ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan to reform the Ithaca Police Department arrived earlier this month with a sprawling report on plans for IPD restructuring.

That came after months of deliberation, feedback and planning, and was accordingly followed by a town hall-style forum held Tuesday evening, giving the public their first specific, formal chance to comment on the plan since it was released. That release itself was a bit underwhelming, not quite generating the groundshift in policy and reaction that was anticipated, and will surely return for discussion at April’s Common Council meeting.

The extent of the policy, which establishes a Division of Community Solutions (DCS) staffed by five unarmed workers and installs a Commissioner of Community Safety, leading the umbrella agency called the Department of Community Safety, which would oversee the Division of Community Solutions and the Division of Police.

A far more in-depth description of the plan is available here, with a follow-up story here. Now, to the town hall, which you can watch in full here. At the end, it was announced that there will be a Black Town Hall on the recommendations report held later in March, which will also be available via YouTube.

Working Group leaders Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood ran through the plan again via a PowerPoint presentation. The below graphic is certainly the clearest visualization of where calls would be assigned in the new department—though Rosario and Yearwood have already stated that the police would respond to any overflow calls to DCS workers. Yearwood also clarified that certain calls that appear strange in the DCS line, such as child abuse, are there because of Child Protective Services would automatically be called to help with the situation.

Call delineation suggestions, as of Tuesday’s Town Hall event. (Photo from presentation)

After the opening presentation, Rosario and Yearwood were joined by Acting Mayor Laura Lewis and Community Justice Center Director Monalita Smiley, along with the city’s Director of Human Resources Schelley Michell-Nunn moderating.

What is the actual change here?

One of the most salient questions of the night came early, cutting to the heart of the loudest critique for some of the proposed legislation: that it is a nominal measure only, an opportunity to rebrand the Ithaca Police Department versus reform it or otherwise. Michell-Nunn read off a question from the group that stated, “How does a new department name indicate an actual cultural change within the officers themselves?”

“We strongly believe that the very existence of a civilian commissioner within this proposed structure will provide a refreshing way to foster a new culture in its own right,” Yearwood said. “We see driving a healthier, more community-centered and -driven culture for all of Ithaca as a key responsibility of the commissioner’s role, leading this initiative to address public safety issues that would be better served by someone with a different approach.”

Yearwood expressed the working group’s belief that culture “cannot be mandated, but a strong leader can shift culture,” further revealing what the working group leaders envision as potential criteria for a good Commissioner of Community Safety. Rosario followed, insisting that the changes proposed would not just represent a tweaking of the system, but the reform that was promised.

“It’s a combination of leadership, systems, processes, accountability informed by metrics, and increased community engagement, through this model that will nurture the culture change,” Rosario said. “If we keep the current model and just tinker and add a few things, it doesn’t have everything this model represents.”

Does the plan abolish the Ithaca Police Department?

Perhaps in response to the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association’s ongoing public insistence that the Reimagining Public Safety plan effectively abolishes the Ithaca Police Department, one question asked for clarification on that point.

“Nowhere in the 120 pages does this plan state ‘Abolish the Ithaca Police Department,’ that was never the intention, and the recommendations stated that it’s not defunding [either],” Yearwood said. Indeed, there’s been no indication so far that IPD will lose budget money or mandated lower staffing, though about seven officers have resigned or retired since March 2021 (including former Chief Dennis Nayor, whose retirement was announced in January 2021). The reform plan was first announced in February 2021.

“The city is maintaining armed police officers as part of this redesigned department,” she continued. “We heard from police about staffing support to the police, this report recommends providing additional staffing. We heard from the police about their well-being, this report addresses wellness, and takes into consideration that a work-life balance is needed.”

Yearwood said the primary thrust of the report, in terms of impact on the police department’s existence, is to introduce a unit of non-law enforcement first responders that can take duties off the plate of police.

Commissioner of Community Safety

Next, Michell-Nunn walked the audience through what the hiring process will look like for the Commissioner of Community Safety, and said that the community will be involved in some way to voice their opinions on the prospective hire. She said there will be a national search, whoever is mayor at that time will appoint the person, then Common Council would discuss and vote on the commissioner.

Though not explicitly, Michell-Nunn seemed to hint that if the city’s leadership structure is changed in November via the referendum on the creation of a city manager’s role, that could impact who appoints the potential commissioner.

“There have been opportunities for community members to be involved in searches in the past and I fully anticipate that will be the case in the future,” Lewis added.

On a slightly different but related note, Michell-Nunn also clarified that whoever becomes the leader of the Division of Police, or police chief more simply, would have to be “trained specifically for law enforcement,” in response to a question about whether a non-police civilian could take over the police chief job.

Audience Questions

LeVon Brewer then asked what a timeline would be for the public to feel safe within the City of Ithaca under the new plan. Lewis hopped in, saying that all residents should feel safe today and in the future, but knows there is work to do. She said she believes the plan would achieve that ideal.

Second, frequent Reimagining critic Zachary Winn asked a series of questions about how Ithaca plans to attract police officers to the new Division of Police considering the current department’s staffing struggles already. Michell-Nunn responded that Ithaca’s struggle to attract new officers is not unique to the city, that it is part of a larger phenomenon nationwide—but that the city would be creating an “inclusive recruitment process” and is confident the new law enforcement structure would be something officers want to be a part of.

Rosario followed with a response to Winn’s question, again stating that the changes in the plan are focused on taking responsibilities away from the police—something that has previously been endorsed by police, both locally and departments around the country.

“Imagine if we’re that department that could do that, that would be very attractive,” Rosario said. “No longer do you have to worry about having to do it all, and not having the tools to do it all, because that’s impossible.”

Winn also asked about former Mayor Svante Myrick’s involvement with the plan now that he has left office, though he didn’t get a response on that point.

The raised hands segment ended with William Metro, more commonly known as the Magic Man in downtown Ithaca, who asked about the level of input the police department had on the plan. Additionally, he suggested hiring three police officers for every one officer who departs IPD. Lewis responded that IPD officers were indeed involved in the formulation of the initial resolution that Common Council approved last year and the recommendations.

Other questions included if there would be a focus on hiring local people for the Division of Community Solutions, as a common critique of the Ithaca Police Department is that many of the officers do not live in the city. Michell-Nunn, Yearwood and Rosario all said that it would be a priority.

Matt Butler

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