ITHACA, N.Y.—Another familiar name answered a raft of questions in the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) gymnasium Tuesday evening, as retired Ithaca Police Department Lieutenant Scott Garin took the hot seat as he hopes to take the helm of his former department. 

Garin, who retired in March to take a job with the Ithaca College Police Department, spoke before a crowd of about 20 people in a forum led by GIAC Executive Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. This was the last of the three candidate forums held for the Chief of Police position at IPD, following Acting Chief John Joly’s last week and Binghamton Police Department Captain Chris Bracco on Monday.

Of the three candidates, Garin is the one with the deepest roots in Ithaca, having spent over 20 years with the Ithaca Police Department and choosing to stay local even after retiring from the force. Early on, he described his connection to Ithaca as almost like a family member: there are parts he loves, parts he tolerates, but overall he appreciates the city. He ended his presentation by saying that regardless of whether or not he is chosen, he wants to see public safety prioritized and customized for the community, since he will be here too.

Reimagining Public Safety

Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) initiative was the strongest guiding topic in Garin’s forum.

“There’s more that people have in common, or share, in terms of like-minded analysis of public safety than there is that we disagree about, and I don’t think that gets the airtime,” Garin said. “For the people who are invested in these issues, we’d all have the conversation and then implement them, step by step.”

Garin said he would ensure the recommendations are implemented by keeping everybody in the loop, and said that he thinks that would reveal more agreement than disagreement. Again, a central point of his pitch to the audience (somewhat similar to the previous candidates) is that as chief, he would want to extend an olive branch to marginalized communities around the city, and would want them to enter with an open mind as well.

“If you’re able to get something started and off the ground and you recognize there is a need for something different, that can get you there in a way that is effective and efficient,” he said. He posited that a piecemeal approach might actually be better than making immediate, sweeping changes, theorizing it would be easier to get the police department more comfortable with the process, and that the “mammoth introduction of change” has been a sticking point for IPD.

Garin said there are recommendations in the report that concern him. As other police officers have voiced, he said he doesn’t want the name of the department changed, theorizing that it is not a substantive change and won’t meaningfully change the public’s interpretation of police officers. When they see the badge, the uniform and the gun, it won’t matter what the department is called, and that doesn’t attain the “more thorough, holistic” approach Garin said he believes the city is striving for. 

Two other points also concern him: having a civilian director (if that is enacted, it is likely to be the Deputy Chief of Staff of Public Safety), since Garin believes the police department does not need more administration, but needs more people on the ground having interactions, adopting changes and different approaches.. While some officers have criticized civilian leadership of the department as potentially incompatible and ineffective, Garin seemed to come from the standpoint that it would be a further inefficient allocation of resources.

“In my opinion, from 22 years of experience, what the department does not need is more administration,” he said. “I have not seen that more administration or higher paying administrative roles are effective in providing the city with services for our needs. […] We should invest in people who are the face of the city of Ithaca when people are in crisis.”

Garin added later that he hadn’t spent his time in the department climbing the administrative ladder, but had instead been on the street building relationships with the community that he thinks would translate well to the chief’s role.

However, he also said that he would work with the Deputy Chief of Staff to fulfill their objectives if they were hired. As for the unarmed responders making up the Community Solutions Workers, Garin remained somewhat skeptical. 

“Most people would agree that the volume of calls that IPD is expected to manage far exceeds their ability to do so,” he said in response to a question about Community Solutions Workers. Many of those calls can and probably should be directed to someone other than a police officer, he said, though he wasn’t exactly sold on the thought of an unarmed responder unit. 

Community outreach officers, Garin said, were an alternative that has been is an approach that has already worked to some degree locally.  These He said he would work to keep those workers connected to shelter providers, food providers, and other services. 

Workforce diversity

Garin seemed to emphasize that workforce diversity at IPD should be focused on recruitment and the tactics therein. He was in recruitment for IPD for a long part of his time there. 

“We’ve had some very good people that come from a variety of backgrounds that contribute to Ithaca Police Department right now, and I take a lot of pride in that,” Garin said, reiterating that he wants everyone in the same room and as many voices as possible. 

When pressed by an audience-submitted question about how he would make sure that officers of color feel welcome in the department, Garin said he felt that his values would translate to hiring practices that would, while gradual, increase overall diversity.

“If you have an inclusive workforce, then you will hire, promote, provide opportunities for people who have those values,” Garin said. But he acknowledged that the threshold has not always been held up at IPD. “That has not been the experience of officers of color at the department at all times, to this point.”

IPD Budget and Morale

Manpower has been the name of the game throughout each candidate’s answers on how to improve morale at IPD, and Garin was no exception. He reasoned that recruitment to IPD has indeed been mired by the RPS discussion and reform possibilities, pointing to the recent increase of lateral transfer incentives for those interested in coming to IPD to a $20,000 signing bonus, which has still failed to yield results. 

“You can’t just throw money at the problem and have it be successful,” Garin said, also noting his years on the recruitment team for IPD. “We need to find a way for people in that department to feel good about it again. […] However we evolve as a public service entity, we need to make sure that we are allowing the people that provide that service to feel valued, and that isn’t without oversight.”

He also told an anecdote about another person in IPD who told their relative who was interested in joining law enforcement, not to work in Ithaca. 

Though tangentially related, one question asked about Garin’s ability to be transparent with both the community and his own officers, particularly on topics like the department’s budget. Garin emphasized consistency, being genuine and being aware of one’s audience. 

“You’re not going to have anything other than people that are going to be able to provide the best degree of public service for people,” Garin said. “Show them what it is that you’re looking for, but that can’t be done with anything other than the personnel you want to have do it.”

Garin said it might be an area where he and those in the room disagree, but that if the goals of the department are examined, personnel is going to be necessary to achieve them. 

Strengthening trust between community and police

Garin’s first point on this topic was that being present is the most effective way for that relationship to build, again reiterating that he thinks there’s more common ground than is usually portrayed. He would aim to build confidence and mutual respect by being transparent and communicative. 

Toward the end of the night, Garin honed in on a point that had been only lightly covered in previous meetings. Noting the short terms of several previous chiefs (only about two to three years for Dennis Nayor, Pete Tyler and John Barber dating back to the mid-2010s), a question asked how long he would want to serve. Garin said that he would feel very strongly about serving at least five years, and stated his goal as 10 years. He said that “the revolving door is a problem in the chief’s office.”

“On a personal level, if what I was experiencing would compromise my family, I would leave,” Garin said. “They are my priority. […] But if I was in this role, doing it in a way that was respectable and appreciated by many, that is part of what I want to show my kids.”

Asked about misconceptions between the public and the police that go both ways, Garin said the best way to answer is that the police feel that the perception of them is that they have a blunt force approach to most conflicts and that they have no skills of conflict management. He also mentioned that he thinks the public believes there are more police officers than there actually are. 

“The biggest misconception about the public that police have is regarding motivations of actions” — though he said that applies to the public toward the police as well. 

This is a small enough community and police department that you can really get to know the people providing the policing and what they’re all about, he said.  

As it has previously, the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA), came up quite a few times, particularly through the lens of the union being a vocal opponent of parts of the RPS process. Garin straddled the fence a bit when it came to the union and its messaging around Reimagining.

Asked how he could be trusted to carry out the reforms given his current connection to the IPBA, Garin said that he couldn’t convince someone to trust him with solely words during a question and answer session, but that his work experience and the relationships he has built with people throughout the community should serve as adequate evidence of his intentions and character. 

Garin also pointedly rejected the notion that he retired because of the Reimagining process, a sentiment that had been pushed by the IPBA  as an example of a popular, long-serving cop feeling forced out because of police reform. Garin acknowledged that the process had been “trying” for him and a “difficult endeavor for a number of reasons,” but said that there were a wide variety of reasons within the department for why he left when he did — though he did not delve deeper into those reasons. 

Asked whether or not fear that police and their families hold inside of an officer getting harmed in a dangerous situation at work impacts trust in the community and fuels an “us vs. them” mentality, Garin objected to the premise. He said he didn’t believe that his family feared for his life every day he left for work, and that the same could likely be said for the majority of officers, at least locally. Still, he acknowledged that officer safety is a frequently discussed topic among police and that it could be construed as fueling that mindset. 

“Officer safety is a theme that is persistent in concerns about how police and the public interact, and that I think contributes more to an ‘us vs. them’ mentality for those that have it,” he said. The overall stress of the job is probably a more pressing concern, and that should be mitigated when it is seen. “The more you can reduce the ‘us vs. them’ mentality, the better.” 

Bail reform

The reason for the 2019 bail reform laws, in Garin’s interpretation, is to keep financial ability from effecting freedom after an arrest. Restricting people’s freedom because they’re not of enough means to provide bail doesn’t equal justice, he said. 

He said the way that bail reform has progressed has shown that judges are more hamstrung than would have been intended. He believes the state hasn’t quite gotten bail reform right yet and that some tweaks could be beneficial, but that the intention behind the reform “makes sense.”

Executive Order 203

Alderperson Phoebe Brown, in the audience, asked Garin if he knew why Executive Order 203, which triggered the Reimagining Public Safety process, had been put into place. Garin answered that it was obviously motivated by the murder of George Floyd, but that it was also a “larger recognition of the problems between poor communities, black communities, sexual orientation. […] Executive Order 203 was written because there wanted to be an acknowledgement of that history and an analysis where you stand in that context and to be proactive about addressing the impacts that public safety has.”

He said that any time a police officer commits misconduct, most people that provide public service “recognize that it reflects on all of us more consistently than probably any other group.”

Correction (10/27/2022): Originally, this article incorrectly stated that Scott Garin is still the Sergeant at Arms in the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association.

Matt Butler

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