A student of the police academy learns about the difficulties of responding to high-stress calls.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial written by Ithaca Voice Editor Jeff Stein.

As always, we are eager to publish dissenting or alternative viewpoints. To do so, email me anytime at jstein@ithacavoice.com.


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Why I Shop Downtown

Ithaca, N.Y. — There he stood late last Wednesday night, like a batter going deep into the count, fighting off pitch after pitch after pitch.

Ithaca Police Chief John Barber was asked by the crowd about officer training. He was asked about the shooting in South Carolina. About perceptions of racially biased policing. About what police could do to improve relations with black residents. About the Community Action Team, and about a police residency requirement, and the city budget, and whether IPD should get a new headquarters, and homelessness, and IPD’s grant-writing policy, and what could be done to combat heroin, and …

Barber calmly answered every question — some of which were informed by whimsical curiosities, others by deeply held suspicions — and addressed the residents and journalists in the audience by name. (“Yes, Lynne.” “That’s a good question, Richard.”)

He occasionally admitted the need for improvement. Sometimes, he said law enforcement had its hands tied; other times, he detailed his plans to bring about change.

By the time it was all over late Wednesday night, at the final session of the Citizens’ Police Academy, Barber had answered 43 questions in a row. (I counted.) He talked for about 56 minutes.

From left to right, Chief Barber, Sgt. Melissa Harmon, a member of the police academy, Officer Jamie Williamson, and Inv. Christine Barksdale. At the Ithaca Police Department HQ. (All photos courtesy of IPD)

How did we get here?

It’s been less than 10 months since a police sergeant pulled a gun on four unarmed minority teenagers.

That incident set off a wave of protests against the IPD. Infused with anger over high-profile officer-involved shootings around the country, hundreds of Ithaca protesters marched to City Hall, many criticizing the IPD for a list of grievances.

Mayor Svante Myrick said that there was a gulf in trust between the police department and community that needed to be addressed. While taking care to praise the everyday bravery of the police force, he announced a series of reforms: a new social worker; the Community Action Team; body cameras; and a residency requirement for police.

Myrick packaged the reforms with extra funding for the police, perhaps softening some of the backlash over his more controversial initiatives. The residency requirement was later scaled down; the body cameras are in the works. Tensions between the mayor and police union slowly receded from public view.

A student of the police academy learns about the difficulties of responding to high-stress calls.

In the meantime, Chief Barber ran with one of the last prongs of the mayor’s plans: increasing the transparency and community outreach of the department.

That has meant plans for an IPD open house, something called “Courageous Conversations,” and the Citizens’ Police Academy that concluded last week.

The Citizens’ Police Academy

When a huge fire struck The Chapter House last week, I was one of the many reporters crowding around the police tape that kept an eager press at bay.

It was far from my first crime scene: I’ve probably been to hundreds since starting as a crime reporter at the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2013. But going to The Chapter House last week felt different because it actually was different: For the first time, I actually knew the people on the other side of the tape.

Inv. Christine Barksdale was there. I recognized her from the police academy as an investigator of sex crimes and a crisis negotiator. I waved hello.

Officer David Amaro was also there. I knew he was well-regarded as an IPD trainer, that he had a wife and kids, and that some of his fellow officers liked teasing him as “Officer Good Looking.” I also recognized Officer Jamie Williamson, who has saved two lives but is probably best known for rescuing a kitten.

Members of the police academy listen to Sgt. Young’s explanation of the incident command vehicle. (That’s me in the center)

I learned a lot about policing by attending the 8-week Citizens’ Police Academy: About how crashes are investigated; about Ithaca’s drug problems; about search and seizure guidelines; about the challenges officers face; about the use of pepper spray and tasers; and on and on. (See a complete list below.)

But I think the most valuable thing I learned at the academy was about the officers themselves — that, in general, they care deeply about their work and the people they serve, and that they think extensively about how to resolve situations peacefully.

That doesn’t mean the police are above criticism. But it does mean that we shouldn’t pretend to understand their jobs better than they do.

As the press herd waited around for more information on the fire, a reporter with a local TV station slipped under the crime tape.

A police officer tried explaining that reporters weren’t allowed on the other side of the tape; the woman argued back, saying it was important for her to get a better shot.

I didn’t have to think twice about who was right.

How wide is its impact really?

Few residents of Ithaca get to know the police officers as individuals. Most people deal with police in some of the worst moments in their lives — as I learned from my police ride-along — and only a tiny percentage of residents got to attend the police academy. (There were maybe 20 people there in total.)

That leads to an inevitable question: Did the Citizens’ Police Academy really have a meaningful impact on the community if it only had about 20 attendees?

I asked Chief Barber that question last Wednesday.

“I think it’s working,” he said, “but are we reaching everyone in the community? No, we’re not.”

Barber said he had been told that some residents aren’t aware of the police department’s new community outreach initiatives. That’s a sign that there’s still more to be done, the chief said.

“This is a result of hearing from the community that there’s not enough outreach … that there’s a disconnect, that we don’t know the officers,” Barber said of the police academy. “This is one more step toward trying to close that gap.”

Still, Barber said he was confident that things were working, that the department’s efforts to increase transparency had translated into visible results.

Most people on the street who approach him now have good things to say about the recent police reforms, he said. (Even long-time police critic Gino Bush had words of praise for the chief.) The academy got extensive coverage in the Ithaca Voice and The Ithaca Journal.

Barber added that the hiring process for officers is now better, that officers are better trained, and better vetted. The IPD is getting “the cream of the crop, so to speak,” he said, at the same time its outreach efforts have been dramatically increased.

But that doesn’t mean the job is done.

“We’ve been on the news; we’ve been on the radio; we’ve been in print,” Baber says, “so I think maybe we got to get on the road at some point.”

Cafe con Chief?

Part of Chief Barber and Mayor Myrick’s push to improve community-police relations is something called “Coffee With the Mayor and Chief,” in which the two meet privately with community members at a local Dunkin’ Donuts.

Barber attended last Wednesday at a session starting at 9 a.m.

More than 12 hours later, he was still taking talking about his police force. As the clock crawled toward 10 p.m. and the questions began to taper off, most everyone in the room looked ready to leave — including this reporter.

Barber looked like he was just getting warmed up. As if to prove the point, he closed the marathon Q&A session by saying he’d be happy to answer more.

“Listen,” he said, “if you have any other questions, you can always email me at jbarber@cityofithaca.org.”

Read previous Ithaca Voice coverage of the Citizens’ Police Academy

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Jeff Stein

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