Ithaca Voice reporter Jimmy Jordan contributed reporting to this article.

ITHACA, N.Y.—More than a year after the Reimagining Public Safety process was jumpstarted with much fanfare, the city can finally lay its eyes on concrete ideas for the future of policing in Ithaca.

The City of Ithaca published its final recommendations report on implementing the city’s new public safety agency, marking the most significant development in the law enforcement reform effort. It was compiled by the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group and the Center for Policing Equity.

A gentle reminder that this report is 120 pages long and was officially released under embargo around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, meaning the Ithaca Voice will be publishing further stories and analysis about the report over the next few days as we can consume and understand more about it, not to mention gauging initial feedback from the community. But consider this an initial summation, with more coming and the full report available to read for yourselves at the bottom of this page.

Importantly, as was emphasized by the recommendation writers, this document covers just one of the 19 prongs of the overarching Reimagining Public Safety process, though it is certainly one of the most highly anticipated. Common Council discussed the report at its meeting Wednesday night as well, but will not vote on the plan until next month at the earliest.

The Plan

The top line items are fairly straight-forward. As expected, the report calls for the creation of an unarmed Division of Community Solutions staffed with civilian responders, to work alongside Division of Police (which is, for all intents and purposes, the Ithaca Police Department). It would be housed under the newly-created Department of Community Safety, an public safety umbrella agency of sorts, under the supervision of a Commissioner of Community Safety. The new division would cost about $1.15 million each year, in addition to the $12 million or so that is dedicated to the Ithaca Police Department budget (which would remain the same, at least at this point).

According to the report, no police officer positions were eliminated and the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association still exists, with the previous labor contract signed in December still in full effect. Basically, the only direct tangible Fchange this document represents to the department is fewer responsibilities for IPD.

The two divisions would split responsibilities, with the police retaining “key law enforcement responsibilities” such as dealing with something that “represent[s] a serious threat to public safety,” and community solutions responders would deal with “quality of life and other incidents (including those involving referrals to mental health or other social service providers).”

DCS will hire five people to begin, who “should bring skills in community engagement, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and referral to mental health and social service providers.” It appears staffing needs will be reassessed after one year, according to Rosario and Yearwood. The working group is recommending that these unarmed officers be hired from within the Ithaca community.

Whatever noise there was about Ithaca Police Department officers having to reapply for their jobs in the newly formulated police division seems to have been misguided, as the Division of Police is slated to be staffed by the current roster of IPD officers, provided they want to continue with the department. According to the city’s Human Resources Director Schelley Michell-Nunn, there are 64 uniformed Ithaca police officers (some may be on leave), not counting management positions.

The responders within the Division of Police are still considered police officers under New York State, and so are mandated to complete the state-mandated Basic Course for Police Officers. Training requirements for the Division of Community Solutions are yet to be determined, but the working group suggested to Common Council that both divisions receive have access to a number of the same trainings, including the following: Crisis intervention training; procedural justice training; implicit bias training; trauma-informed training; data collection; training on the history of policing and public safety in Ithaca; collaborative public safety training.

The structure of the Division of Police, it seems, will largely reflect what the Ithaca Police Department currently is. There will be a division head, who will be called the Director of Police (basically, the police chief), and the division will “contain the staff of the Ithaca Police Department, and will continue to be bound by the labor contract agreed to by the City of Ithaca and the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association.” 

The theory behind the creation of DCS is to create a new unit of first responders that doesn’t currently exist—all calls that aren’t related to medical or fire emergencies are designated to police in the current structure. 

“A new division of unarmed civilian responders, the Division of Community Solutions, provides the ability to deploy first responders who are better suited to address certain call types,” according to the recommendations.

These divisions, and the department as a whole, would be geared towards the same general goals as the Community Justice Center led by Monalita Smiley, but they will not be underneath one another. Each will operate independently.

Who will respond to what?

While the working group left the final determinations of call delineation to the Commissioner for Community Safety, it did lay out a framework for how it believes calls for service should be divided. Police should be responding to the following: assault, bomb threat, burglary, criminal mischief, dead body, house alarm, intoxication, robbery, shots fired, stabbing, warrant, weapons, 911 call hang-ups. Meanwhile, the Division of Community Solutions would respond to animal bites and problems, fraudulent checks, child abuse, civil complaints, escorts, outside fires and fireworks, fraud, hazardous materials, welfare checks, and other lower concern service calls, like parking issues or noise complaints, etc. The full list is available in the document below on page 9. 

