ITHACA, N.Y.—The second meeting of the Special Reimagining Public Safety Committee saw input from two crucial local law enforcement figures, both of whom expressed some skepticism about the execution of the proposed plan.

With Alderperson George McGonigal at the helm, the committee heard from Acting Ithaca Police Chief John Joly and Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten, the latter of whom has frequently voiced his dismay at being largely excluded from the Reimagining formulation process. Both spoke at length about their vision for local law enforcement and their apprehension with parts of the plan.

To follow along with the rather straightforward agenda, click here. For those interested in watching the meeting, you can see that here.

To reiterate: the Reimagining Plan, as it currently stands, holds 19 proposed points of reform. Easily the most controversial one has been the first point: restructuring the Ithaca Police Department as the Division of Police, which would have virtually no differences from the department now except it would be under a new umbrella body known as the Department of Community Safety, led by a civilian, which would also introduce five unarmed Community Solutions Workers, who would be under the Community Safety banner but as a separate division.

The plan’s rollout is now mired in two different issues, one having to do with dueling ethics investigations into the payment of Working Group leaders on the plan, and another more recent issue having to do with allegations of a local government official influencing media coverage of Reimagining. Neither were discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.

Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief John Joly

Joly spent about an hour going over a presentation and his points, but was preceded by a statement from McGonigal that sought to set the tone for the meeting, advocating that everybody be heard and considered fairly—particularly those who have historically had the most severe problems with policing.

“We have a very good police department,” McGonigal said. “Not perfect, but very good. […] One of our challenges, in Reimagining, is to get IPD officers more involved in the Reimagining process.”

Joly then went through IPD’s progress on certain other reforms in the Reimagining process. He said IPD is applying for a grant that would allow the department to hire two “Crisis Intervention Specialists” and a supervisor, who would work with IPD on calls that deal with mental health crises or other non-criminal matters. He also noted that the county is looking to add three Crisis Intervention Specialists to the Public Health Department who would have similar duties.

Alderperson Robert Cantelmo asked how the crisis intervention force, who would likely be unarmed, could be integrated into the current shift system. Joly said the shift hours for the unarmed workers would be optimized by examining times when there are the most calls that would require them.

McGonigal suggested using the satellite West End IPD location as a place to hold the unarmed responders, which Joly said could be a good short-term solution, though the space is fairly small.

Joly also spoke about his desire to have a specialized team within the department who would handle follow-up for domestic violence victims, like connecting them to resources like the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County or with attorneys who can help with family court proceedings.

“Right now, that’s a huge gap that we don’t do,” Joly said. “But it’s something that would have a very strong, immediate impact on our community if we could follow-up with them.”

Alderperson Cynthia Brock noted one improvement she wants to see come to fruition is better, more thorough protections for whistleblowers within the police department, something that would be formalized through policy.

“Our police department is our most front-facing public department, so if there are elements that need to be addressed, it becomes profoundly impactful if we don’t address them within our police department,” Brock said.

Joly revealed some interesting statistics, in response to a question from Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, which seem to push back on the narrative that IPD is an unpopular place to work—though they don’t explain IPD’s ongoing struggles to attract officers.

According to Joly, there are 86 candidates who applied to take the civil service exam through IPD, which ranks 15th out of 62 agencies statewide. Ithaca will test more than twice as many officers as some full county agencies.

“We did pretty good as far as getting people to sign up for our test,” Joly said. “Given the current conditions and the lack of people signing up for the test statewide, we did pretty good.”

Joly then recounted other similar police departments in the region. The City of Cortland has 47 positions with four open spots, Auburn is allotted 68 officers with 5 open spots. Tompkins County has 44 positions, with just one opening currently. Ithaca is authorized for 65, but they have 13 vacancies.

“It is fair to say this is a nationwide problem, I think right now we are facing more of that problem than other surrounding departments,” Joly said, speaking of staffing specifically.

