ITHACA, N.Y. –– The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer has sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
These protests have drawn thousands locally and have triggered legislative action, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signing a suite of bills aimed at increasing accountability and modernizing public safety practices and issuance of an executive order mandating counties and municipalities re-evaluate their policies as a community or face losing state funding.
City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick has announced the establishment of a task force made up of city staff, local and county law enforcement and community leaders to “reimagine public safety.”
All signs point to this being a transformative moment for law enforcement nation-wide.
On Thursday, The Ithaca Voice sat down for an in-depth conversation with City of Ithaca Chief of Police Dennis Nayor, touching on subjects of officer morale, de-militarization of departments, disciplinary records being made public and how the department can try to re-build trust within the community.
- With protests continuing to take place across the country and world, what sort of conversations are you having with your officers?
- You’ve said yours is a difficult profession, how could the job of police officers be made easier?
- The governor has signed a number of bills over the last two weeks aimed at reforming how communities are policed in New York, what does that mean for IPD?
- One of those reforms is the repeal of Section 50a, allowing personnel records to be made public, do you agree with that decision?
- The city will be releasing police personnel records in the coming weeks, do you have any problem with that? Have officers expressed reservations about it?
- The city also announced a task force today comprised of city staff, law enforcement and community members tasked with “Reimagining Public Safety in Ithaca,” in what ways do you think policing should change?
- IPD eliminated its public information officer and you have said to me previously that the department could do a better job with its public communication, do you have any plans to change how the department releases information to the public?
- A common complaint from officers is that they are regularly tasked with addressing public health issues such as drug overdoses and mental health issues, what can be done to help address that problem?
- It’s been suggested that funding for officers should be reallocated to social workers and youth services, would you commit to reducing officer staffing if it meant increasing staffing to address things that might fall outside the skill set of officers?
- The sale of surplus military equipment is very common in PD’s, but is a relatively recent trend in law enforcement, how can IPD address community concerns about militarization?
- Protesters have called you out personally at protests, are you aware of that and do you feel a responsibility to address the issues the community is bringing to the fore?
- Roughly 1000 people demonstrated peacefully outside IPD a few weeks ago, do you think you should have spoken with or otherwise engaged with protesters?
- District Attorney Matt Van Houten has expressed regret about his handling of the Cadji Malone and Rose DeGroat case during his reelection campaign, in hindsight, do you think that was handled appropriately?
- You said in a letter shortly after the killing of George Floyd that “all persons should be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion; anything less will not be tolerated within the law enforcement profession.” The demonstrations happening across the country are happening specifically because the public perception is that isn’t necessarily the case, do you feel like you are hearing the message of activists calling for change?
Read the full interview with Chief Dennis Nayor below:
With protests continuing to take place across the country, what sort of conversations are you having with your officers?
Officers have a fear in doing their job because they fear that even if they’re right, they will be perceived as wrong because there’s this mass disdain for the profession. And it’s tough because every officer feels that they’re being painted with a very broad brush. And so often they try so hard to do the right thing and to build trust. And as we’ve seen, any one incident can completely erode that, even if it’s hundreds of miles away.
And so it’s just been really tough on the officers trying to continually go out there and as the protesters are walking by, they’re cursing them and flipping them off or, you know, saying hateful things or saying all cops are bad and broadly making statements about an entire group. It’s been really tough emotionally because the officers selflessly try to do a very, very difficult job day in and day out. And so it’s taking a toll to have those sorts of aspersions cast widely.
How could the job of police officers be made easier?
I think better. I think the job of a police officer will always be extremely difficult because we’re balancing so many things and sometimes competing interests. Our interests and goals are always that of public safety and doing the right thing. And sometimes some people like us. Other people don’t. And it’s a job that we take on so many things that there are no other answers for. So it comes to us whether it’s mental health issues or homeless issues, addiction issues — for so many things, we become the catch-all.