A substantial list of other calls are listed as situationally dependent, meaning they could be assigned to either division or perhaps even both if that is deemed necessary. Those include disorderly conduct, disputes, domestic incidents, traffic issues, trespassing, drugs, harassment, overdose, psychiatric checks, sex offenses, and more. Again, the full list is available below. 

Some of those allocations seem odd, such as police responding to criminal mischief and intoxication or DCS workers responding to child abuse calls. Certainly, some of them put police officers in the very situations the whole reimagining process was nominally designed to take them out of to reduce the responsibilities and any possibility of harm.

In a brief media availability Wednesday afternoon, plan architects Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood said that there was intense debate over where to slot those specific types of calls, but that they are subject to change. First, Yearwood clarified that in this instance, child abuse calls are defined as people reporting homes or houses where children are being neglected or insufficiently provided for, not necessarily a situation in which a child is being physically or violently abused; not to mention, Child protection services would automatically be involved anyway.

“There was intense debate around intoxication and criminal mischief,” Rosario said. “I want to reiterate that what we’re setting up here is an infrastructure and some systems and an approach that can be adjusted as we move along. This isn’t set in stone. With the commissioner helping to lead that effort, and seeing how that first year goes, we can make adjustments. […] That’s just where it landed in our process, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that any of these have to stay where they are.”

Designing new beats

More will be written about this part of the report specifically, as it provides one of the most in-depth looks at granular data regarding IPD’s usage, demands and responsibilities.

The subcommittee gave a plethora of recommendations on staffing, scheduling and redesigning beats. However, these recommendations hinge on the next contract negotiation between the PBA and the City of Ithaca, which is scheduled for 2023. 

The working group’s suggestions are built from a report on Patrol Staffing and Deployment prepared by Matrix Consulting Group, which was finalized in Jan. 2022. 

The working group’s main suggestions are for staffing and beats to more evenly distribute workloads, and align with the volume of particular call-types during proven peaks of those call types. Currently, IPD staff assign an equal number of officers through its three shifts. 

CALLS FOR SERVICE BY HOUR AND WEEKDAY

The chart is based on IPD data from 2019, when police responded to a total of 12,217 community-generated calls for service. 

Matrix Consulting’s report also included a distribution of call numbers by beats. IPD operates four beats within the City of Ithaca. Based on call volume over a five year period, Matrix Consulting identified 56,949 calls for service within these four beats. The consultants determined that each beat should see between 11,390 and 17,085 calls in order to prevent a difference in call volume greater than 20%, with an ideal of 14,237 calls per beat.

Currently, the largest difference in calls for service between IPDs four beets is 31%, between a beat that largely encompasses Collegetown and parts of Cornell’s Campus, and a beat that encompasses the Fall Creek, Northside, and parts of the Downtown neighborhood. 

Following the report’s findings, the working group recommends that the beat areas be restructured to better distribute public safety personnel according to calls for service, while preserving the integrity of distinct communities and business districts.

Budget

The proposed budget for the new Division of Community Solutions recommends providing $1,150,000 to the new Department of Community Safety for the hiring of a Community Safety Commissioner, new Community Solutions director, five responders and a new data analyst. Also in the budget is $90,000 for initial training, $100,000 for two radio-equipped vehicles, $28,000 for speech recognition software licensing and $66,000 for uniforms and office supplies and other tech.

Training for new and remaining officers

Training recommendations laid out by Reimagining Public Safety (subsequently referred to as Reimagining or RPS) are intended to emphasize a “community-centered model” that promotes community protection through the combined Department of Community Safety, which includes both the armed Division of Police officers and the unarmed Division of Community Solutions officers.

While basic training for the Division of Community Solutions is yet to be determined, the minimum training requirements for the Division of Police have been laid out as follows per the Reimagining recommendations. 

Because New York State doesn’t provide annual training minimums and instead only a basic training curriculum, the Reimagining recommendations list its own minimums to increase each officer’s abilities, as well as stating that an evaluation process will be established to assess how training protocols are working.

The basic curriculum checklist from New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services (DSJS) includes 700 required hours of training broken up into eight different parts: Administration of Justice, Introduction to Law Enforcement, Laws of New York State, Law Enforcement Skills, Community Interaction, Mass Casualties and Major Events, Investigations and Reality Based Training.

