This is an op-ed written by Ithaca’s Acting Mayor Laura Lewis about the ongoing Reimagining Public Safety police reform effort. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit opinion pieces or letters to the editor, send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

I wholeheartedly support the Reimagining Public Safety Report recently delivered to Common Council because it is reasonable, progressive, and offers real solutions to what we know plagues our public safety. 

When the nearly 20 recommendations were adopted in 2021, people, including myself, were quick to say that it was just a first step and that the real work was yet to come. Now that we’ve taken the next step with the recommendation for a Department of Community Safety, I believe we are ready to move forward with urgency toward the change that’s been called for. I hope you’ll join me in examining the suggestions laid out in the new report, participate in the conversations to come, and support the actions for implementation to be taken over the next several months. I ask for the same examination and conversation from Common Council and look forward to seeing resolutions that reflect our experiences and perspectives so we can agree on the best paths forward. 

The new Department of Community Safety would be led by a civilian Commissioner, meaning they would not be required to have served as a law enforcement officer previously although this is one possibility. This position would fully focus on a change in a culture that is institutionally embedded and requires significant effort. The background we’d seek in a Commissioner would represent the culture and approach we intend to build for the entire department, one that can be better-trained, more responsive to the needs of the community, and offer a more solutions-oriented and oftentimes unarmed approach to many calls for service. The department would have two divisions: the first, a Division of Police composed of a Director of Police and our current roster of officers who would respond to emergency and violent calls and focus on solving crimes. The second would be a Division of Community Solutions which would house unarmed Community Responders to respond to calls that do not require an armed response. As an outcome of these recommendations, we will be improving public safety and trust for all members of our community, especially those most vulnerable and marginalized. This can very well lead to reduced incidents of crime.  

Having been a member of the working group, I agree that hiring five unarmed Community Responders is a reasonable approach, though it will require ongoing examination of workload and outcomes so that we’re maintaining community safety and making best use of our resources. I’ve received questions on whether this is the appropriate number of responders. I believe this is a start and that we’ll have to adapt based on what we learn going forward. We’ll want to keep these questions in the forefront; however, we can’t let these questions delay implementation. We’ll benefit from ongoing evaluation and reports to Common Council and the community as we study the effectiveness of our plan. We mustn’t walk away from this plan saying we didn’t seriously address reimagining how to best provide public safety to our residents only because we didn’t have all the answers on day one. 

What this plan does is offer the armed police officers in the City of Ithaca more time and resources to work on addressing the crimes that put people in harm’s way, and if not addressed could become an even more serious issue for our city. This is likely what you’ve heard directly from our officers and their leadership over the past several years, and I’m proud that this plan, paired with the newly ratified labor contract, increases the resources available to our officers to carry out this work at a high level. There’s still work to be done examining what types of calls New York State law requires be responded to by a sworn and armed officer, and I can also clarify that the Director of the Division of Police will be our “Police Chief” as stipulated in State law. 

This plan suggests a thoughtful investment in our systems and structure. Don’t be fooled by the assertion that this is adding to a “top heavy” City government and that we don’t need more professionals to carry out the work entrusted to us by residents and required of us by law. I recognize that adding any taxpayer funding is a delicate and critical issue, and at the same time I recognize that we are consistently being required to do more deeply important work on behalf of our residents. What’s being proposed in this report would be spread over multi-year budget cycles. The work of the City requires people who are committed, and positions and an organization that adequately support them. It is possible that the position of Commissioner will arise as a referendum question offered to City residents on the ballot this November, and while plenty of debate is to come, I will share that this is a critical part of the change needed to effectively reimagine public safety and will ensure a more inclusive and equitable approach moving forward. 

I will do my best to get this plan passed and to explore every question put forth by my fellow council members and members of the community. The plan addresses the questions set forth by Common Council in 2021 and puts details to the vision laid out by the initial reimagining collaborative report. It is a reasonable and professional vision for change.

If this first phase of implementation fails, we will, as a City, have neglected the voices of those who are most impacted by policing and the criminal justice system. Members of the Working group have heard directly from people in our community who have been pushed to the margins, over-policed, over-incarcerated, and discriminated against – their ideas and reflections were integral to the plans that have been presented, including implementing the new Department of Community Safety. 

Laura Lewis
Acting Mayor, City of Ithaca