This is an op-ed written by Tompkins County Legislator Rich John about the Tompkins County Reimagining Public Safety process. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, editorials or letters to the editor, please send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

I am writing to provide some thoughts on Reimagining Public Safety. But before doing so, particularly if you think the project is a waste of time, or has nothing to do with you, I would like to challenge you with a simple question: Do you want to move to Minneapolis?

If you followed the news story out of Minneapolis, then you certainly saw the George Floyd family grieving and the trial of the police officer, Derek Chauvin. What might not have been so apparent but has also occurred is damage to the community. While not easy to quantify, there has been tremendous ongoing cost. In the year after George Floyd died, in the neighborhoods surrounding what is now George Floyd Square, there was rioting and over a year-long occupation of the area by activists. Local business was down 75%. Shootings and other crime spiked. Around a quarter of the police force retired or quit, and as a result, the policing model became entirely reactive. 

While problems existed beforehand, the death of George Floyd severely depleted exactly the kind of community trust necessary to move forward. The City government essentially froze. There has been little ability to communicate, let alone reach any consensus across the deep divides. This is a City trying to develop new better policy through a fog of rage and exhaustion. It is difficult to imagine the economic impact to the vibrancy that Minneapolis (and any city) is supposed to have. Perhaps pain is necessary for Minneapolis to reach a true reckoning, and there are undoubtedly people committed to getting there, but the community will need to endure this for years to come; and with no certainty that what comes next will be any better. Is this a place you would choose to live right now? 

Because we all live in a community here as well, thinking that this issue has nothing to do with you is just not true. Thankfully, while getting the echoes, we have not experienced this level of community trauma here. Whatever you think about Minneapolis, the point remains that we never want to have such a thing happen in our community. But it could, particularly if we do nothing to ensure that our present practices are working. Any incident, even if accidental, could trigger community upheaval. With this danger in mind, taking a proactive approach to look at what we want in our community makes great good sense to me. 

Unfortunately, at present, for certain segments of our community they do not believe that the system is set up to help them. At the most basic level, the point of the RPS effort is to address trust between the policing agencies and the whole community. We want everyone to feel they can call for help when they need help. And we want the community to help the emergency responders when they show up. Even if you think it is unfair to judge local policing on what happened in Minneapolis (and elsewhere), people still feel as they feel. This lack of trust makes policing harder, less safe, and less effective. We can argue about what has caused this breakdown in trust, but there should be no disagreement that trying to get to a better place is smart. The RPS effort is a possible way to get there.

On the flip side of skepticism or indifference, I have certainly seen easy certainty. To be clear, RPS is not about defunding or even eliminating our police agencies, as some advocate. I note that we recently saw a series of criminal events in the County involving guns. I bring it up here to make the point that as a basic principle, we need our police. The people who are firing guns in our community need to be identified, caught, and arrested. I have heard no credible response to this type of violence or other dangerous situations as an alternative to a trained, organized, and professional, police force. We, as elected officials need to be as clear as possible that we understand the importance of building a total public safety model, with our police officers filling a crucial role in our larger criminal justice system. But we also need clarity around the vision of a system with better bonds of trust between our emergency responders and all community members. 

And, in fact, as a part of RPS, both the City and County will be investing more, not less, in public safety. Simply, RPS is about addition, not subtraction. We are starting to build a more comprehensive approach that allows an emergency response appropriate to the nature of the problem, whether it is violence, addiction, or mental illness. We are building a system to capture data and use it to help us better learn and understand. We will have a more organized and accessible system to reach out to members of the community so you can see what we are doing and express your views about it. I am hopeful that we will be able to better support our police, mental health professionals, and addiction treatment providers as they serve our public safety. 

Finally, you may disagree with some or all of what I have said here. That is fine, but in all events I encourage you to speak up. We really need a big local community conversation. This cannot be a spectator sport to see what government does. And I say a local conversation because I am dubious about people who are not really part of our community, but hold a paid job to try to tell us what to do. I really believe the utility of these paid lobbyists and consultants is at an end, particularly when they suggest that some people within our community should be excluded from the discussion, or start by questioning someone else’s good faith. If we are to exclude anyone, it probably should be those who are paid to support a particular agenda.

There must be seats for people of color and the comfort and support for them to speak openly about their experiences. But there must also be room for our line officers who interact and deal with the public every day for them to participate and be heard. And, again, your voice matters too. Doing anything less will likely fail. 

So, I encourage you to stay. Do not move to Minneapolis, or anywhere else. Instead, let’s see what we can do here to make our community stronger and safer for everyone. If you are still skeptical or indifferent, I suggest this is a poor stance, an option that may well lead to our own Minneapolis. But if that is where you are at, I offer some homework. It is often hard to talk about the issues involved. And it is often the case that, like many issues in our country, we only speak with people that agree with us. But I still ask you to reach out to someone that you may not typically talk with on this subject and see if you can listen for a bit. You might be surprised at how far we can go without even leaving home.