Ithaca Police Department SWAT truck (Credit: Tompkins County)

ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca Police Department announced its first wave of reforms aimed at fulfilling the promises outlined in the Reimagining Public Safety proposal that was approved at the end of March by both the Tompkins County Legislature and Ithaca’s Common Council.

The reforms were announced in a joint press release from Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne and John Joly, IPD’s Acting Chief as the transition from retiring Chief Dennis Nayor continues. They include five main tenets, seemingly aimed at reforming usage and appearance of the local SWAT team and its vehicle.

The Ithaca Police Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) and the Critical Incident Negotiations Team, both of which are joint-jurisdiction teams with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, will both be now known as the Ithaca-Tompkins Specialized Response Team and the Ithaca-Tompkins Crisis Negotiation Team. That change is being implemented in an attempt to “better reflect” the actual purposes of the two teams and their usual duties.

“Both teams were born out of the tragic death of IPD investigator Michael Padula in 1996 and a promise was made at that time to be better prepared and better trained for similar incidents,” the release said. “Since inception of the teams in 1998 a constant evolution has occurred over the years, keeping up with best practices, policy and even obtaining NYS Certification. The most recent changes continue on the path of evolving with best practices as well as making sure our mission, image and values align with our community’s expectations.”

Of most significance to the community is that the police will no longer serve no-knock warrants “solely for narcotics or drugs.” Whether or not no-knock warrants will still be employed in other situations was not made clear in the announcement.

“The Ithaca-Tompkins Specialized Response Team will no longer serve No-Knock Search Warrants solely for narcotics or drugs on any residence within any jurisdiction,” the notice says. “This specific mission set has also been removed from all training curriculum.”

It’s unclear how often no-knock warrants were actually utilized by the Ithaca Police Department, though the Ithaca Voice has a Freedom of Information Law request pending on the topic. The practice of no-knock warrants, meaning law enforcement can enter a property or premises without announcing themselves first, were at the center of controversy last year in particular, after the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police while they were serving a no-knock warrant.

Taylor’s death became a rallying point for police reform activists, along with George Floyd’s and others.

Truck 99, also known as the Mobile Command Truck for SWAT, was the center of plenty of feedback during the formulation of the Reimagining document, with many saying it was too intimidating and too militarized for the level of policing necessary in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

In response, the vehicle is being repainted white and the weapons storage inside of the truck is being removed. The two teams will both also be receiving new uniforms, replacing camouflage with normal police officer uniforms unless the situation demands camouflage for safety. That process will take 12 months.

The SWAT vehicle could still be repurposed, but at this point, it’s only being rebranded. Originally, the Reimagining Public Safety proposal called for the vehicle to be retired and instead used as an emergency command center, hopefully allaying some of the demands of those pushing for reforming its use by instead employing it as something with more consistent and obvious community benefit. Yet, instead, at least for the time being it will still be used for SWAT operations, though those operations will be done in a different color.

The City of Ithaca did vote to “conduct a review of SWAT callouts to determine appropriate use of service and equipment,” which is ostensibly going to be handled by the Community Justice Center.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com