ITHACA, N.Y. — Can Ithaca police officers really be objective and fair if they are given a free apartment, free internet and free utilities by landlords in the city?
Most Common Council members say yes, but one member questions whether the ‘Officer Next Door’ program causes a conflict of interest for officers.
“I do have deep concern with regard to a situation where a business or a landlord is providing such significant gifts to city employee in return for the expectation that they will behave differently in their role as an employee, in this case as a police officer,” said First Ward Alderperson Cynthia Brock, who represents the area of Ithaca that includes the West Village Apartments.
IPD Police Chief John Barber, and others who advocate for the program, have said there is no expectation for officers in the program to behave differently than they otherwise would in their professional and private lives.
Guidelines for the new Officer Next Door program — which allows officers free or reduced rent at apartments from landlords who volunteer for it – was unanimously approved to go to the next City Administration Committee Wednesday night. (The guidelines can be read here.)
During the meeting, Barber clarified to councilors that participants’ only expectation is that they will embed themselves in the community, making it better.
“No, I don’t believe that that is the case at all,” Brock said in an interview before the meeting, which she was unable to attend. “I do believe that there are expectations in return for having an officer there on site.”
Brock is not a member of the committee, but participates in a task force with West Village residents, police and property owners to discuss how the apartments can be made safer.
She said the Officer Next Door program, while well-intentioned, could have negative consequences.
For instance, an officer on duty could — either purposely or inadvertently — begin patrolling the area more frequently or more carefully because the officer and colleagues live there.
Alternately, if officers do embed themselves in the community, they might be inclined to overlook crimes being committed by residents or property owners.
Brock said, “I think the means is as important, if not more important than the ends. It’s not just what you try to achieve, it’s how you get there.”
She said there are other ways make the community safe, which have worked at other high-crime locations and have not been used yet at the West Village Apartments.
For instance, she said that in the latter 1980s and 1990s, public housing on the northside was having similar issues as the West Village neighborhood.
She said full-time, on-site management, paid security patrols in the area, and better screening for applicants were all factors in lowering crime rates in the area.
The West Village Apartments do not have any of those.
Barber said that while the complex does not have those things, the owners have made an effort to improve the community.
For instance, former All-Star First Baseman Mo Vaughn has made two $12,000 donations to fund overtime hours for officers to patrol the area.
His company, Omni New York LLC, runs the apartments.
However, police Officer Jamie Willliamson said in a separate interview that 47 percent of the money went unused in 2014.
“We can’t mandate that officers work overtime,” Williamson said, per union rules.
IPD is also, he said, been understaffed by at least half a dozen officers for several years now — the department was able to begin hiring new officers recently.
Barber also mentioned the security cameras at the apartment, sponsored community building events such as barbecues, and willingness to work with police to problem solve — such as by participating in the West Village task force.
“I think they were trying,” he said, “I commend them for doing it.”
Brock said that she understands the urgency of making moves to improve the quality of life for people in the West Village, but said the owners should be doing more.
“I think that’s the appropriate means to achieve the same ends without creating this fuzzy relationship where we have officers receiving benefits of upward of $10,000 a year,” Brock said about the other options.