ITHACA, N.Y. – A group of Ithaca teens distributed a survey earlier this year asking younger members of the community their opinions on the Ithaca Police Department.

The Ithaca Youth Council is a collaborative effort between the Ithaca Youth Bureau, the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and Southside Community Center. The Youth Council aims to advocate for local youth in the community within city government. In January, the council created and distributed a survey, asking local youth to respond with their thoughts on police presence in the city.

The survey reached 712 teens in Ithaca between grades 9-12, with a near even split between males and females. The majority of survey responders were White, of European decent at nearly 86 percent. While most of the students responded that they were unsure if their ethnicity was a factor in their interactions with police, more students agreed rather than disagreed that it did affect their relationship with law enforcement.

Reviews in the elaborated responses were mixed with positive and negative feedback. Most responders commented that they felt safer because of the IPD presence in the community – many students shared that they did not feel threatened, felt a sense of comfort with police presence, and felt as police officers did a sufficient job in controlling crime.

However, some students shared feelings of discomfort in regards to police with firearms, authority, power and some expressed concern for racism amongst police.

“Police officers are very unsettling and they have so much authority that even approaching them is scary,” one comment read. “However, I know because of my race, I am less likely to be unfairly judged by the police. They are still extremely intimidating.”

Results showed that youth in the community were highly responsive to IPD enforcing officers to wear body cameras – nearly 70 percent of students either agreed or strongly agreed that wearing a body camera improved law enforcement operations in the community.

Overall, the majority of replies, sitting at nearly 50 percent, suggested that students thought police officers were doing the best they could to keep the community safe.

Despite these reactions, however, there was still a significant number of students who responded that they felt unsafe around police officers when they were doing nothing wrong. 13 percent of students, nearly 1 in 8, either disagreed or strongly disagreed that they felt safe around police officers despite not doing anything wrong.

Responses were overwhelmed with comments suggesting that fear of police officers among youth may be reduced with a larger public presence and transparency within the community. Some students suggested this could be fulfilled by officers going to schools to discuss their daily job routines.

“I think that IPD officers could improve community relations with young people in Ithaca by informing them more of what (their) jobs are really like, and how (they) work in our community besides (their) primary role of keeping safety – how (they) help our community not only on a daily basis but also for long-term goals and improvements,” one commenter responded. “This should also be done in a manner that is easy to understand and relate to among young people, where they can clearly see the importance of what (officers) are doing.”

Many students who responded commented that their little interactions with police correlated to their fear of them.

Another response stated: “I think that there could be greater communication between the police and young people in Ithaca. In Ithaca, I have never really spoken directly to a police officer. This has made me somewhat fearful of them, but it has also forced me to make many assumptions about what they do, how they do it, and what they expect from me.”

While nearly 1 in 8 students reported in the survey that they felt unsafe in the presence of a police officer and over 1 in 4 students reported that they felt ethnicity affected interactions with police, many students reported that their fear of police and their authority was partially due to their disconnect with officers. The majority of students who took the survey reported that they thought IPD officers were doing the best they could in keeping the community safe.

“I think currently the only time young people see IPD is when they’ve done something wrong or they’re at a party that gets busted, and I think that can affect teens view on the IPD,” one responder wrote. “I think the best way to fix relations would be to have an event where teens and (officers) could meet and chat comfortably to remind us that the (police) are just as human as we are.”

See the full results and responses of the survey here.

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.