This is a letter to the editor written by Ithaca resident Sarah Gunther. It was not written by the Ithaca Voice. To submit letters to the editor, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I live on Renwick Heights Road, which was, for a few hours, the center of the police manhunt for a suspect in a shooting dispute last week. As I sheltered in a darkened bedroom with my partner and our three-year-old, I was genuinely terrified. Police alerts stated that the suspect was armed and should be considered dangerous. A dozen heavily armed police officers in army fatigues swarmed our street and searched garages. At one point, the police mistakenly tweeted out our specific address, making me wonder if we were in imminent danger.
The police eventually called off the search and left our neighborhood. As the adrenaline drained from my body, my fear turned into intense questioning about the events of the night. In his statement when he called off the search, Sheriff Derek Osborne said the police did not believe the person was a threat to the public, as the dispute was between specific groups of people. A dispatch officer I spoke to on the phone that night said the same, attempting to reassure me by sharing that they had come into contact with this person earlier and were positive that he did not want to hurt anyone.
So what justified this intense and militarized manhunt? If the person was not a threat to the public, why did the police respond the way they did? Would they have responded similarly if the incident had remained contained in downtown Ithaca, rather than seeping into white and wealthy Cayuga Heights? Most of all, who does it serve to whip up fear in the public?
Sheriff Derek Osborne shared his narrative in Matt Butler’s recent article, “Sheriff defends search process, messaging during Cayuga Heights manhunt.” Now I want to share mine.
I am a white progressive who believes in abolition, a world without police. Even for me, this has been a clarifying experience about the harms that a militarized police cause, particularly for Black members of our community. I am outraged that the police are defending their massive overreaction that sent our community into a lockdown while they pursued a suspect who did not represent a danger to the public. Their disproportionate response could have caused an actual incidence of violence. I experienced first-hand how the police construct fear in the public, which justifies their role as a protective arm of the state. A militarized police response provokes the exact fear that the police propose they are needed to quell. These fears have only been heightened by the Ithaca police union’s recent public relations campaign full of misinformation, stirring up anxiety about rising crime in order to justify its budget and discredit the City of Ithaca’s efforts to reimagine public safety.
We all deserve to feel safe in our communities. Gun violence is an epidemic that needs proactive solutions. Luckily, such solutions exist, from violence interruption programs to investments in community services like health, education and good jobs. This experience has affirmed for me in a very real way that we must move beyond the harms of policing, particularly to Black communities, and invest in solutions that promote true community safety. There are better ways to keep our community safe that do not include the police.
Nov. 16, 2021