I don’t think this job will ever get easier. But I think we can always be better than we are. Working toward the reform movement is going to be in keeping with where we’ve been heading in terms of trying to always find ways to be better at what we do and more effective and more efficient at building ties and bridging gaps.
So, no, I don’t think the job will ever be easier, but I think we will improve because we’re always willing to improve and willing to learn. And, out of this, we will find a way that we can be better at what we do.
The governor has signed a number of bills over the last two weeks aimed at reforming how communities are policed in New York, what does that mean for IPD?
We will abide by any executive order that comes through and we’ll just look at how it compares with what we’re already doing. It may be something that, oh, we’ve already done that or we already have this in place. And then it just becomes a point of, OK, we know we’re on the right track, and we may have to make adjustments here or there, but we’re going to be meeting with people in the community and we’re going to be finding ways that we can make sure that they trust and support us. I think that’s the main key, because if you take executive orders out of the mix and you reduce it down to what’s most important, the communities we serve in law enforcement have to trust us. And if there’s not trust in what we do and legitimacy, which is that foundational pillar in 21st century policing, everything we do, even if it’s right, will be perceived as wrong. So, I think whatever we can do from this to build trust, improve trust, restore trust, that’s where the key will be.
One of those reforms is the repeal of Section 50a, allowing personnel records to be made public, do you agree with that decision?
You know, I think in the spirit of transparency, I see the need. I just would hope that when the law is completely put into place that it protects certain private information of officers such as their addresses and phone numbers and family information because there’s a lot of sensitive things. And we live in a world in which there are people out there who have nefarious reasons behind their actions. So I think if someone has the standing to request something, I think that very much goes toward transparency.
And a lot of times it will serve to show what we do administratively to address actions and correct actions, which otherwise hasn’t been known. And then I think in other terms it will also serve to exonerate an officer who may have an exemplary record that someone wants to inquire on. So I think that could be good from it. I think we just have to be careful that sensitive information is protected and that people who request things have a legal standing to do so and that it’s reviewed as to what goes out and to whom.
The city will be releasing police personnel records in the coming weeks, do you have any problem with that? Have officers expressed reservations about it?
If it’s presented in a way where an officer may at one point in their career have been disciplined for failing to use the proper amount of courtesy, and have never done something like that since –– then that’s the only thing that gets put out there and it’s not contextual to the officer’s entire career.
I think it would serve to show a lot of positives that officers do that go unnoticed. But again, I don’t know enough to comment on all the specifics because it just came out and I haven’t read all the particulars and I had not heard that the city was releasing everything. So, I guess I’d have to see.
The city also announced a task force today comprised of city staff, law enforcement and community members tasked with “Reimagining Public Safety in Ithaca,” in what ways do you think policing should change?
I think trust can (be built) because people know that they have a say. And then they have an understanding because they will be able to meet with me and they can ask questions and they can see we’ll provide policies like we posted our use of force policy. We put that out there because we’re trying to be transparent. We’re trying to answer questions. And I think maybe it will help to bridge gaps in understanding and form connections that are desperately needed.
So, I can see the value and the mayor is the one who’s going to be spearheading this. And I will, of course, be part of it. I like to always remain optimistic and think it can be a point to share all the good things we’ve been doing, we’ve been working on we’ve been following this path. I hope it helps to bridge some of this distance that exists.
IPD eliminated its public information officer and you have said to me previously that the department could do a better job with its public communication, do you have any plans to change how the department releases information to the public?
Yes, we can. Every agency can always do better and should always try to, but we work really hard (to make up for the) fact that we don’t have a public information officer. That job is a full-time position that does not exist. As a chief who’s dealing with the highest level issues and strategic planning and things, sometimes I’m in the weeds dealing with some of those basic things.
So we’re continually looking to make sure that on serious crimes and felonies, press releases go out. I try to put things up on our Facebook page to make sure that we still connect and share some of what we’re doing with the community. But again, my day is quite full and I can’t do that in a full-time capacity in any way, shape or form. And we don’t have someone that can do it. So we’ll continue to do our best to put information out there and be responsive. But it just becomes one of the situations where the result of not having someone in that position is showing and, people don’t get the news and information they want as readily or as timely as we’d like to do it.
