As many have seen in the widely shared GQ article, our Mayor just announced a police reform initiative that will disarm some officers, increase data collection and transparency on police conduct, and push community education on how to solve problems without calling the police. And yet, if you follow online discourse among activists and left-leaning community members, you’ve probably seen frustration, distrust, and disappointment.
How could that be, an observer might ask. Isn’t this what activists have been asking for? Don’t people want, as GQ put it, the most ambitious police reform effort in the country? Well, it’s complicated. And the anger is just as much about process as it is about policy.
Before I start, I want to be clear that many people more affected by and knowledgeable about policing have spoken at length on its merits and consequences, so that’s not my topic here. What I can fill readers in on is what’s been happening with this initiative both inside city government, and outside on the ground, as someone who’s been present for both and has read the lengthy report released on Tuesday.
First, policy. More transparency and fewer guns may be minor changes, but to most they’re improvements; at the very least, they don’t make things worse. That could have been the takeaway, but it’s not — because it’s not what Svante is pitching. He’s calling it “abolition”, “radical”, and “ambitious”, but it’s none of those. Signaling to communities calling for genuine police abolition and other truly ambitious changes and adopting their language, while clearly choosing not to deliver on their demands, is a messaging problem he could have avoided by just calling these reforms what they are: obvious, difficult-to-oppose changes with cross-spectrum support that politicians like him must make to maintain popularity in the face of local and national outcry at the state of policing. If that doesn’t get him in Gentleman’s Quarterly, so be it — at least it’s honest.
And then, arguably more important than policy, there’s process. On page 30 of the 98-page report released alongside the Mayor’s announcement, a theme emerges that’s repeated throughout: “In nearly all focus group communities, our recruitment efforts were restricted by the sustained skepticism of the Reimagining Public Safety process,” the authors explain. “The overwhelming view of the process was that it was performative and nothing would come of it… numerous respondents refused to participate because of a lack of trust in the process and/or because they had participated in previous efforts and have yet to witness notable systemic changes.”
Yikes. For a city government, that’s a huge red flag, and should signal the need to take immense care to involve the community in each stage of this process — not just procedurally, but also emotionally. Many of those who did participate put time, energy, and faith into a government process they didn’t trust, solely because of how severely police have harmed the community through killings, beatings, and unjust incarcerations of Black and Brown residents in particular. Svante and the rest of city government promised this would be a community collaboration, a conversation — not just policy wonks issuing decrees from their seats high up in the palace of local power. And yet!
Suddenly, after the first round of public feedback, Ithaca unexpectedly finds itself in the national spotlight as Svante and a multi-million-dollar nonprofit from LA confidently drop 100 pages of The Plan in our lap — not just without running it by the community focus groups, interviewees, and forum attendants they promised to involve, but (if sources are to be believed) without the knowledge of a single colleague in city or county government. To many, after the reluctantly-believed promises of collaboration, it feels like a double-cross.
And here lies another messaging mistake of over-promising and under-delivering: the report is, in fact, very sparse in details. What will an unarmed response look like? When will you get an armed one? What proportions of each will the city employ? Will unarmed officers incarcerate people? What will the new officer training entail, and is it replacing or supplementing the old training? Nobody knows! The only thing we hear solidly from both the nonprofit and the Mayor is that they plan to spend more money on policing, despite noting that every community input format saw defunding and reallocating emerge as major themes — another double-cross.
Instead of starting a national media campaign over a vague plan with that glaring issue, he could have angled this as simply the first response in a two-way conversation, highly subject to change pending more rounds of feedback — but he didn’t. Combine the rush to tout a first-draft plan on the national stage and the appropriation of abolitionist language for minor reform, with the clunky rename from “Police Department” to “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” (rainbow emojis pending), and you’ve got the tuned-in activists and progressives feeling avoidably patronized or even insulted. That’s why people are upset.
So what should he do? Apologize, refocus on iterating this plan together with the community, and stop the press run until that’s done.