Dr. Nia Nunn waits for a question during Southside Community Center's Black Town Hall on public safety. (Photo on Zoom)

ITHACA, N.Y.—Discussion surrounding the Reimagining Public Safety reforms have partly focused on the interactions between law enforcement and local people of color, whose concerns about police violence were theoretically the target of the reforms.

Last Thursday, that community got its first chance to directly critique the first slate of proposed changes to the Ithaca Police Department, one of 19 recommendations in the plan, in a Black Town Hall on the future of public safety, hosted by Southside Community Center.

The event stretched nearly two hours, hosted and moderated by Dr. Nia Nunn, Southside’s Board of Directors president, interjecting a few questions herself while also fielding plenty of input from community members. You can watch the full event on YouTube here, though the discussion (after the introductory presentation) starts around the 26:00 minute mark.

Also available here:

The presentation itself was run by Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, Working Group leader Karen Yearwood, and City of Ithaca Human Resources Director Schelley Michell Nunn, who was also instrumental in the formulation of the plan. (To avoid confusion, this story will use both Nunns full names) Community Justice Center Director Monalita Smiley was also present.

Some of the questions have been answered previously, like that the Commissioner of Community Safety would be a civilian (as opposed to law enforcement) and would answer directly to the mayor, that the hiring of only five Community Solutions Workers (the unarmed staffers of the Division of Community Solutions) should be viewed as a baseline to start, etc. Others pried more deeply at the process behind the document, which was formulated by the working group and its subcommittees in non-public meetings, and what kind of cultural changes the city expects out of the new department if it is formed.

Ithaca resident Millicent Clarke Maynard, who was the first community member to ask a question, wondered if there would be any in-school outreach done to facilitate trust between Ithacans from a young age and the police—a core tenet of the plan—and Yearwood said there would be, likely falling under the required time for community service for officers in the Division of Police. Dr. Nia Nunn actually jumped in on that question as well, saying the thought of armed officers in schools made her personally uncomfortable, even if they were just working in an educational or community trust-building capacity.

Recent Community Hero of the Month winner Christa Nuñez asked if the plan would reduce the number of police officers, perhaps in favor of more Community Solutions Workers. Lewis did not commit to that, but did say that power could be given to the new Commissioner of Public Safety that will be hired.

“One of the important responsibilities of the commissioner of this new department will be to set the culture for the department, and to look at the staffing needs, for example, for the community solutions workers,” Lewis said.

Additionally, Lewis added later that technically, there would be more staffing which could hopefully relieve some of the issues that Ithaca police currently face.

“We will have, by the new year, five new officers in the department,” Lewis said, likely referring to the five new Community Solutions Workers that the plan sets out to hire.

“We’ve been running about five vacancies for the last several years,” Schelley Michell Nunn noted. “So while we are constantly filling positions, people are retiring or leaving the department. So we’ve held kind of steady [with] the five vacancies.”

As has been confirmed now, there have been several departures (either resignations or retirements—most answers range from 6-8 officers) from the Ithaca Police Department since March 2021. Most recently, longtime officer Scott Garin retired from the department to take a job with the Ithaca College Police Department.

Since the plan was introduced, police reaction has been largely negative. The Ithaca Police Benevolent Association has condemned it; acting IPD Chief John Joly has voiced his displeasure with the process since October; others have argued that police weren’t involved enough.

Working Group member Amos Malone was the first to broach that topic, though his concerns weren’t quite addressed. He said that Joly should not be publicly stating that the police weren’t involved in the formulation of the plan, since three Ithaca Police Department officers were assigned to sit on the working group and Malone said he saw them attend several meetings.

“We’re not going to get anywhere, when you have people who are in positions of power, who are not telling the truth because they’re saying that they weren’t involved in this,” Malone said. “It’s kinda disheartening. I don’t know who he has to answer to. But I think something harsh needs to be said. […] To put that type of information out as if the police department didn’t know doesn’t help the cause at all. It makes it look like we’re trying to come in the back door and do something we shouldn’t be doing.”