It’s hard because when we lose a position, we say these things may go with it if we don’t have someone in this and ultimately we don’t control the funding. So, when we don’t have someone, we will still do our best. We’re always conscious of it and we try to be responsive.
A common complaint from officers is that they are regularly tasked with addressing public health issues such as drug overdoses and mental health issues, what can be done to help address that problem?
What can be done to help address those problems? You know, I think maybe from this task force, we can look at those things and look at what we’ve gotten called to respond to and and how that aligns with our skills and abilities and staffing and maybe some things we can look at having mental health clinicians or people from the county or some other bodies can be developed that can deal with some of the problems that, again, we deal with because no one else has an answer to. And then if it doesn’t go right, we’re accountable, even though we’re not qualified.
So, I think really evaluating and looking at and seeing who else may be better qualified to deal with them and then letting them be the person instead of putting us in the middle of something that may not be the best fit.
I feel that we’re a six-cylinder vehicle and we’re operating on maybe four cylinders. And yes. Is the vehicle still running? Yes. But it’s putting a strain on all those vehicles, on those other parts of the engine. And my goal is to not to have the car stranded on the side of the road.
If you’re running on four cylinders, and you should be running on six. If the city came to you and said, ‘we will give you two more cylinders, but they are going to be mental health clinicians or social workers.’ Is that something that you would entertain? Is that something that you think would be effective?
I mean, obviously, officers have a much more rounded ability in so many ways, but we would never turn down anything.
And if we could find a way that it doesn’t even come to us, that somehow within the government this call comes in mental health-based and it goes to this agency versus the police to begin with. But again, we’ll always take what we can get. But I will always advocate for officers, because when you look at our ability to respond, you know, we don’t have a traffic unit anymore. We have one person who’s actually out on injury. But the issue is to have responsiveness to traffic concerns, it’s coming out of the two officers covering basic patrol hours on overtime. But sometimes people are so burnt out oftentimes that it doesn’t get filled. So, I just think those things are nice add-ons, value add-ons, but they don’t replace an actual officer.
The sale of surplus military equipment is very common in police departments, but is a relatively recent trend in law enforcement, how can IPD address community concerns about militarization?
As police, I can tell you we do not ever want to be an occupying force in any community. We want to be a part of the community. The equipment that we have is protective based. If you look at some of the things you’re seeing nationally on TV, that’s not our method, we don’t fire things into crowds and we don’t have equipment that’s destructive in nature. We go to really bad calls, dangerous situations. When you look at some of our equipment, it’s more based on providing a level of safety.
We don’t even have an armored vehicle, which again, it would be a method for get through an inner perimeter of something very dangerous. We don’t even have that. So as far as militarization where we are, we are the last thing from being a militarized department.
I think we have the protective equipment that’s sometimes needed in very dangerous circumstances. And other than that, I am in agreement that police-community should not see their police as a military and military force within their communities. And we’ve worked really hard not to be that. I would say there are certain situations where we need to have that tactical component, but it’s not in any way based on trying to be a military faction of any community.
Protesters have called you out personally at protests, are you aware of that and do you feel a responsibility to address the issues the community is bringing to the fore?
People are making statements without knowing me, without knowing what I stand for, without knowing what I’ve done in my past and what I’ve been doing for IPD. And I can’t address every negative comment that people have. And I don’t try to, I try to have what I do speak for itself. I try to be responsive to the groups and I’d be willing to always talk and speak.
If someone says something that’s just an out and out lie as to what we’re doing, I will address that. If someone were to say the police department has been working systematically to become a military and someone brought that to my attention, I would say, no, that is not correct. And here’s why. And here’s what we’ve been doing. And I would try to be more of an educator versus being a person arguing every point.
