ITHACA, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick is assembling a Reinvent Public Safety task force to propose a set of recommendations to reform the Ithaca Police Department.

Myrick said that the task force will have three specific outcomes: a total review and reformation of the IPD’s policies; funding of public safety alternatives; and de-militarization of the IPD. The task force will consult with the public  — through town halls, door-to-door canvassing, surveys and consultation with groups like Community Leaders of Color, Black Lives Matter, the Public Safety and Information Commission, the Community Police Board, Mutual Aid Tompkins, the Police Benevolent Association, neighborhood groups, student organizations and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance — to form the recommendations, which will be presented to the City of Ithaca Common Council by April 1, 2021. The city’s task force will also be working with a broader coalition of municipalities to review policing across Tompkins County.

“Policing nationally – and here in the City of Ithaca – has lost the trust of the most vulnerable populations,” Myrick said. “Most particularly because over the last five years video footage of numerous encounters has made evident what black communities have felt for generations – that we were more likely to be the victims of police violence. This is real for me on a personal and professional level. As a black man in America, I learned at a young age the extra caution all young black men are taught around officers. I’ve seen people who look like me brutalized and live in fear of the police.”

Over the last three weeks, protests have been held locally to address police brutality and racism in the local community and nationally, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Protestors have condemned the IPD for its racial biases and handling of cases like those involving Rose DeGroat and Cadji Malone in 2019.

Myrick said that this reformation is also necessary in light of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the city. The city announced service reductions due to the anticipated budget deficit ranging from $4 million to $13 million — meaning from 6% to 20% of the city’s 2020 General Fund budget. In 2020, the city has removed six police officer positions from the City Budget, which is a 10% reduction of the available force. Over the past few years, the IPD has not seen an increase in staffing. Myrick said that over the last nine years, the IPD’s budget has declined from 22% to 16% of the city’s overall spending.

“I’m proud of the progress our Department has made,” Myrick said. “But I acknowledge that it is not yet perfect, and perfection must be our goal.  So to create a new dynamic, one that makes our community safer and our police more respected for the work they do, we have to do this work.”

Reviewing Policies

Myrick said that it is important that the policies that govern the IPD meet the highest national standard. The IPD has met the #8cantwait reforms that reduce harm caused by police in the short-term, including banning chokeholds, strangleholds and shooting at moving vehicles, as well as requiring de-escalation, warning before shooting, exhausting all alternatives before shooting and more comprehensive reporting. The reforms also require enacting clear policy restrictions on the use of police weapons and tactics and the duty to intervene, which requires officers to stop excessive force used by other officers and to report these incidents.

“But at this time of increased scrutiny and accountability it is worth beginning fresh and reviewing all relevant policies – most especially around the Use of Force,” Myrick said. “A dedicated working group inside the task force will be assigned to a detailed policy review.”

Funding Public Safety Alternatives

The task force will consider how to create non-police alternatives, including non-uniformed, unarmed professionals responding to calls for service. These include social workers, peer counselors and housing specialists. Myrick said this will build on the work that started when the city created the Downtown Outreach Worker Program, the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, and its work to bring Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to Ithaca.

“For too long the answer to every human behavioral problem in our City has been to call the police. That has always been impractical, cumbersome, and put our officers in impossible situations,” Myrick said. “Also, it functionally serves to criminalize homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.”

De-militarization of the IPD

The IPD SWAT team was created in 1996 and has been used primarily for active shooter situations and natural disaster management. However, Myrick said that the IPD should not be, look or feel like an occupying force in the community.

“The people of Ithaca have been crystal clear, they don’t feel like the current SWAT is an extension of the community or its values,” Myrick said. “We need to resolve this difference and create an agreed-upon set of guidelines for how and why our tactical response capabilities are used.”

Members of the community are invited to work with the task force, and more information can be found at http://cityofithaca.org/ReInventPublicSafety

Madison Fernandez

Madison Fernandez is a contributing reporter at the Ithaca Voice. You can reach her by email at mfernandez@ithacavoice.com.