Update at 7:30 p.m. — 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.

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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.

Committee members all spoke in praise concept, with nobody voicing opinions directly against the program.

The vote, in addition to setting 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.

Common Council must now vote on the issue.

Another story detailing parts of the plan will be posted Wednesday evening. This is a developing story. 

This is the first part of several stories in a series that will discuss changes happening at the West Village Apartments regarding law enforcement, crime and quality of life issues residents face. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — An Ithaca police officer is living rent-free at the West Village Apartments, and another officer may move in soon in an attempt to dissuade criminals from lingering in the area, police said.

“Having police presence around your property, having the knowledge that there are officers there….it adds a bit of safety,” said Juda Engelmayer, senior vice president of a public relations firm that represents the property.

One police officer has already moved into his apartment and another might also move there shortly — pending the resolution of a legal issue about public officials accepting “gifts.” (More below)

Neither officer will have to pay for rent, utilities or internet service in a one-bedroom apartment, said Ithaca police officer Jamie Williamson.

“It’s pretty extraordinary for sure,” he said, considering two factors: that the base pay for officers — including holiday pay and overtime — ranges from $75,000 to $80,000, a year and the disproportionately large volume of crime that’s reported at the West Village Apartments.

“Since about the mid-to-late-90s, it’s been increasingly more violent there,” Williamson said.

For instance, on Oct. 11, 2012, Officer Anthony Augustine was shot by Jamel Booker near the West Village Apartments.

Augustine was called to the area on a report of a stolen vehicle and wound up chasing Booker on foot, taser drawn. Booker shot at him.

The bullet entered Augustine’s “upper left chest,” reports at the time said, finding a way around Augustine’s bulletproof vest.

Augustine accepted a retirement package in August 2015 after having several health concerns following the shooting

Williamson said officer safety is a concern for the department but added, “We’re confident in the officers’ ability to be able to assess whether or not it’s safe for him to live there and whether or not there’s a reasonable risk to himself or his friends or his family while they’re visiting.”

A legal hiccup in well-intentioned program?

Despite the good intention of the program, there’s a legal hiccup that could end it, which the City Administration Committee will discuss Wednesday night.

A city code states that public officials cannot accept more than $75 worth of gifts for their service to the city.

Common Council member George McGonigal said, “I realize this is kind of a gray area, but to me, the main thing is making things better at West Village.”

McGonigal represents the first ward, which includes the West Village community.

He said officials will discuss tonight how and if it is possible to continue the program by altering or adding to the city code.

Williamson said that when police accepted the West Village offer to house two officers, they were not aware that this city code applied to the situation. He said the officer currently living at the apartment will be permitted to stay there until city officials resolve the issue.

“In the meantime, you know, we don’t want to force the officer out onto the street,” Williamson said.

McGonigal agreed saying that if the offer by West Village is deemed inappropriate for the city to accept, or if members of the committee and Common Council do not support support the initiative, the arrangement with the apartment complex can be terminated.

“The people who live at West Village deserve a better quality of life and that’s what’s behind this and so far it seems to have helped,” he said. “The residents I speak with say things are better.”

He said he realizes that those conversations are anecdotal, but he said it’s significant that the community has reached out to him to say they support the program.

Who are the officers taking part in the program?

The officer currently living at the apartment has been with IPD for nearly 20 years. Williamson said the officer is familiar with many of the residents at West Village and has not had problems with anyone since moving in last year.

The officer previously lived in the Trumansburg area. Just over a year ago, he was among 63 Ithaca police officers who did not live in the city — only five officers resided within city limits.

The officer declined to be identified or to speak with The Voice for this interview.

The other officer, who has not moved in yet, is a “younger” officer who lives with his parents and has been looking at getting his own apartment, Williamson said.

“The management at West Village has let him know that there are no expectations from him while he is not (on duty) working,” Williamson said about the officer currently living at the apartment complex.

Williamson said embedding police officers into communities is not a new concept.

For instance, the Housing and Urban Development’s Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program offers incentives for officers, emergency personnel and teachers to buy homes in “revitalization areas.”

“They have vested interest in what goes on in that community or that neighborhood because they live there,” Williamson said.

Engelmayer agreed saying, “Everything we’re implementing are part of little pieces that are being put in place to boost security.”

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.