ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca’s Community Police Board has more so been a subject of conversation rather than an interlocutor since the City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) plan was unveiled in February 2021.
However, the scant input from the volunteer board—which is primarily tasked with reviewing complaints against officers in the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) and investigating their validity—is soon to increase.
Alderperson George McGonigal, chair of the RPS special committee, attended the CPB’s Wednesday meeting to invite the board to deliver a presentation or participate in a discussion on what changes they would ideally like to see as RPS continues to develop.
The RPS Special Committee formed in August, as movement on the RPS plan had slowed in city government amid investigations into potential third party influence in the process and payments made to Working Group leaders.
The RPS special committee is tasked with generating a report by the end of the year, to further “flesh out” recommendations in the City of Ithaca’s RPS plan, McGongial told The Ithaca Voice. The committee’s work, he said, is meant to complement the report generated by the RPS Working Group.
The committee intends to gather some additional input from the wide community, and has been hearing from actors in the local criminal justice system, particularly those that have sidelined in the process, like the Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office. On Wednesday, when invited by McGonigal to present at the committee’s next meeting, CPB Board chair Shirley Kane expressed some surprise at the short timeline the board would have to form a presentation and for the RPS Special Committee to finalize its report.
“I’m a little shocked at the short timeline of this, but I guess I can’t complain too much,” said Kane.
With that, the conversation quickly turned toward what new powers the board may potentially ask of the City of Ithaca’s Common Council, namely the question of whether the CPB would want the ability to issue subpoenas.
A presentation to the RPS Special Committee, Kane said, “[…] is an opportunity for us to express our concerns with regards to some of the conversations that have been rumbling around in the community about this board having subpoena power. And I’ll just say that my personal opinion regarding that is a nay.”
While the CPB creates some level of citizen oversight over IPD, the board relies on the cooperation of the department, individual police officers, and all other actors to provide information for their investigations. Subpoena power would give the board the power to compel people to give testimony, or produce materials on a particular subject. A failure to comply with a subpoena is punishable as contempt of court.
To Kane, the current arrangement has worked fine so far. She said, “Everybody should be working together and we have not had a problem in many, many years getting everything that we need.”
Kane further explained that her stance on that issue stems from the perspective that the Community Police Board is part of the community, and should be cooperating with citizens and the police.
No member of the CPB voiced a direct support for the board to have subpoena power in Wednesday’s meeting.
In order for the CPB to have subpoena power, Kane added the point that there would need to be an attorney on the board, and that would come at a cost to the city and need to be considered in its budget.
Board member Richard Onyejuruwa followed this, saying that while the board has heard rumblings of support for the board to have subpoena power, the city has not indicated whether it would support that budgetary measure.
“I just don’t think that, from a practical standpoint, the city is budgetarily ready to make that commitment and, if they are, they need to state that. And how much they’re actually willing to commit so folks have an idea of what is possible,” said Onyejuruwa.
In a nutshell, the Onyejruwa wants a clear signal from the City of Ithaca of what is and what’s not possible for the city’s CPB. Fellow board member Michael Simons said that he’d like to hear more from city officials or citizens about why they want the CPB to have more oversight power.
IPD Acting Chief John Joly was in attendance at the Wednesday CPB meeting. He voiced his support for the current process that the board has to investigate complaints, saying he thinks the board and the police department “work well together.”
Joly added, “I would just be concerned that we take something that’s working somewhere else and just arbitrarily insert that here and create an adversarial relationship, and division where we don’t need it. But if that’s something that you all want, then I would support that.”