ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca have been working with the Center for Policing Equity to gather feedback from local residents on potential avenues of police reform. 

The Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative seeks to incorporate a community-oriented approach to policing in Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca. This initiative is part of an executive order requiring all municipalities with police departments in New York state to adopt a plan for police reform by April 1, 2021. 

The collaborative involves working groups—experts and officials tasked with evaluating the conduct and procedures of various agencies within the County—and focus groups consisting of local residents. The county and city have been receiving community feedback online, at kiosks in the Tompkins County Public Library and through the Community Voices Public Forums series.

In the four sessions held this month, local residents offered critical feedback on traditional models of policing with many echoing the nationwide clarion call to “defund the police,” a reform which seeks to create a radically new version of public safety. 

This reimagination comes amid sustained protests that have refocused their attention on the Ithaca Police Department (IPD). Protestors mobilized outside IPD headquarters Sunday and called for the agency to be defunded. The number of people who gathered to protest has held steady in recent weeks at around 30 people, The Ithaca Voice reported

Throughout November and December, community groups have been convening with working group members at these forums. Contrary to the description on the County’s website, community members argued that these meetings prevent local leaders and the public from having conversations about the reimagination of public safety. 

Attendees like Kate Leboff, who has been involved in the local racial justice movement, emphasized the need for a back-and-forth between the people and the County about what leads to crime. 

“You can’t reimagine public safety without addressing the root causes of what results in crime,” Leboff said on Nov. 14. “If we don’t have these conversations, we can’t reimagine public safety.”

Leboff’s remarks were not the only ones critical of the Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative. Speakers have argued that the current reimagination process isn’t much of a “Collaborative” at all. Instead, they posit that its format is impeding reforms that County and City residents are recommending for implementation. 

Critics of the current Community Voices format said that it feels like their suggestions are going into some sort of void. Local resident Veronica Pillar recommended that the County place something in the physical world for Ithacans to track the input they provide. 

“Maybe like a big, giant board in the Commons with some disinfectant, a little roof to protect from the rain,” Pillar said. “I think that would reach maybe more people and we as the public could, like, see each other’s responses as opposed to having them kind of gathered and hidden away for the officials and working groups.”

Ithacan and local activist Genevieve Rand scrutinized the layout of the Community Voice forums because it limits each attendee’s input to a maximum of two minutes per session. Rand also suggested that the County canvas low-income neighborhoods to increase representation of marginalized communities in the Collaborative’s data-gathering process. 

“I’m just really frustrated that this is how you guys are trying to go about this,” Rand said. “You’re just sitting in your house, [sic] going on Zoom and giving people two minutes to have one chance to talk about this.”  

Despite these constraints, forum attendees can provide their input using the chat function on Zoom for consideration in the reimagination process. Additionally, community members can contribute their thoughts, perspectives and experiences regarding public safety outside of these forums online and at the Tompkins County Public Library.

Tompkins County Communications Director Dominick Recckio said that the County is taking the necessary steps to ensure BIPOC voices are incorporated into the development of its state-mandated public safety plan. Community members will be able to sign up for focus groups in the coming weeks. 

“We’re going to be publishing the list of focus groups that we’ll be having, and those cross many different marginalized communities in Ithaca and Tompkins County,” Recckio said Friday. “Other folks that may not be able to make it to a focus group will be interviewed individually by trained facilitators that we’re working with.” 

But there was more scrutiny of the reimagination process throughout the November forums. Other residents like Rogue Ma expressed disdain about the Collaborative’s working groups. 

“It is filled with exactly the same people that we are trying to render obsolete; I don’t see a single community activist represented,” Ma said. “Essentially, these working groups are not going to be able to recognize the urgency of any of our ideas [sic] because they live insulated from interracial or interdimensional violence.” 

Another community member echoed the sentiments. 

“Anyone who’s considered ‘other’ in this country [does] not experience any kind of [sic] practical experience of safety,” they said. “We need to imagine what it would be like for someone who was born with the ‘wrong’ skin color to not ever have to walk his life, or her life, or their life feeling as if it’s a brand that permanently prevents them from [sic] having a baseline of safety.”

Recckio said that the County and City are working with community partners and nonprofits, to invite local residents from marginalized communities to the focus groups. He did not explicitly name any of these organizations, which—according to residents like Ma—are poorly represented in the Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative. 

The majority of residents who spoke at these forums demanded that the County and City redirect municipal funds to consolidate social programs that are already providing vital aid to the community and facilitate crisis interventions that reduce crime at the source. 

“I genuinely think that this is really a distraction from demands that the community has already made to see the police defunded,” Liza Cobb, a member of Show Up for Racial Justice, said last week. “We want to see it defunded and we want to see that money, go back to the community—especially during a pandemic when people are really struggling and programs for the community are [sic] losing their funding.” 

Thomas Murphy, a teacher’s aid with the Ithaca City School District, alluded to the notion that police aren’t always equipped for the emergencies they conventionally respond to. 

“The police are too relied on as the only solution for violent crime, substance abuse, mental health crises, domestic violence, homelessness and more,” he said. “Relying on them to do all these things perfectly enough to keep the community safe is not working and hasn’t worked.” 

Also among the speakers was David Foote, a local resident who highlighted the urgency of reinventing public safety. 

“I wanted to reiterate that, for most of this year, the people of Ithaca have been demanding that [the] police department budget be cut significantly, and that those funds be used for community-based programs,” he said. “It takes a lot of work to change systems, especially while we have multiple crises that each and altogether are making this change more difficult, but they also make it more necessary—this work has to happen.” 

Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino explained that although the public safety plan is state-mandated, this reimagination is only the initial phase of actualizing the needs of the community. 

“This is the first step to a long stairwell of review and understanding of [sic] how we can provide those services to our community members in the form and fashion that they’re looking for,” Molino said. 

The public will be able to provide input through the month of December, and the County and City will be synthesizing this data until the initial release of a draft on Jan. 31, 2021. From February to March, the County and City will seek and consider public feedback on the draft before finalizing and adopting a plan by April 1, 2021. 

The next Community Voices forum will be held via Zoom on Friday, Dec. 4 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Members of the community are encouraged to participate by registering for the Zoom webinars in advance. 

If you are interested in making your voice heard regarding police reform, but can’t make it to the public forums, additional opportunities for community input are available and are listed below.

  • Fill out this online form
  • Leave a voicemail with input by calling 607-274-5465
  • Submit a paper input form. Download here or pick up at the Tompkins County Public Library 
  • Mail a letter with Attn: Reimagining Public Safety to 125 E. Court St.
    Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Drop Off suggestion to the Mayor’s Listening Post (Mailbox) at 108 E. Green St.
    ​Ithaca, N.Y.  or to the Tompkins County Drop Box at 125 E. Court St. ​Ithaca, N.Y.

Community members who would like to engage in online feedback but don’t have access to a computer can go to the Tompkins County Public Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m to 1 p.m., and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. 

Again, a timeline of the reimagining public safety process, a list of working group members, and details on how the community can submit input are available online, and on this downloadable paper input form.

Members of the community who would like to receive updates on the process and announcements of future community forums via email can fill out this online form to receive updates directly to their inbox.

James Baratta

James Baratta is a New York-based journalist and writer. He is a graduate of Ithaca College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His work has appeared in POLITICO, Truthout and Common Dreams....