ITHACA, N.Y. –– Following the release of the draft report outlining major changes to local law enforcement in accordance with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, there’s been a range of emotions: panic, confusion, anger, acceptance and support, to varying degrees. In response, officials from the City of Ithaca began sorting through some of the bigger strategies outlined in the “Reimagining Public Safety” document at their March 10 meeting, including the viability of the first proposal in the report –– replacing the Ithaca Police Department with the “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety.”
The meeting, while not a regularly scheduled Common Council meeting, was instead a “Committee of the Whole” special session designed to clarify some of the major sticking points of the reform proposal as approval is slated to take place by April 1, per the Governor’s order. The whole meeting can be watched here.
One of the major points of confusion following the release of the draft has been where current officers stand in the new department, and if they would be forced to reapply for jobs they already have. This concern was a primary topic during last week’s Common Council meeting during which several officers accused Mayor Svante Myrick of “union-busting.” Council made sure to get this question out of the way first –– in a new resolution language clarifies that all officers will have all of their existing protections guaranteed and will keep their contract, union and titles and will have the same pay and benefits.
However, several alderpersons brought up the utility of the department shift outside of the job security concerns. With the same pay and titles, Alderperson Seph Murtagh asked what the point of the new department would be.
“I don’t think anybody on council questions the idea that we would have a public safety response that consists of armed officers combined with unarmed social workers, or crisis workers. I don’t think these are new ideas, I mean this community has initiated programs like this in the past,” Murtagh said, referring to past programs that have paired human service experts with armed officers, but also current efforts including the Community Outreach Worker program and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
“What I question is why instead of renaming the police department, don’t we increase those efforts and shrink the department?” Murtagh said.
Others shared this criticism –– Alderperson Cynthia Brock called the first recommendation “administrative” and “bureaucratic.”
The major reason for the new department, according to both Mayor Svante Myrick and County Administrator Jason Molino, is the incorporation of the unarmed officers, who are separate from social workers or human resource workers and are intended to be able to change the culture of policing through non-threatening interaction.
“The purpose of executive order 203 is to acknowledge that marginalized members of the community have been negatively impacted by inequities in policing, so your strategies have to be looked at through that lens and how that strategy is going to change inequities,” Molino said. The purpose is not to develop alternative response models, he said, unless they bring about positive impacts for marginalized community members –– namely Black and brown individuals.
One example of how an unarmed public safety worker will both be efficient and undercut inequality is through traffic stops –– a situation where armed officers have been known to be an intimidating presence. Molino did say during the Wednesday night meeting, however, that there are still details that need to be hammered out.
“There’s a lot of details on how you dispatch resources adequately so you don’t send individuals into harm’s way, for example, this type of response might be a co-response with armed law enforcement officers,” Molino said.
The other question on many people’s minds is how much the department change and the 18 other proposals included in the draft report will cost. Myrick said he hopes to have budget estimates in front of council in a matter of days. What will not happen in a matter of days though, is the implementation of any and all approved changes. Much of the panic being felt from officers and community members seems to stem from the radical overhaul to every aspect of local law enforcement –– these decisions and the timeline on which they will be put into place is a matter of years, according to the Wednesday discussion.
Because of the lengthy timeline, some council members asked that the few achievable points in the draft report, such as recommending to Albany that the civil service exam be more inclusive and paying for an updated crime statistics dashboard, be moved ahead separately and swiftly.
“The community doubts that there would be real change,” Alderperson Laura Lewis said. “I’d like us to move quickly.”
Lewis also stated something during the Wednesday night meeting that was echoed by others –– that although there may be disagreements, the community is ready and needs change.
“It’s very clear we cannot do nothing,” she said.
The Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County also serendipitously published a document answering frequently asked questions on the draft report and recommendations. The document can be found on the Collaborative’s web page and is linked below.
The collaborative is continuing to seek public feedback, something not available during this first meeting of city officials. The next chance for public comment will be at a special Common Council meeting Tuesday, March 16 at 7 p.m. Public comment will also be welcomed the same evening at the Tompkins County Legislature meeting starting at 5 p.m. Both meetings will be held virtually on Zoom and live-streamed on YouTube. More information on how to register to speak can be found here.