This is an op-ed about the Reimagining Public Safety plan, written by Ithaca Common Council member Cynthia Brock. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, send them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Followers of local politics are aware that City Council is considering a major restructuring of our Police Department. The proposal may be a good idea and may in time achieve its stated goal of reducing bias in policing against people of color. I support and desperately want to see real and substantial changes in how we address public safety in our community. My concern, however, is that it is unclear to what extent the restructuring will be influenced by privately-funded advocacy groups’ agendas.
Proposing radical changes in Ithaca in order to influence the national dialogue around specific social issues while gaining national press coverage in the process, is not new. Something very similar happened with the 2016 Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy for which the former Mayor, Svante Myrick, brought in the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) — a self-described “leading organization in the US promoting alternatives to the war on drugs,” to recommend a supervised injection site in Ithaca. The furor over this one issue drew international attention, overshadowed the other recommendations proposed in the plan, and created consternation amongst government officials and services providers.
In a similar manner, in 2020 Myrick invited the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) to guide the City and County in developing a response to Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order 203, issued after the police murder of George Floyd. Involved in every step of the process over these past two years, and providing hundreds of hours of CPE staff time, their services were given free-of-charge. There was no selection process abiding by NYS procurement laws, no public review of CPE’s qualifications. Additionally, there was no real discussion of CPE’s impact on the work of the City and County, or CPE’s agenda in “working for free.” In developing the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) Plan, local community members spent months talking and thinking through the issues, developing and approving 18 out of 19 published recommendations. However, on the date of the RPS release, Myrick’s Gentlemen’s Quarterly article unexpectedly announced that the City would replace the City of Ithaca Police Department and force all police officers to re-apply for their jobs. This recommendation #1 and his goal had not been vetted or considered by the City and County working groups. Myrick apologized for the timing of his statements in the GQ article and then made a series of national appearances to talk about this one proposal, in the process gaining lots of public attention. But in doing so he also clouded discussion of all the other initiatives.
Following another year of working groups and meetings, here we are again. In addition to CPE, we now have paid organizers from the People for the American Way working an agenda. Recently posted on Indeed.com, PFAW offered $65,000 for a Public Engagement Advisor in Ithaca to “Develop, sustain, and refine a local and regional media, communications, and public relations strategies and lead execution to highlight the Reimagining Public Safety plan, ensure passage of the 2022 referendum, and highlight right-wing rhetoric against public safety reform.” In the weeks following Council’s adoption of its Reimagining Public Safety Resolution on March 31, 2021, CPE’s CEO and co-founder Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff interviewed with the Washington Post, NPR’s Fresh Air, and Katie Couric touting repeatedly that the City of Ithaca voted to dissolve its Police Department, creating a new department of mostly unarmed first responders, and claimed that Ithaca’s Police Benevolent Union endorsed this plan. In August 2021, on WBEZ’s Art of Power, Dr. Goff recalled a text and phone exchange with Myrick where Goff suggested that Ithaca didn’t need a police department, to which Myrick responded “Yeah, cool. Let’s make that happen.” Dr. Goff expressed tears of joy at the thought of the Police Union endorsing the dismantling of the Ithaca Police Department. When asked about this interview, Dr. Goff apologized to the working group saying he could have done more to ensure that his message was to center the work on the people of Ithaca and Tompkins County to achieve the goals of our communities, a message that was missing in each of his interviews.
Cuomo’s Executive Order required communities to look for “any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” In response, both the City and County committed to a data collection and analysis effort that would help build an evidence- and experience-based image of policing in the city and the county with which recommendations could then be formulated. To my knowledge the City and County did not conduct a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a data analyst. Instead, our government utilized the donated services of CPE’s contractor – Matrix Consulting.
In order to achieve the highest level of trust and confidence in government, NYS Ethics Laws puts forward clear rules to prevent corruption, favoritism, undue influence, and abuses of government position. Gifts of services — to the City and County itself — which may result in influencing of legislation should in my mind not be accepted or allowed and should be actively avoided and discouraged.
In order to determine the nature and extent of such change we need a process that is deliberate in seeking feedback on, openly analyzing, and addressing systemic racial bias in policing. Our efforts should be built on recommendations that come from a fair and equitable process. Our decisions should not be driven by hired lobbyists or unvetted organizations but based on unbiased expert analysis built on the circumstances, data, and experiences specific to our community. That is how you build trust and how you create profound and meaningful structural and cultural change around policing and public safety in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
City of Ithaca Common Council Ward 1