ITHACA, N.Y.—Former City of Ithaca Common Council member Eric Rosario will lead the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group, designed to coordinate the implementation of the reforms approved by the City of Ithaca Common Council on April 1. The team of 15 people is expected to deliver initial recommendations to Common Council by September, according to a press conference held Tuesday evening.

The group, selected by Mayor Svante Myrick with the help of City of Ithaca Director of Human Resources Schelley Michell-Nunn, is made up of three police officers, including Ithaca Police Benevolent Association Tom Condzella, Scott Garin and Mary Orsaio, as well as Common Council members George McGonigal, Laura Lewis and Ducson Nguyen, Greater Ithaca Activities Center Deputy Director Travis Brooks (who was also just elected to the Tompkins County Legislature), Cornell University sophomore and Black Student Union Political Action Chair Mar’Quon Frederick, New Roots Charter School student Savannah Gonzalez, Ithaca business owner and developer John Guttridge, local Pastor Amos Malone, Ithaca College’s LGBTQ Education, Outreach and Services Director Luca Maurer, activist Thaddeus McClain and Unbroken Promise Initiative VP Yasmin Rashid.

Myrick said he wanted to reach into the different demographics of Ithaca in formulating the group, explaining the breadth of individuals chosen for inclusion—though the three police officers represent the largest delegation from a single demographic, tied with Common Council members. Beyond that, Myrick wanted to focus on including people of color, considering their negative interactions with law enforcement, to “center their experiences.”

Myrick also said students, small business owners and people with organizational change experience were targets for inclusion, as well as police officers so that they would have a seat at the table—something that law enforcement has complained about throughout the Reimagining process. Initial recommendations are anticipated by early September, Myrick said, though the timeline beyond that is foggy—the hope appears to be that some of the recommendations will be included in the city’s 2022 budget negotiation process in October.

In the working group announcement and a subsequent press availability, Myrick commended Rosario’s variety of involvement in the community, including co-founding the Latino Civic Association and his current work on the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency.

“I am deeply honored by the trust the Mayor and City have placed in me,” Rosario said in a statement. “I feel privileged to work alongside the members of this working group and our advisors. The community’s charge to us as expressed through the Common Council’s unanimous vote to reimagine public safety is clear. The outline and parameters for the new department have been defined. Our job is to recommend how to operationalize these guidelines in the real-world while taking a diverse set of constituent needs, centering those most vulnerable in our community, into consideration.”

There’s also a long list of officials who won’t be directly involved with the working group itself, but will lend technical assistance and serve as advisors to the group. That list includes District Attorney Matt Van Houten, Acting IPD Chief John Joly, Community Police Board members, City Controller Steve Thayer and others, such as Dr. Tracie Keesee of the Center for Policing Equity. Van Houten and Joly are not included in the actual working group because of their current roles within the system that the group is trying to reform.

Public buy-in and faith in the Reimagining Public Safety process will be crucial, Myrick, Keesee and Rosario all mentioned. Some of the reforms will constitute significant enough changes that they will be subject to city-wide referendums.

“Public buy-in is going to be important every step of the way, broadly because they’ll have to vote on some of them, but also because the new leader of the police will work for the public,” Myrick said, illustrating his hope that whoever is hired to lead the redesigned public safety department, containing armed and unarmed officers will be viewed as accountable to the community.

When asked, Myrick said he didn’t think the ongoing reform process would inhibit the ability to find a new leader for the police in the wake of former chief Dennis Nayor’s retirement.

Keesee said that the group is still building up an infrastructure for the public to provide feedback on a consistent basis on their work. Myrick said it is unclear if working group members would be paid yet or not, considering the amount of time that they would have to put in. The city will not be directly working with Tompkins County on this portion of the Reimagining process, though Myrick said they would be sharing information and would likely be in frequent communication with the county as it implements some of the reform recommendations as well.

“The recommendation [for a working group] was for the City of Ithaca, but we feel that a lot of the work is going to be synergistic,” Myrick said.

“I would say that it is too soon to know what a best practice is and that every community is very different,” Keesee said when asked if this police reform effort is reminiscent of others she had been involved in and whether or not a working group was considered a best practice for comprehensive law enforcement change. “Would something that works in Ithaca work in Denver? The answer is no, the communities are different. It looks different. […] You do have to bring in the voice of law enforcement. Officers aren’t the ones that make public policy, but they are the ones who can provide that insight […] Ithaca is leading, across the country, and when you talk about next steps, this is it.”

Matt Butler

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