This is a letter to the editor from Alana Byrd, a city of Ithaca resident and the Campaign Manager for Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety. She also works for People for the American Way. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit letters to the editor, send them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Late last month, the Ithaca Voice reported on two separate stabbings which occurred in the city of Ithaca. While through initial reports it appears that these incidents are unrelated, there’s a common thread among them and many other crime responses: the victims of both stabbings refused to further engage either with officers or medical personnel in the aftermath of the incidents.
In one case the victim did eventually concede to police questioning and provided a vague description of the perpetrator. The domestic violence victim outright refused further medical treatment; her participation with police is unclear. These responses leave us with an important question: why would victims of heinous acts like stabbings not feel comfortable engaging with law enforcement to help solve a crime?
The answer may lie in the nature of the relationship between Ithacan citizens and our law enforcement officers. It’s been well documented that this relationship is broken. During the early stages of the Reimagining Public Safety plan rollout, researchers interviewed a number of focus groups, including people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, several groups representing communities of color, college students, veterans, and houseless individuals, among others.
What extensive interviews found was that “respondents feel disrespected by police during everyday interactions;” that BIPOC “respondents are hyper-aware of racial tensions in Ithaca/Tompkins County and on the national scene. That awareness is a factor in respondents’ decision-making process on whether or not to call law enforcement;” that “Respondents in several focus groups expressed a preference [for] handling unlawful situations themselves rather than call the police;” and that “Respondents express a lack of trust between marginalized people and law enforcement.”
It’s not hard to understand why the relationship between marginalized communities and the police is as strained as it is. Many of the members of these communities have had encounters with the police – whether alleged perpetrator or victim – in which armed policemen have dehumanized and degraded them. Additionally, people of color are more likely to end up in jail: despite making up only 12 percent of the population, Black Americans comprise over 38 percent of the prison population in America, an appallingly disproportionate figure.
It’s no wonder that even victims of crime feel that a call for help to the police might end up in their own arrest, or worse, murder. We need look no further than the murder of Atatiana Jefferson, a young Black woman who was killed by police officers in late 2019. Her neighbors called the police to report that Ms. Jefferson’s front door had been left open. Rather than investigating the scene and interviewing the potential victim of a possible crime, armed police officers acted before thinking and murdered an innocent woman playing video games with her nephew.
Ms. Jefferson’s case is not an outlier. It seems like every few months, we hear a news report detailing another police shooting of an unarmed person of color. It’s time to stop blaming the victims of crime – and begin asking whether we can build a new kind of public safety system that better protects victims.
Picture a scenario in which you are the victim of a domestic violence incident perpetrated by your partner. Your partner’s been showing severe signs of stress lately, maybe even some mental health or behavioral changes. One night, in the midst of a heated fight, they take a swing at you, and give you a black eye. You’re shocked, because they’ve never been violent before, and you’re as worried for them as you are for yourself.
In a panic, and afraid of further violence, you dial 911. Between the time of the incident and the officers’ arrival, your partner has calmed down, and now you begin to panic once more. You’re still anxious and frightened by this violence, but you don’t want your partner carted off; you want to make sure they receive the help they need so this never happens again.
Police arrive to the scene, hands on their gun holsters, angry and shouting. Given the makeup of the Ithaca Police Department, the responders are most likely to be two young white men, who you do not recognize because neither live in the City of Ithaca. They immediately begin barking questions at you, and your partner is on the floor, hands behind their back, struggling to breathe as they’re being cuffed. You feel terror at what might happen next; you wish you’d never called in these angry, powerful men. They push you to press charges, but you worry that your partner going to jail is not going to help anything; it will only worsen the mental health crisis they’re experiencing. You feel powerless and terrified.
I hope you never have to go through such a traumatizing, life-altering event. But I also want you to consider an alternative. What if these officers were accompanied by someone else – a licensed clinical social worker, perhaps, someone trained in deescalation and mental health crises, who could talk to you and your partner and calm you both down, rather than bark questions at you and cuff your partner? What if this person was someone you recognized – an Ithacan, a community member, maybe someone you shared a few classes with in high school? What if the situation could turn out differently? What if this social worker could arrange for wrap-around services that put your partner in the right programs to help them through this? What if you actually felt compelled to cooperate with a system that truly felt restorative, rather than punitive?
This scenario doesn’t have to be a dream. The Reimagining Public Safety plan is designed to send out community solutions workers either alongside or instead of armed officers when responding to calls for service like this scenario. It also ensures that folks from our community – Ithacans, women, people of color – are recruited to the forces. These proposals, among others in the plan, are geared toward beginning to heal the rift that’s been widening between marginalized communities and law enforcement officers for decades. It shouldn’t have to be beyond our wildest dreams that our police force is here to protect and serve all community members. Supporting this first step toward community healing is critical.