Letter to the editor.
This is a letter to the editor from Seph Murtagh, City of Ithaca alderperson and candidate for NYS Assembly District 125. To submit opinion letters, please review our letters policy here and submit them to Managing Editor Thomas Giery Pudney at tgpudney@ithacavoice.com.

This past week, while I attended several events that honored the life of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the many other black men and women who have been killed by police officers, I found myself reflecting on local efforts to reform our police department in Ithaca.

A watershed moment in Ithaca occurred in 2014 when a police officer drew a gun on two black teenagers in the Southside Neighborhood, which I represent on the Common Council. It was a scary incident, and it kicked off a community-wide conversation in Ithaca about policing. The discussion dovetailed with the larger national conversation about race and policing triggered by the shooting death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.

As a member of the Ithaca Common Council, I attended demonstrations and public meetings and worked with constituents to propose specific reforms to our police department. I participated in a task force of city officials, community members, and police officers who developed an implicit bias training for the Ithaca Police Department. I also served on the working group that drafted our policy for the mandatory use of body cameras for our police force.

Many cities across the country took similar steps after Ferguson, adopting reforms such as the mandatory use of body cameras by police officers, implicit bias trainings, and community policing initiatives. The number of law enforcement agencies that require officers to wear body cameras has more than doubled since 2015.

However, the brutal murder of George Floyd is a stark reminder that our efforts to combat police brutality and strengthen accountability still fall woefully short.  New York State should take these eight steps to protect black lives and strengthen the safety of our communities:

  • Repeal Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law that requires that police personnel records be kept confidential. Ensuring that the public has access to this information will help increase police accountability and transparency (A2513 / S3695).
  • Create an office of special investigation within the New York State Attorney General’s office to investigate civilian killings by the police and remove these cases from the hands of local prosecutors (A1601B / S2574).
  • Pass the Police Statistics and Transparency (STAT) Act which would require the state to record and report demographic information on the number of tickets and arrests for violations and misdemeanors (A05472 / S1830).
  • Enact the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” which would establish the crime of aggravated strangulation (A6144 / S6670B).
  • Require police officers and peace officers to issue appearance tickets to individuals charged with low-level offenses instead of arresting such individuals (A4053 / S2571).
  • Make body cameras mandatory for all New York State police officers (A8674A / S8493).
  • Enact the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act which would create a legal framework for the use and production of marijuana and end the discriminatory enforcement of marijuana prohibition statutes (A1617 / S1527).
  • Implement trainings for implicit bias and de-escalation tactics for New York State police departments.

These are important steps, but legislation, on its own, will not be enough to stamp out the systemic racism in our civic life. We also need a change in hearts and minds. We need to hear from more members of the law enforcement community who are willing to have a larger conversation about the role of policing in our society. Calls to defund the police may sound radical to some, but they get at a central truth that even police officers will admit: we are asking the police to do too much. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, yet we have failed to invest in our people. Our police officers are not social workers, mental health professionals, teachers, or housing advocates, yet we expect them to play these roles and tackle the fallout from our institutional neglect.

I do not expect a society with no police forces. We need police to enforce the laws and maintain public safety. But true public safety looks very different from what we’re seeing today. The vile effects of institutional racism pervade every aspect of American life, and the police are part of that terrible legacy. To ensure justice and equality for all, we must reform our society, not just conduct police reform in a vacuum. We all deserve a society that invests adequately in housing, education, and healthcare. And we all deserve a society where no one has to fear the people we pay to keep us safe.