From a pure numbers standpoint, the plan certainly does not defund the police or abolish the Ithaca Police Department — the largest financial change is that the plan calls for additional funding for salaries for five community solutions workers, as well as the new Commissioner of Community Safety and whoever heads the Department of Community Solutions.

Malone’s comments were only briefly addressed by Yearwood, seemingly trying to steer clear of creating more tension between current police officers and the Reimagining process.

“This whole recommendation is looking at the system and changing the system,” Yearwood said, noting that one reason that so many community sessions for feedback has been held is to remind residents that they have a voice. “The training is looking at more accountability for the police department. […] Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Dr. Nia Nunn added that it’s clear those types of disagreements are indicative of the lack of trust between police and the community.

“We have to do something,” added Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, an Ithaca College professor who also worked at the forefront of the plan. “A number of people have engaged in this process, have used their community connections, have talked to as wide a swath of this community as I’ve seen. Something has to be done that’s different than what we’re doing. The details are going to take us some time no matter what we do.”

After that discussion, more questions were fielded from the audience. Dr. Nia Nunn then followed with a question to clarify who would lead the actual Division of Police if the restructured committee is accepted. Dr. Nia Nunn mentioned her distrust of current IPD Acting Chief John Joly, drawing attention to previous allegations brought by IPD investigator Christine Barksdale that he was part of a hostile work environment for her as a Black woman at the department. While those allegations were not upheld by the state’s Division of Human Rights, those came to light during the early portion of the city’s attempt to terminate Barksdale over missed investigations, though a settlement was then reached.

“We have been in discussions about the process for identifying, for recruiting, for getting applications for a permanent chief,” Lewis responded. “That is a process that we will be embarking on in the near future, we are not waiting until the whole new departmental structure is approved.”

Lewis said the chief search would take place before any approval of the department restructure, which would need to go through a referendum process anyway—which would take place in November 2022, barring something unforeseen like the process failing at Common Council or something similar.

Alderperson Phoebe Brown followed, voicing her concerns that the proposal only adds more officers, referencing the five new Community Solutions Workers, and her concerns about the diversity of those new hires, because “if it looks the same, it’ll be the same,” as she put it. Lewis said there would be a “concerted effort to recruit and hire a diverse group of officers” as CSWs which she said would be more representative of the community and would include women officers, officers of color and LGBT officers.

Ithaca resident Tommy Miller then mentioned that he believes police would be better outfitted with “weapons of compassion,” or de-escalation skills, to better serve the community if the goal is to lower the potential for violence from police officers. He also asked for higher hiring standards in the department going forward.

“We need to have every potential police officer, regardless of the color, be required to do a psychosocial assessment,” Miller said. “I know officers, not just Ithaca, who are consumed with power. They can go through the training, they can do the dance, and then we give them a gun. We know how [they’ve] been conditioned to be afraid of Black and brown and red people.”

Prompted from a question by Tompkins County Legislator Henry Granison, Schelley Michell Nunn said there is not currently a residency requirement for the CSWs that the city will likely be hiring, though that will be part of the criteria for potential candidates and they will be making a “concerted effort” to find local workers for the jobs.

As the session wound to a close, Dr. Nia Nunn drew the conversation back toward the earlier comments by Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell about the need for action after so much ground had already been covered.

“I want to bring it back to Dr. Eversley Bradwell’s emphasis on urgency, the urgency of this work, the need for a significant shift,” Dr. Nia Nunn said. “We have some very painful realities in our community. The reason I get so excited about data […] is thinking about what we do with it, and the power of confronting our realities, the realities of addiction, overdoses in Ithaca, to murders, circumstances around housing, employment. All of that seems very relevant to how we’re functioning as a community.”

“For the size of Ithaca, we’re at a size where we can get this right,” followed Schelley Michell Nunn. “We can have the changes that we need so that this is a community where all individuals can excel, can maximize their potential.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com