Note: The Ithaca Voice has covered the Officer Next Door Program in great detail over the past few weeks. For details about various aspects regarding the program, please see the stories linked below. Not all details about all aspects of the program will appear in this story. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — In a 9-1 vote Wednesday night, Ithaca’s Common Council passed the Officer Next Door Program, allowing police officers to legally live rent-free in pre-approved neighborhoods at the voluntary discretion of landlords.

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The vote follows weeks of discussion about the program that received both praise and criticism from the public and officials. Three West Village Apartments residents spoke in staunch favor of having officers in the complex during the public comments section of the meeting, while a few non-residents said they were wary of the program.

Related: Ithaca police officer lives rent-free at West Village Apartments

Further discussion by Common Council Wednesday night prompted two amendments to the proposed measure, one setting a March 2018 date for the program to be re-evaluated by the council and the other requiring that landlords work with the city to improve the safety of residents. The program can be ended at any time, per the council’s discretion.

A decision was also made to end police officer’s ability to view live camera feeds that monitor outdoor areas of the West Village Apartments. Several Common Council members cited concerns for officer’s work-life balance and whether access to camera footage was an infringement of people’s privacy.

Related: ‘Officer Next Door’ has access to live camera feed in his West Village apartment

West Village Apartments Residents: “We deserve a safe place to live.”

An eight-year resident said she saw a drug addict cursing at children while they got off a school bus. A four-year resident said she doesn’t want her wheelchair-bound daughter to go outside because she’s scared of her child getting caught in the crosshairs of a shooting.

Resident Pam Cruz, a seven-year resident, said she’s been met with “skepticism and disregard” when reporting crimes because of her address.

All the residents who spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting were in support of the Officer Next Door Program.

“This gives us hope to a brighter future. This gives our children a chance to have a safe neighborhood they can play in. This gives families in West Village a chance to live without fear of leaving their homes after a certain time. We deserve a safe place to live, even if it has to resort to an officer being our neighbor,” Melissa Melendez said.

She said she’s seen crime at West Village increase over the past eight years. But since the officers moved in about two months ago, she said she’s seen a decrease in crime across the board — drug deals, addicts shooting up drugs and trespassing, among others.

Kristina Varner, whose daughter uses a wheelchair, said she was previously scared to let her daughter play outside.

“With the officer next door program, I’m not really scared anymore. I’ve see the difference…I do see a difference in the way the rest of the tenants are acting, too.”

Why don’t the residents leave if they’re concerned about safety? They said they want to provide stability for their families and cannot afford sky-high rent in other parts of Ithaca.

Officer’s live camera feed scrapped from program for now

The Ithaca Voice reported Wednesday afternoon that one of two officers living at the West Village Apartments has access to live camera feeds that monitor outdoor areas at the complex.

The same video feed is accessible to officers at the Ithaca Department Headquarters and monitored by a security company paid for by Omni New York LLC, which owns the West Village Apartments.

The Common Council agreed that access to view the footage would be taken out of the program for the time being, citing two concerns — the officer’s well being while maintaining a work-life balance and residents’ privacy.

“I definitely appreciate the sense of urgency,” said Cynthia Brock, who represents the first ward, which includes West Village.

She is the only person on Common Council who voted against the Officer Next Door Program and was adamant that the live-feed was especially intrusive.

Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said he disagrees, but understands if people are concerned about privacy.

The live-feed, he said, is just another tool meant to keep people safe.

For instance, he said that a person concerned about an incident happening in a parking lot might be too hesitant to call police. But the person might be more willing to call a neighbor — the ‘Officer Next Door’ – and ask him to check out the situation on surveillance cameras. The officer can then decide whether to call police to the scene.

Brock said it creates a conflict of interest for an off duty officer to feel obligated to check cameras at the request of residents or management. It also, she said, is in direct contradiction of claims that there are no expectations of officers living in the apartments free of charge.

Fourth Ward Alderman Graham Kerslick was one of the representatives who agreed that access to the videos  was ambiguous.

“It not explicit but, you know, this is your landlord and these guys (officers) are human beings,” he said. “I just feel like it’s getting too close to what really should be a management issue.”

Mayor Svante Myrick said access to camera footage was not part of the initial conversation regarding the Officer Next Door Program and suggested the council move to disable the officer’s access for the time being.

He said access to the footage can later be reevaluated at the request of police or residents.

“If that then happens, we can turn it back on just as easily,” Myrick said.

The Common Council took up the suggestion.

Changes to the program

Two amendments were added to the Officer Next Door Program last night after discussion from the Common Council.

The first requires that all landlords who participate in the program work with city officials and residents to try to improve the quality of homes being provided.

Donna Flemming, Third Ward Alderperson, said, “We’ve heard comparisons this evening….that there are other low-income housing units in the city that are well managed, pleasant places to live, have a much lower incidents of crime and I’m wondering if any of that can be attributed to strong management practices at the other sites.”

She said participants in the program should be working to replicate ideal practices, such as thorough background checks and extensive on-site management programs.

Myrick and Barber both said Omni New York LLC has made efforts to improve safety at the West Village Apartments, instituting new rules for evictions, trespassing and collaborating with police. There are 300 cameras at the West Village Apartments which they also said helps deter and solve crimes.

Myrick did say, however, that he thinks background checks could be more comprehensive and more could be done my company.

Common Council generally agreed and approved the amendment to keep landlords accountable.

The other amendment called for the program to be have a “sunset date” when Common Council would decide whether to re-approve it.

“I would like to see this program as a limited time program that would need to be renewed,” Kerslick said. “I think it needs to be evaluated and then council, whoever they are, needs to make another decision…”

The council agreed that hard data about calls for police service and actual crimes committed should be gathered to determine the success of the program. Less quantifiable aspects, such as how safe residents feel and whether they think the program has created tangible changes in the community, will likely be gathered by surveys.

The program is set to be renewed in March 2018 with a check-in date about its progress early next year.

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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.