According to the Reimagining recommendations, all training resources should be focused on creating a positive community impact with officers from both divisions. The Basic Course for Police Officers (BCPO) has faced criticism in the past, particularly on the mental health and crisis negotiation fronts, which helped guide the Reimagining minimum requirements.

In line with creating a collaborative community safety department, notable training topics include crisis intervention focusing on teaching responders about mental illness and emphasizing nonviolent tactics; treating community members with neutrality, dignity and respect to encourage community trust and engagement; implicit bias training to teach responders to recognize their implicit bias and minimize the impact it has on community interactions; enhancing communication by teaching “verbal judo” which teaches responders to diffuse conflict with verbal techniques; and trauma-informed training so officers can recognize the impacts they may see during responses.

Additional in-depth guidance will focus on spring firearms, fall firearms (specifically related to low-light conditions as data shows that officer-involved shootings often occur in these conditions), handling of weapons, priority of life, Use of Force refreshers, continued Taser safety, de-escalation education and techniques, handcuffing, baton and Oleoresin capsicum spray (pepper spray) usage, competency checks and reality-based trainings, to name a few.

A panel of instructors will advise annually on other topics that warrant attention from either a local or national level. These subjects may include suicidal and welfare checks, Narcan usage, fentanyl exposure, rendering medical aid, traffic stops, officer rescue, ambushed officers, active killer or shooter response and search-and-seizure scenarios.

The Reimagining Public Safety recommendations suggest that ideally, an internal Police Academy would exist (this is also something the Ithaca Police Department has expressed as a goal), and while it does possess an instructor for all basic topic areas, resources don’t allow training to occur internally. Because of this, the Brome Academy and Syracuse Academy will be used for all minimums laid out above and more.

Implementation plans represent a shared vision of looking at local public safety taking equity into account to create a system that serves the entire community and excludes no one. Resolutions including officer recruitment, data dissemination and a public safety review board will be implemented as time passes, and each remaining recommendation will consider input from city leaders, public safety agencies and community members.

Technology goals include improving online record management, speech recognition software to make report writing more efficient and a mechanism for reporting non-emergency incidents, ultimately sharing the type and number of 911 calls responded to by either the Division of Police or the Division of Community Solutions, or both. Reporting such data publicly would identify where improvements need to be made.

Reaction So Far

This story is being written during the Common Council meeting where the plan is undergoing initial discussions, so those reactions will have to wait until tomorrow to document.

But predictably, for such a ballyhooed topic, the rhetoric around the report has been fiery since it was introduced. The Ithaca Police Benevolent Association have been a big part of that, holding a press conference last year in the wake of the draft plan’s introduction to levy allegations of union-busting.

Prior to seeing the final report, Thomas Condzella, a vocal critic of the Reimagining process and the union president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, issued a fairly neutral statement earlier this week, contrary to the union’s previous public stances.

“As we have said from the beginning, this process deserves transparency and public review prior to any adoption, recommendation or plan for implementation,” Condzella wrote. “It is important that this report is scrutinized by the public and that the Common Council thoroughly review and contrast the contents of the report with the wants, needs, and expectations of the public we all serve. Your Ithaca police officers have always been ready and willing to grow, evolve, and lead the national discussion on how to improve public safety and the relationship between law enforcement and the community.”

But the IPBA wasn’t the only group to do some pre-report spinning. Without disclosing her affiliation to her apparently former employer People for the American Way, where former Mayor Svante Myrick now works, “Fall Creek resident” Alana Byrd placed op-eds in the Ithaca Voice and the Ithaca Times this week advocating for the Reimagining Public Safety process to be approved as a necessary and beneficial step forward for law enforcement here. She further claimed to be the campaign manager for Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety, a group for which there is little to no evidence of existence prior to Byrd’s op-eds.

There are certainly plenty of questions that still must be answered, and even just fall-out yet to be witnessed if the recommendations are accepted. Will Ithaca police officers react negatively? Will any want to join their new unarmed counterparts instead of being armed officers? Is five responders anywhere near enough to accomplish the goals and demands of the Division of Community Solutions? Will responders be able to unionize or eligible for overtime like police officers are?

The Ithaca Voice is awaiting answers on some of these points. Check back throughout the week for more coverage and analysis on the future of local law enforcement from the Ithaca Voice.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...