Brock asked if people do want to come work for IPD. Joly said it is a problem, though he didn’t dive into specifics of why. Joly said the department is trying to film officers talking about the job to promote joining the department, as well as having the acting mayor and other city officials participate in promotional videos about the vision for the department. He acknowledged that some misinformation had circulated about the department’s fate, which had begun to dissipate.

She also asked if the Community Police Board had been granted more power, but Joly said there was no update on that.

Toward the end of his remarks, Joly commented on the necessity of officer wellness programs, which he said is a prominent concern especially considering the call load being faced without a full staff roster. He said he would like to see a psychiatrist or psychologist employed by the department who would offer trainings, do ride-alongs, counsel officers confidentially, etc.

Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten

Van Houten followed, clarifying that the frustration he’s shown throughout the process was fueled by a sentiment that his office shouldn’t just be involved in the Reimagining proposal, but that they should be able to give consultation throughout to ensure its eventual success.

“That [frustration] was in the spirit of a desire for this to work,” Van Houten said. “This is not too late in the process for anybody’s feedback.”

One of Van Houten’s primary points was pushing back on the thought that “all arrests are bad,” which he felt was implicitly expressed in the Center for Policing Equity’s report. When a crime is committed, he said, there’s (often) a victim who is a member of the community that deserves justice. In these instances, Van Houten said, an arrest is a good thing to protect the community.

Still, Van Houten said he views his ultimate goal as promoting truth, not to put people into jail or hit a quote of arrests. That’s a source of some of his apprehension to the plan, highlighting the unarmed responders unit, and hoping that they would be thoroughly and properly trained so as to not endanger evidence or cases that may rely on their proper, nuanced conduct.

“If there are unarmed community safety officers going out and interacting with the public, and they’re in a position to collect evidence or they’re the first ones to learn about a crime being committed, how do we know they’re trained to do those things correctly?” he asked.

Van Houten said a better duty for them would be to deescalate. In the same vein, he suggested that they could be responsible for accompanying law enforcement officers to certain calls to help IPD and other police agencies, as opposed to responding independently.

Van Houten said that IPD is very young, and that he feels certain suggestions or recommendations to IPD from his office have not gotten down to the ground-level officers.

“I’m stepping out of my boundaries here, but it seems like sometimes there has been a lapse or gap in some of the fundamental police work training,” Van Houten said. He added that he feels crucial basic training is sometimes put to the side in favor of more extraneous things like SWAT training. “Maybe it was done enough that it needed to be, but I don’t think you can train enough. […] I don’t think that SWAT training should be held at the expense of more fundamental police training.”

Brock explored that further, asking if cases were being dropped because of investigatory problems. Van Houten deftly ducked the question, saying that no police department is perfect and that he gets cases from every police department in the county that he is unable to charge because of any number of issues.

However, Van Houten added that he believes IPD’s character and staff to be “excellent.”

Van Houten also confirmed that there will be a public safety dashboard that will be separate and more in-depth than the IPD Dashboard that is currently being maintained by the department. It would follow cases through to their outcomes and contain more detailed demographic information that could be revelatory, as opposed to stopping at arrest locations and charges, as IPD’s does now.

Brock said she’s not convinced that the unarmed responders, if they are hired, should work within IPD. She said she’s seen research that community members trust people more who aren’t members of the police department, even in location of offices. She said she hoped to slow the assumption that the unarmed officers would work from within the department and that alternatives should be more closely examined.

Next Steps

Nguyen endorsed the idea of analyzing other similar efforts around the country, stating that it would be silly to conduct the effort as if it’s in a vacuum. Cantelmo supported Brock’s earlier assertion that the Community Police Board’s role should be expanded and strengthened.

“That’s the thing we shouldn’t get behind the 8-ball on,” Cantelmo said, noting that some of the changes may need state authorization—but that the state should be amenable to catering to those needs, since the directive originally came from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “It’s my understanding from watching the debates last year about the police board, that there is some issue about what type of oversight ability would have, absent other authorizing legislation.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com