I try to just focus on what we’re doing here as an agency and try to continue moving forward and meeting the needs of the community. And, you know, a lot of people are saying things without having the facts and without taking the time to get to know me and ask me questions first.
About a thousand people gathered outside of this building two weeks ago, was there a conversation about if you should engage with them? Should you go out?
I spoke to the organizer and I actually contacted Sheriff Osborne and Chief Honan, and I said, I am willing to be part of this if they’d like, I offered to walk with them. If it’s a pro justice and memorial for Mr. George Floyd or something positive to show that I’m wanting to be part of a solution. My offer was rejected and I wasn’t going to disrespect and be part of something that I wasn’t wanted. And I also offered to come out and say a few words. I said, when you get to the PD, I’d be willing to. And they rejected that also. Again, I will respect that. That wasn’t the right time.
District Attorney Matt Van Houten has expressed regret about his handling of the Cadji Malone and Rose DeGroat case during his reelection campaign, in hindsight, do you think that was handled appropriately?
I try not to comment on how the district attorney chooses to handle things. He’s a different portion of the criminal justice system. We deal with it from the policing aspect and once it leaves our hands, I try not to put my comments on it. That’s within his purview.
But you held a joint press conference after the charges were dismissed. So, do you feel like you handled that appropriately?
I tried to answer questions and to outline what the officers responded to, the challenges the officers had in knowing what they were dealing with, the lack of cooperation from people who were being alleged to have been victims and the fact that information was being put out there was found to be not true and that people weren’t coming forward to assist (the investigation). And to answer questions and to show that we are open to answering questions.
We are open to looking at how can we do something better, but also trying to show what the officers were confronted with, which was a violent act in which they watched somebody violently strike another person. And we identified some things that could have been done better from that. And we addressed those. And then as far as to which direction the district attorney took it that again, is within his purview.
When the first thing that was perceived was that it was race-based, then I knew that means there is work to be done, which there is, and there’s continual work to be done.
You said in a letter shortly after the killing of George Floyd that “all persons should be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion; anything less will not be tolerated within the law enforcement profession.” The demonstrations happening across the country are happening specifically because the public perception is that isn’t necessarily the case, do you feel like you are hearing the message of activists calling for change?
As far as I’m concerned as a police chief, one of the most important responsibilities I have is who I bring on as officers. What they know I stand for and won’t stand for and who I removed from service because they’re not reflecting what is the best interests of the community and the profession. And I have done that. I have been very careful to the point I don’t hire people if I don’t think they’re suitable. I’ve removed officers from service because their actions haven’t been consistent. And a lot of that I haven’t even been able to talk about because of those 50a protections. These are things that people can know as police chief, I don’t stand for. If there are people that are abusing their powers I don’t want them in this profession because this profession is only supported when people trust us. And anything that goes against that trust will have my full attention.
When you look at it mathematically, there are about 800,000 sworn law enforcement members throughout the country. And if you look at a tenth of that or 10 percent of that, it’s eighty thousand, and one percent, you have eight thousand. If you look at a tenth of a percent, use the number 800, for example. In a 365 day year, if one-tenth of a percent go against the expectations and the standards and the professionalism we expect, you could do two national news stories every day about something bad police do. And it would paint the entire profession of those other seven hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred something. And it’s sad because it’s not the case and so many good things get done, day in and day out, that are never known, never recognized, and they just fly under the radar. And that’s just the profession we’re in.
But from my point of view, I have no toleration for anybody who does anything to besmirch the code of ethics, the standards that are expected to trust. And again, I’ve addressed that. And people who know me, know that there’s a line, and what we do matters. And I have to remove people from this profession because their actions were not consistent. I haven’t hired people because they weren’t suitable and I’ve brought on people who reflect the highest ideals and promoted people who reflect the highest ideals, and that’s always the way I see my job ––it’s to make sure that what I build is reflective of the community.
And I can end with this: I look at my job as if I was not a police chief and I was not in law enforcement, what would I want as a community member from the police officers? And that’s what I painstakingly worked to give them. Everybody.