ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca is not abolishing the Ithaca Police Department.

This story, which you will hopefully read in its entirety, is 2,452 words, but if you leave before finishing it, that first sentence, of just 11 words, is really what you need to remember. It’s useful to dispel the notion early so that the artificial weight of such a proposition doesn’t interfere with digesting what is actually being proposed to restructure law enforcement in Ithaca.

One note, before we begin: this story will cover the police reform section of the Common Council meeting on Wednesday night. Because of the size of the meeting, we’ve broken coverage into two parts: this article, and a more conventional recap of the rest of the meeting that will follow on Friday.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time that the city’s governing body was given a full chance to discuss and debate the proposal to restructure law enforcement in Ithaca, a conversation that was often contentious and sometimes emotional. There will be a follow-up meeting next week, on April 13, at a specially scheduled Common Council Committee of the Whole, a step taken only when matters of particular importance are being debated.

The full video can be seen here. The public comment portion begins around the 36 minute mark, while Council’s discussion begins around the 1 hour and 40 minute mark.

To remind readers of the proposal: The plan to restructure the Ithaca Police Department was formally introduced in March, and includes the implementation of a Department of Community Safety, led by a Commissioner of Community Safety. The Ithaca Police Department would become the Division of Police, retain all of its officer positions, still be unionized and still be armed. There would still be a police chief, though the division would be under the Department of Community Safety.

Additionally, a five-person unit called the Division of Community Solutions would be created, also under the Department of Community Safety. The five workers in that group would be unarmed and respond to different calls than the armed police officers (though to begin, because of the call volume, police officers would respond to any overflow). The proposal, which is one of the 19 recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety plan, is explained in much more depth here.

Public Comment

There was an extended public comment section that was marred by internet problems, but the divide among commenters was clear. Some thought, though misguided, that the proposal limits or eliminates the police department; other critics said that crime has been allowed to go unaddressed too long and the plan will exacerbate that. Other critics argued that the proposal does not deliver on its promise to overhaul local policing and is setting up the Division of Community Solutions to fail.

Theresa Alt, a prominent activist with a long history in Ithaca, spoke early on. Though she seemed to tentatively support the plan’s overall intentions, Alt said that she believes the Division of Community Solutions is being understaffed and won’t be able to handle the demands on its time, particularly in the same city where a police department that has between 50-60 officers constantly complains about being understaffed.

“Fund a good idea adequately,” Alt ended.

Retired IPD officer Tim Holland, who left the force in mid-2021, spoke later. Holland said he thought that the city wouldn’t be able to attract new armed police officers in the future should the need for more arise—further wondering if they’d be called public safety officers or police officers, and how that might impact their civil service status. As was clarified later by Alderperson Cynthia Brock, they will be called police officers and their civil service status or retirement benefits remain unchanged.

After that, Ithaca Ale House owner John O’Leary spoke in opposition to the Reimagining proposal, echoing similar complaints about owning a Commons business as Simeon’s owner Dean Zervos, who spoke earlier in the meeting. Both said that they feel their customers and workers are less likely to come to downtown Ithaca for fear of crime.

“Everybody loves to read the articles about Ithaca being an emerging city, and the best place to retire,” O’Leary said. “That’s strongly based on the last 20+ years of a very low crime rate. […] I enjoy seeing the police walk down the street. […] I think they have always been a huge help.”

Another commenter, Nick Domster, a Bangs Ambulance employee, argued that the plan would “remove or shrink” the Ithaca Police Department, which would impact his safety and the community’s safety. The plan, as it is written, does not do these things, but Domster went on to state that crime around the community should be met with “increased authority,” and perhaps more armed officers.

Heather Campbell, of the Tompkins County Advocacy Center, which helps domestic violence victims, had a bit of a different issue with the plan. Campbell stated that she believes domestic violence incidents should not be generalized as “domestic disputes,” which could lower the perceived seriousness of the situation—which speaks to an oft-cited critique of the plan, that some of the crimes or incidents are miscategorized, either to police or community solutions workers.

