This op-ed was written by Anthony Sundquist, a City of Ithaca resident and graduate of New Roots Charter School, about the Reimagining Public Safety effort in Ithaca. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds for publication, please send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

A couple of weekends ago, I found myself staring out through a window at a volatile situation that I had no idea how to handle. A group of people, some drunk, some just tired, were screaming at each other outside of a local bar as tensions rose and fights nearly broke out. As the clock struck 2 a.m., I found myself going back and forth over whether or not there was someone appropriate that I could call. The police were out of the question; the people outside were my friends, and while their safety was my biggest concern, I knew that the risk of someone getting arrested — especially with alcohol involved — was something that might not defuse the situation, but instead escalate the chaos even further.

What if that situation could have been handled differently? Because if something had happened there — if I had found myself in a position where someone’s safety had been actually jeopardized — that’s the kind of event that can haunt you for the rest of your life.

One of my first distinct memories of police contact was walking out to get my mail, up at the Grandview Apartments on South Hill. This was before it had been gentrified and turned into student housing. I was 11 or 12 years old. It was a normal morning, up until I opened the front door to find armed police staring back at me, a gun pointed directly in my face. “GET BACK INSIDE!”  they shouted in my face, and for a moment, I was frozen, though the adrenaline in my body quickly pushed my feet into motion as I hurried back into my home.

I’d later find out that one of my neighbors nearby had been involved in a standoff, armed and refusing to leave his house. The police have always been known to use force, sometimes to an excessive extent. This is not to say that force isn’t sometimes warranted in law enforcement, but often there are other, better answers. Another situation in which I witnessed the police being inconsiderate of the community which they are sworn to protect was in West Village. There was a group of people arguing, a gun was eventually brandished by the target of the argument, and this was seen by a neighbor, who called the police. I do not know what was said in the call, but within 20 minutes, the entirety of West Village was swarming with SWAT police clad in military fatigues.

Was that response truly necessary? It is important to note that a police officer was shot in West Village a couple of years ago. But where do we draw the line between “appropriate response” and profiling? There was no effort to communicate with residents of the complex as to what the reason was for this intense show of force.

We’ve heard a lot of talk recently about “community safety.” Community safety ties back to that first word, and I want to emphasize it again — community.  Even more recently, an acquaintance of mine was shot at on the Southside after a domestic dispute. This warranted the obvious need for police intervention. The suspects had fled, and the situation needed de-escalation.

But instead of coming in as an advocate for healing, an armed officer immediately showed up, on high alert. This escalated into yelling and eventually, the police officers mobbed and violently pushed the man who had just been shot at into a wall. Luckily it didn’t go further than that and no arrests were made, but I found my three kids, at the time ages 1, 2, and 5, inside, absolutely terrified. Just a couple of days before, my five-year-old son had smiled up at me when a cruiser passed by, remarking how cool it was. He still comments on how cool he thinks cop cars are and frequently draws them — but at that moment, he was terrified. 

Once again I’m not sure if I can blame the police for this response, seeing as the discharge of a firearm was involved, but in this domestic dispute that spilled outside, it might have helped to have an advocate other than the police involved to ease the nerves of the target of the shooting. One important question when comparing this situation to the previously mentioned one, is where were the military fatigues here – when shots were actually fired? Who chooses when the community can be moderated, and when it should be attacked? Not to say that was necessary, but in reality, whether looking at racial profiling, police violence, or corruption within the justice system, there is a consistent problem we see with law enforcement, and that is consistency itself.

We’ve also heard a lot of talk recently about “healing community wounds.” In looking toward healing the kinds of wounds that come from a police force that inherently mistrusts people like me, I come back to that important word of community.  With Ithaca’s recently proposed new Department of Public Safety, I’ve begun to try to visualize what community safety might have actually looked like in the stories above.

What if there had been an unarmed public safety officer that night a couple weekends back who could have diffused that situation outside of the bar, without having to worry about any of my friends ending up in jail or worse? What if there had been someone at Grandview when I was a kid, ready to work alongside the armed police, ready to try to defuse this situation without firearms, or at the very least be on standby to help facilitate and protect the community also present in that moment?  What if instead of being frozen in fear within his own home, a responder from the community — maybe even someone who actually knew him — could’ve bridged the gap between the public and its safety officers with some kind of conversation, instead of the immediate intervention of what many would consider essentially military intervention?  What if when my friend was fired at, instead of being met with a rifle, he was offered the kind of resources he might need in order to deal with this traumatic kind of experience to begin with?  

I don’t know if the city’s new policing initiative will solve all of the problems we have in our community overnight. I don’t know if we’ll even have solved all of these questions by the end of the year. As a Black man, I’m wary of any changes like this, because the history of policing in this country is fraught with examples that show me the odds are stacked against me.

But I do know this is important. Because what it does do is take this kind of dialogue a step forward — where it’s no longer about safety through policing, but instead reverts the focus back to safety for the community. I know the folks involved in this process actually listened to the voices of many community members I trust, many folks who look like me and feel the way I do — traumatized, at times hopeless, wary, often scared of the repercussions of purely existing in a society historically pitted against them — but still believing there’s a chance we can do better, one day.

I don’t see what we have to lose here. But I can already visualize what we have to gain, and that’s healing years and years of trauma, which this community needs more than anything else.