

“(Barber) just seemed so very friendly and open to talking to people in the community,” Bush said. “I was like, ‘Wow, he seems like a pretty decent, fair human being.’”

Chief Barber, right, with Mayor Svante Myrick

Even though Bush left the police board in 2013, his involvement in city governance didn’t come to an end.

During an interview in City Hall on Wednesday, Bush was continually interrupted by a range of local officials from different departments. “How are you, Gino?,” one asked, with a pat on the back.

Bush, wearing a gray jumpsuit, high white socks and black crocs, smiled back. A long-time city advocate, he says he knows how hard it is for anyone — Chief Barber included — “to bring about change.”

“(Barber) has a hard task, but he leads by example,” Bush says. “He leads by example.”

Already, Bush says, there are signs that Barber’s openness is starting to change attitudes in the department.

Just recently, Bush said with a laugh, someone called law enforcement to say that they thought Bush was dead in his house.

“Recently, my interactions with police officers have been different,” Bush says. “They seem to be more cordial, more understanding.”

“I think it’s going to be changing, yes. I can see that.”

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Jeff Stein

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