“An unarmed response alone, without building other tools in our community, is not a safe response,” Campbell said, specifically referring to domestic violence situations and all-encompassing resources afterwards.

Pro-police activist Rocco Lucente said that Ithaca’s “totalitarian rule” has “awakened a presence that will make itself known throughout 2022,” further echoing the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association’s talking points—namely, that the plan abolishes the Ithaca Police Department, though it does not.

Local resident Sara Hess urged approval of the IPD restructuring, and said that solving crimes, the goal of police, is nigh impossible without trust—which she said has diminished among the community and police, and a new approach is necessary. She acknowledged that she was unsure about the idea of a civilian Commissioner of Community Safety.

She was followed by a string of commenters with similar viewpoints. Patricia Fernández de Castro, the leader of the Latino Civic Association in Ithaca, said the plan has her organization’s full support, while a city resident going by the name “Deeps” had a similar critique to Alt’s earlier comments: that if the city wanted its unarmed responders unit to actually work, it had to put its money where its mouth is, so to speak.

“I’d urge the Common Council to treat the Reimagining Public Safety working group’s recommendations as a mere baseline, the bare minimum,” Deeps said, noting that he felt the concerns of small business owners, referring to O’Leary and Zervos, were being a bit overrepresented. “Creating an unarmed task force with only five responders is too little, it’s detrimental to the viability of the project in general. […] Five people is not going to be enough to respond to all of the calls that they can handle, without also calling for armed backup.”

Ana Ortiz, the No Más Lágrimas community aid group founder and organizer, followed these commenters from a far more critical perspective, though her comments were interrupted by internet connectivity problems from City Hall.

“We do not feel safe in our local Ithaca community right now,” Ortiz was eventually able to say, referencing the Cayuga Heights manhunt from November as an example.

While there were apparently other commenters waiting to speak on the matter, city officials then moved into the Common Council discussion of the recommended proposal, citing the continued internet issues that were causing problems for commenters and forcing Acting Mayor Laura Lewis in and out of the meeting.

Common Council Discussion

The Common Council segment of the debate steadied eventually, but started out rockier than one would normally see the fairly reserved group. Of note, Alderperson Phoebe Brown, who has indicated that she does not believe the plan goes far enough to reform the police, was not present for the meeting.

Mayor Lewis said she wanted the discussion to stick to “factual information,” particularly about IPD staffing—which she insisted was not “disproportionately” impacted by the Reimagining Public Safety work or IPD restructuring proposal.

She went on to forcefully push back on the narrative that IPD is being “abolished” or anything similar by the plan. She revealed that there are three new police officers joining IPD from the academy “soon,” and that another two will soon enter the academy with plans to join IPD after that.

“The sense that there is a desire to dismantle or abolish the police department, I want to firmly disavow,” Lewis said. “That is not under consideration.”

Divides were obvious early on. Alderperson Ducson Nguyen stated his issues with the plan, explaining his confusion at the tenor of recent rhetoric around it when compared to the relatively little impact on Ithaca Police Department’s current budget, roster or goals.

“A number of comments and e-mails that we received have, frankly, made me feel like I’m living in an alternate universe,” Nguyen said, referring to those who spoke concerning any potential elimination of IPD. “The criticism I’ve been getting is that [IPD] has remained largely untouched in this process. Titles remain the same, numbers, staffing remains the same. […] The criticisms that IPD is negatively affected by this is bizarre, and out of touch with the reality of the report.”

Alderperson Brock is clearly the most disturbed by the process so far, as was indicated by her op-ed earlier this week in which she called into question the purity of the reform effort and its leaders, particularly former mayor Svante Myrick and the Center for Policing Equity, arguing the outcome was “predetermined.”

“I recognize that the focus has been to look at policing and how can we center policing on the experience of people of color, which is absolutely important,” Brock said, mentioning that her 22-year-old black son lives and works in Ithaca to illustrate the importance of the matter to her. “It is also important that, to address culture change in the department, or culture change anywhere, you need trust and buy-in. It is so frustrating to me that this process has been so tainted, and opportunities to put together a system, and bring in consultants and advisors who did not bring with them the impression of a conflict of interest was just wasteful.”

