I am writing to express my opinion that I think the SWAT truck is a problem and should be eliminated from the Ithaca Police Force. I base this opinion on first-hand experience which I will describe below.
I am a long-time Ithaca resident. My husband and I raised our children here from the 1970’s through the 1990’s. They have both returned to Ithaca, are raising their families here and work at TCAT and INHS respectively. We all care deeply about Ithaca.
When our children fledged, my late husband and I moved to Seattle to do peace, justice and environmental activism work for 18 years. When the WTO held their huge international meeting in Seattle in 1999, we were in the streets all that week with the more than 40,000 protestors. The early law enforcement response was frightening. Officers were so heavily covered with masks and shields and so regimented in their response that they did not seem human. As peaceful protesters we encountered armored vehicles, rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, a phalanx of officers on horseback, and at night, illuminating it all, low-flying helicopters shining searchlights on us. Fellow Quakers, especially young people, were beaten by police when they occupied a street. Seattle police covered their badges, got off their bicycles and into armed vehicles, and we saw them refuse to let first aid through to where it was needed.
After several days of this, with our son and friends who were a Baptist minister and Buddhist respectively, we decided to visit the mayor as an ecumenical delegation. We met with a very tired man who we barely recognized as the mayor. We described what we had experienced and requested that the police return to their bicycles, show their badges, and let first aid responders enter where needed. He described the pressure he was under from Washington DC to quell the demonstrations. We reiterated that by acting human, the officers would be far more effective. As we left, a secretary told us we were one of many groups who had come to the mayor with the same message.
That day my husband and I went ahead of the main march with small signs saying “Quaker Observer” and told the police on bicycles and in cars that the huge crowds behind us were peaceful, and if they responded in kind, the day would be much less violent. Some were skeptical, some seemed to agree. The day did go much more peacefully, with an inspiring cooperation between labor unions, environmental activists and police.
In the years since, Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has written books about the police response to the WTO demonstrations and describes it as a “painful learning experience.” This month he has been calling for major police reform.
When I moved back to Ithaca, I was aghast to see the SWAT truck in front of GIAC for the Ithaca Festival. I met with Chief Barber to express my opposition to such military equipment in our community. He praised the high level of technology in the vehicle, and said he was sure that if there were trouble on Cleveland Avenue where I live, I would be happy to see it rolling down the street. I assured him I would not. I asked what had happened to the community policing, with pairs of police on foot who connected to this southside community. He answered that it had been deemed too expensive to continue. I have done a ride-around with Ithaca police to experience what they face.
I am convinced that the SWAT is not a help but a frightening, tank-like tension-raising piece of equipment that has no place in our community.