ITHACA, N.Y.—The Reimagining Public Safety plan is likely to remain the City of Ithaca’s most prominent storyline over the next month or two (at least), and in an effort to foster thorough examination of the plan a special Common Council meeting was held Monday.
Was there discussion? Yes. Was there much progress? Unclear. You can watch the full video of the meeting here.
The meeting followed the regularly scheduled Common Council meeting last week, and is technically termed a Committee of the Whole meeting. No votes were taken, just discussion, and while it was more cordial than last week’s debate the council doesn’t seem any closer to a strong consensus on whether or not law enforcement in Ithaca should be restructured in the following ways: renaming the Ithaca Police Department as the Division of Police, adding five Community Solutions Workers as a Division of Community Solutions, and bringing both under the Department of Community Safety, led by a civilian commissioner.
Before the nitty gritty, Alderperson Rob Gearhart asked Acting Mayor Laura Lewis for a refresher on potential timelines for discussion and votes. Lewis left open the possibility of more Committee of the Whole meetings dedicated to discussing the reforms, but said that if there are enough reforms that would require a voter referendum in November, they would likely need a law solidified by July at the latest. It’s not clear exactly where the threshold for a referendum is, but if the full recommendations are approved, a referendum would be necessary. She did say, though, that a vote could happen as soon as May.
Alderperson George McGonigal, who has been lukewarm (if not outright opposed) to the reforms, followed with a question that would basically control the majority of the meeting after that: Is there actually a culture problem at IPD, and if so, what about it needs to change?
“Culture” in general is a fairly tough thing to define and point to in a specific entity, a kind of murky sense that can frankly be interpreted differently depending on one’s perspective. The writers of the plan are clearly basing their motivation for change both in the voices from the community that spoke out in 2020, when police reform was the central topic of contention throughout America, but more specifically on a set of interviews conducted during the writing of the plan that showed local distrust of police among POC communities in Ithaca.
“In the interviews that were held, there are individuals in our community, minoritized members of our community, that have raised questions about the culture of the police department,” Lewis said. Members of the community expressed not being comfortable approaching or contacting the police department for fear of what would happen, she said.
Alderpersons Pheobe Brown and Jorge DeFendini followed with discussion of the question.
“We aren’t only referencing our community, the order came from the governor of New York State,” Brown said. “In our own community, we have seen some cultures of policing who were not engaged in the community they police. Which means they aren’t getting to know their community, they’re only protecting the property.”
“We also need to be talking about structural issues of resources and power,” DeFendini said. “We can do a lot to make the culture more equitable between the police and our communities, but I think we need to put a greater priority on making sure that the organizations that are already engaging in public safety beyond what the police do, have adequate resources and funding. I know that aspects of that are covered in the recommendations, but in terms of this recommendation, a lot of that pertains to the Division of Community Solutions.”
DeFendini was largely reiterating comments he has made previously, and ones that are not uncommon among people who support police reform locally: that the five Community Solutions Workers proposed for the unarmed first responders unit will not be enough to respond to the volume of calls, which will then overwhelm them, which will lead them to fail and make the effort as a whole seem misguided.
These concerns weren’t exactly answered, though Lewis and Working Group leaders Karen Yearwood and Eric Rosario, who both attended the meeting as well, have insisted that the division could grow quickly, but five is the number to start off with.
“I’ve heard that some of the restructuring is specifically targeting to change the culture of IPD,” said IPD Acting Chief John Joly, chiming in after DeFendini. “I think we can definitely make some improvements with added resources.”
Joly pressed further, asking for more specific improvements that need to be made in the department, and how the plan can actually make those changes occur. Rosario answered with at least one example.
“My personal experience in Ithaca, I’ve had very positive interactions with our police here,” Rosario answered regarding the culture questions, acknowledging that’s only his own experience. “But I can’t ignore input that we’ve gotten from the community.”
He went on to share the story about Sgt. Kevin Slattery, an IPD officer who accidentally recorded himself recounting a tale of abusing a Black suspect during an arrest, as an example of parts of the IPD culture that need to be eliminated. A city investigation found that the incident did not actually happen (though the suspect and his lawyer have rejected that finding), but Slattery was still demoted and suspended for 30 days.
In terms of insuring healthy culture, Alderperson Cynthia Brock said that she wanted to improve screening and training procedures during the police officer hiring process. An example Brock suggested was asking if a prospective officer has ever been involved with a militia or white supremacist movement, citing the significant presence of off-duty police officers who charged the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Alderperson Jeffrey Barken followed, reiterating his previous criticisms of the plan: that it is unnecessary and that it is too damaging to the officers who are on the police force.
“Is there a culture endemic in our police department that we can immediately fix, that we can make a dent in?” Barken said.
“The question that underlies all these proceedings is that, we need to understand are we reshaping the whole police department under this umbrella structure, or can we deliver the different optics of a changed-culture police force under the system that exists currently, and still deliver the culture change that is desired?”
DeFendini went further down the culture path, asking what consequences would be in place for violations of whatever new culture is implemented at IPD. Though it is a bit of a moot point now, he also mentioned that he thought there should have been more direction given at the outset of the Reimagining process about the budget available to the new division and the Department of Community Safety as a whole.
Brown was not impressed with the discussion to that point, saying her heart was “breaking” as a Black woman, arguing that the crimes perpetrated by police throughout history were enough examples of cultural issues with policing.
“I’m going to sit with myself and think, maybe I’m thinking something wrong,” Brown said, after basically stating that Common Council was moving backwards on its path to progress on police reform rather than advancing.
After a few more speakers, Barken again spoke, challenging Brown not to base her opinion on the IPD reforms on national examples of police misconduct — though some IPD misconduct had been mentioned in the meeting.
“But to speak to culture, and understand that culture is comprised of individuals, that’s what makes a culture dynamic, intricate, resilient, so I think it’s really dangerous to project your impression of a national crisis onto a local police force comprised of individuals who all deserve the fairness of our judgment of their conduct,” Barken said.
“It’s real important for us to be honest about what happens around this community,” Brown said in response.
Unlike last week, when IPD officers did not comment during Common Council’s meeting, IPD Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello joined Joly in addressing the council. He expressed the same hesitation that other opponents of the plan have, and appealed that more voices should be heard before changes are made.
“Business owners, residents, voters, we have Ithaca College and Cornell University here, the parents who are sending their kids [to college] here should have a say in the matter,” Monticello said.
Yearwood finished the public portion of the meeting with some measured comments, though it was clear she was a bit tired of some of the criticism of the plan by council members. Her comments were extended, starting at the 1:17:48 mark of the above video, but her response to Barken was particularly notable after he commented on the country living through George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests that swept across the nation in mid-2020, which inspired former Governor Cuomo’s order to reform police departments across New York State.
“Then there’s some of us who live through it on a daily basis, and as I keep saying we can’t negate that whatsoever,” Yearwood said. “Some may have the privilege of looking at it through the television, but others have been living through it for hundreds of years. We have a chance to actually do something different here.”