Brock made those comments toward the end of the meeting, but they encapsulate her earlier arguments well. Those arguments led to some fireworks when Lewis began vocally pushing back. The two disagreed on whether the fact that four members of Common Council (of the full 10 members) and three IPD officers (who Brock alleges had their input limited) were part of the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group meant that those entities were properly represented in the plan’s formulation.

Lewis interrupted Brock, arguing that council had in fact received monthly updates from Working Group leaders Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, but Brock countered that she felt those had been too vague.

The plan was indeed formed, essentially, behind closed doors, which is a double-edged sword: while Lewis said the group agreed early on that their meetings should not be held in public in order to facilitate honest discussion between community members (and even police) who might otherwise be hesitant, the opaqueness of the process allows for doubts, like those held and pushed by Brock, to manifest more strongly. Working groups, by their legal definition, are not beholden to New York’s Open Meetings Law.

“I’d caution us to stick to facts,” Lewis said to Brock. “You’ve said that you’ve heard things, and again I would ask that we stick to factual comments on the report.”

Brock argued that Lewis’ comments confirmed Brock’s sentiments that IPD and Council couldn’t give input in the process, though that’s obviously a matter of interpretation. She also reiterated her allegations that the process had been tainted by the Center for Policing Equity’s involvement (and its consulting group Matrix), asking Rosario if there had been a discussion about restarting the working group’s process over at any time.

“I looked at all the work that had been done in that first phase, the resolution that Common Council had voted on, and that’s what CPE was supporting us in realizing,” Rosario said. “I saw nothing that would have me think otherwise. That’s what we’ve done, we met [Common Council’s] charge. You talk about ‘dismantling,’ I don’t see that anywhere in the report, it’s not reflected.”

The entire back-and-forth had a “smiling through clenched teeth” air to it—again, out of the norm for Common Council, but indicative of the contentiousness of the plan and police reform overall.

While praising the work and the general thrust of the plan, Alderperson Jorge DeFendini’s problem was with “the limitations placed on [the working group] by council.”

“I’m just concerned that with a forward front foot […] I want to make sure we’re not setting it up to fail,” DeFendini said. “Five responders is not enough. We talk about the division of police, which we’ve kept as is. […] We’re not setting them up to handle what we’ve tasked them with.”

Alderperson Robert Gesualdo Cantelmo followed, drawing parallels between NYPD’s employment of a civilian Commissioner for Public Safety and the one that would oversee Ithaca’s Department of Community Safety (which has drawn apprehension by some council members and concerned constituents), showing the idea has clear precedent. His overall message was that the tenets of the plan are popular with the public, but that the city needs to do better messaging around the plan if it is to succeed.

“It’s keeping a full police department,” he said. “They’re not being altered by any recommendations in this report.”

Alderpersons George McGonigal and Patrick Mehler seemed comfortable to just ask questions, saving their “editorial comments” in McGonigal’s words until next week’s discussion. McGonigal asked about budget concerns with the “top-heavy” Department of Community Safety, though Lewis said those aren’t finalized yet; Mehler asked if the Division of Community Solutions workers would be unionized under the IPBA or otherwise, and City Attorney Ari Lavine said that is not up to the city. Similarly, Alderperson Jeffrey Barken, a vocal critic of the plan so far, remained largely reserved on the topic other than one question, though all of this participation may change at the Committee of the Whole meeting on April 13.

McGonigal did later comment that he often hears from residents in parts of town that see the highest crime rates that they wish there were more police—supporting Ortiz’s earlier statements.

“Everybody wants to be treated with respect, that is key to what we’re doing,” McGonigal said. “But we need to protect our underserved population as well.”

The mood had cooled considerably at that point, and the meeting moved on to the Common Council’s other topics. more will come Wednesday, April 13, at 6 p.m. Stay tuned.

Matt Butler

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