ITHACA, N.Y. — A unanimous vote by the City Administration Committee put the ‘Officer Next Door’ project one step closer to being officially OKed by the city of Ithaca.
At the end of 2015, two officers had moved into the West Village Apartments, which has a 10 percent vacancy rate, in an effort to decrease crime in the area.
Police Chief John Barber and City Attorney Ari Lavine took questions from the committee Wednesday night about the application of the program and how it could benefit the community.
The vote, in addition to setting official guidelines for the program, also ensures that it is exempt from an existing city ordinance that says public officials cannot receive more than $75 worth of gifts as a perk for completing official duties. (The program guidelines can be read in full, here.)
Here are six questions concisely answered about the program:
Is the rent really free?
The rent is free for officers living at the West Village Apartments. However, the approved program states that a landlord offering at least a 50 percent discount on rent can request officer tenants.
Lavine said the percentage was decided upon to ensure the program was not abused as a marketing gimmick by landlords and indeed a public service to the community.
Can other landlords vie for officer tenants?
Right now, landlords on West Village Place, Abbott Lane, or Chestnut Street can choose to voluntarily offer apartments for the program.
But as data becomes available about success of the program, there is the option of expanding it to other areas of the city.
Is there a maximum number of officers that can be in one area?
Lavine said there is no official maximum number of officers allowed to take up residency though the program, as long as there are still available units being voluntarily offered by landlords.
However, he and Barber added that the chief of police can at any time decide that an area has an adequate number of officers living in it and temporarily cap the program.
“The chief certainly could say, ‘I think we’ve got enough in that area,’” Lavine said.
How will the participating officers be chosen?
The officer will be hand-chosen by IPD leadership to be eligible for the program. Barber said he’s specifically considering officers who are “community minded” and consistently interact well with people.
How will the program be advertised?
Lavine said there will be no advertisements or solicitations about the program, and Barber said the police do not intend to release a news bulletin about the program for landlords.
They both agreed that media coverage would essentially be the advertising for the program, though a news release might be distributed about the program in general if it is formally approved by Common Council.
Does this pose a conflict of interest or ethical dilemma for officers?
It depends on who you ask.
Barber, Lavine and committee members say they trust that officers will do what is asked of them when they participate in the program — embed themselves in the community and try to make it better by living their lives in a neighborly, kind way.
He said at the meeting that per IPD policy, if an officer witnesses a crime while not on duty, the officer is expected to call 911. He said the policy is meant to prevent officers from having to feel like they are on duty 24 hours a day.
“Officers can’t take action when off duty,” Barber said, with the exception of life or death situations.
Lavine added more context to the question by referencing a review of a similar program in New York City. The review states that the program did not violate ethics standards that reference conflicts of interest for a variety of reasons, but primarily because the officers were working for the public good.
Other viewpoints question whether an officer would be inclined to overlook illegal activity in the neighborhood — by residents or the landlords — because of the financial perk.