ITHACA, N.Y.—Monalita “Mona” Smiley speaks with an even keel. She does not often stumble, pause, or have to rethink her sentences in the middle of them. When she does, it feels weighty.

“I don’t get rattled, because I can’t be productive when I’m rattled,” said Smiley.

Smiley was announced as the Project Director for the Community Justice Center (CJC) in December, a joint department of the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County that will be actualizing the recommendations layed out in the Reimagining Public Safety Plan, which includes replacing the City of Ithaca Police Department (IPD) with a Public Safety Department. 

Her appointment was the latest significant step in the implementation of the proposed reforms, and her job description prominently includes that she will be tasked with putting the reforms into actual practice. Smiley is now one of the most crucial figures of defining both the powers of the Community Justice Center going forward and the shape of the reforms in the short-term. 

Passed unanimously by the City of Ithaca’s Common Council and in a 12 – 2 vote by the Tompkins County Legislature, Reimagining Public Safety was submitted to the New York State Governor’s office in April 2021. 

“…in order for any change to be effective, people are going to have to be vulnerable, and they’re going to have to be open,” said Smiley.

Since then, developments on the plan have been relatively quiet compared to the frequent town halls that dominated City and County news from February to April of last year, or the daily and weekly demonstrations that ignited locally and across the nation in the spring and summer of 2020. 

Rallying cries to “defund” and “abolish” the police bannered protests and the American consciousness in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the deaths of other Black Americans who lost their lives in tragic encounters with law enforcement. Smiley said that she would not use those terms to define Ithaca and Tompkins County’s effort to Reimagine Public Safety — she doesn’t find them suitable. She primarily describes it as an effort to “broaden the spectrum” of the types of emergency response available in order to better address the needs of a situation.

“This is a huge undertaking, and it’s going to be hard,” said Smiley, who sees the potential of the plan as a meaningful and significant improvement to how emergencies are handled, but she emphasized that “It’s not a complete overhaul, in my opinion” of law enforcement.

The protests following George Floyd’s death added fuel to the heated debate around the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects individual police officers and government officials from lawsuits over alleged violations of civil rights. For officers and officials to be held liable, a precedent must be set within a previous case as to whether similar actions were considered unconstitutional. Reimagining Public Safety does not have any recommendations included in it regarding qualified immunity. When asked if she thinks this doctrine needs to change for police offices, Smiley said she does.

“I would like to say that I’m all about transparency. I mean in order for any change to be effective, people are going to have to be vulnerable, and they’re going to have to be open,” Smiley said. 

The last timeline for the implementation of the Reimagining Public Safety plan was laid out in May of 2021. Former Tompkins County Administrator Jason Moilino presented goals for the plan at a meeting of the county’s Public Safety Committee. Many of the objectives presented then stretched well into 2023 and 2024, some of which include establishing a pilot program that better aligns emergency response resources; developing and implementing a suitable alternative to crisis intervention (Smiley mentioned that she is currently studying Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS model); establishing an officer wellness program; and developing a community healing plan.

“That’s one thing you’re going to find out about me: If I don’t know I’m going to tell you,” said Smiley. “I’m not going to make it up.”

Smiley said that while a new updated timeline is likely to come, there isn’t anything she can currently share. Some updates on Reimagining Public Safety were shared at the county legislature’s meeting on Feb 1. listing the plans that are currently under development. They largely adhere to the plan as it was laid out in May. 

The hiring process to find a Project Director took a few months longer than originally planned, Smiley has been on the job for just four weeks. She is asking for patience as the department develops.

At the top of her to-do list is hiring a data analyst and an administrative assistant, but she said that the big job ahead is to connect law enforcement agencies, health and human services, and the community organizations that will have some aspect of them expressed in the Public Safety Department and Reimagining Public Safety. 

“I look at this job that I have now as being a leader and a liaison to implement the various recommendations of the plan,” said Smiley. “To use my ability and connections in the community to bring — I keep saying to bridge that gap between law enforcement and other services and the community.

“And letting the community know that there is someone here, or there’s an agency here or an entity here that will acknowledge your feelings, your ideas, your thoughts, and letting the law enforcement aspect of it know that there’s someone here that’s going to acknowledge your feelings, your thoughts, your concerns, and then bringing the two together,” Smiley said. 

Crime in Ithaca

A perceived increase in violent crime throughout 2020 and 2021 has worried Ithaca area residents. The issue has remained a point of contention between certain constituents in the Ithaca area, as well as between outgoing Mayor Svante Myrick and the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA), the Ithaca Police Department’s Union organization.

The IPBA has blended anti-reimagining public safety rhetoric in media releases regarding crimes in Ithaca with increasing frequency over the last six or so months. On their Facebook page, they recently opened a Dec. 17 post regarding a stabbing incident with, “The ABOLISHMENT of the Ithaca Police Department is being planned.” Statements like this have led Myrick to accuse the IPBA of “fear-mongering,” and propagating “misinformation.”

Smiley doesn’t think that crime is worsening in Ithaca, however she said that “having been in this position for only a short period of time has not allowed me to see a vast range of statistical data.”

Smiley remarked that the perceived increase in crime, to her, supports the implementation of the Reimagining Public Safety recommendations.

Some of the oversight and powers of the CJC are still not openly defined, or yet to be defined. For example, it’s unclear if the new department will play a role in the City of Ithaca’s Community Police Board, which functions as a community liaison to IPD. Expressions of appreciation for the department as well as formal complaints are handled by the CPB. The board conducts investigations into complaints and shares its findings and recommendations with the Chief of Police, currently Acting Chief John Joly, who is then responsible for determining the appropriate actions to resolve the complaints. 

Smiley said she was not sure what the CJC and CPB’s relationship will look like, but is looking into it.

“That’s one thing you’re going to find out about me: If I don’t know I’m going to tell you,” said Smiley. “I’m not going to make it up.”

Smiley is a board member of the Southside Community Center, and was previously Director of Youth Outreach at The Learning Web. She’s served as PTA board president, and been a referee and coach, and has filled various other roles she says have put her touch with many corners of the Ithaca-area; including the courts and law enforcement, although she has no work experience focused in the fields.

 “Whatever nook and cranny there is of this community, I at least have some type of experience with it,” said Smiley.

“The way I look at it is that it wasn’t just [Myrick],” said Smiley.

She describes herself as “a woman of very few words” and seems positioned to be the major public face of the plan. Outgoing Mayor Svante Myrick was largely seen as the progenitor of the Reimagining effort, but now that he is departing, Smiley says she’s ready for whatever the public may ask of her.

“I’m not going to hide behind anything. I’m ready to be at the forefront and answer any questions that I can,” said Smiley

Myrick’s departure — as well as former county administrator Molino, who spearheaded the plan in the county, and former IPD Police Chief Dennis Nayor — has shuffled the officials that were once under the heat of the Reimagining Public Safety spotlight. While there has been turnover among key public officials, Smiley said that she feels assured by the city and county governments that passed and support the plan. 

“The way I look at it is that it wasn’t just [Myrick],” said Smiley. She added, “This is a joint effort between the city and the county, so I’m not going to be out there alone pushing this through.”

“I need to be able to facilitate between people that are a little excited, and some of those that are not so excited…Nobody likes change, everyone has an issue with change,” said Smiley.

She added, “My job is to remain level headed so I can facilitate that change.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn