ITHACA, N.Y. – The Ithaca Police Department has assigned a new officer to patrol The Commons and nearby downtown areas in the upcoming new year.
Mary Orsaio, an Ithaca College graduate, has been working as an officer for IPD since 2015. After graduating from IC in 2013 with a degree in recreation management, Orsaio recalls interacting with IPD officers at the gym where she worked at the time.
“I started talking to them and I just remember thinking, ‘I want to be like them when I grow up,” she said.
Now, three years after being hired by the department, Orsaio has made significant headway in a new program to Ithaca called LEAD. LEAD, which has proven successful in other cities in the U.S., is a harm-reduction based program which targets low-level offenders dealing with addiction. While not in action yet, Orsaio has been one of the officers taking the lead on LEAD, figuring out a way to collaborate with other organizations in Ithaca to tackle the best way to treat offenders dealing with a drug addiction.
“There’s no doubt we have an opioid problem in Ithaca, and it has become a public health crisis,” Orsaio said. “I see this position as a way to really get this program started – I’ll be able to talk to people and I’ll be able to get a 360 view of what’s going on.”
Orsaio will be taking over for Alex Pape, who has been the primary commons patrol officer for the last six years.
“I’m thrilled for (Orsaio), but I also want to take the time to thank (Pape) for all of the work he’s done,” said Pete Tyler, Ithaca’s Chief of Police.
Pape will be returning to road patrol as Orsaio takes over the patrol of The Commons when the rotation begins on Jan. 1.
“It’s unlike normal road patrol where your beat changes every day, it’s not as consistent – this is my particular area for the entire year,” Orsaio said. “The majority of it is foot patrol, and it’s a lot of community interaction such as dealing with the business owners or dealing with any downtown problems.”
While Orsaio said the diversity of her new daily routine is an exciting change, her biggest hope with the new position is for increased interaction with potential LEAD clients. LEAD, which would potentially work with a case manager to determine the best treatment for a low-level offender.
“What’s great is that since I’m on foot, I could easily take a case manager with me on foot,” she said. “When you’re on foot you really do get to see so much more and I’ll have more face time with people who are suffering from addiction or people who are homeless – that being said, this is just going to help the community as a whole once we start solving that problem.”
In order to be considered for enrollment in the LEAD program, an offender would have to be compliant, not a danger to the community, and without a violent history. The program would operate on a case-by-case basis – hypothetically if a defendant who was dealing with an addiction problem was also arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor, they could be considered for enrollment in the LEAD program instead of being arrested. The goal is to keep people dealing with an addiction problem from getting ‘stuck in the system’.
This project has been Orsaio’s niche since she arrived at IPD.
Accompanied by a case manager, Orsaio said she hopes she will be more approachable to potential LEAD clients.
I’m big on getting out of my car and talking to people – I’m a big talker,” she said. “I’m not one who’s going to drive by someone who looks like they’re having a hard time, I want to know their background.”
From helping with finding a place to stay to finding food or even clean needles, Orsaio said she’s prepared to help divert people suffering from an addiction problem and get them started in a different direction. A potential collaboration with Loaves and Fishes may also be in the works.
“We’re going to be able to actually talk to these people because a lot of them do go on The Commons during the day, you’ll see them with signs, and I want to be able to help them,” she said. “I want to know their current situation because I believe everybody has something that leads them to their current circumstances.”
It’s not just about the LEAD program for Orsaio though – she’s also focused on meeting the needs of local business owners and visitors to The Commons. Growing up with her father, a downtown business owner, Orsaio said she understands firsthand the struggles that small businesses on The Commons face. As a police officer, her goal is to help ease those issues as much as possible.
“What makes Ithaca so unique is that when you walk down The Commons it’s not just chain stores,” she said. “A big part of this job is meeting with local business owners and meeting their needs, helping their customers feel more comfortable, and making sure business owners or employees feel safe when they’re locking up late at night. A big thing is just listening to everyone’s needs, and everyone has a different want or need from a commons officer – it’s about really finding what’s going on.”
Starting on Jan. 1, you might be able to find Orsaio looking out for The Commons on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“I think it’s great to have some new fresh ideas,” Tyler said. “(Orsaio) is very outgoing and proactive, and I think she’ll bring some creative new ideas to combat some of the older problems – it’s a tall task, and I think she’s up to it.”