ITHACA, N.Y.—Binghamton Police Department Captain Christopher Bracco was next in line to sit for a candidate forum Monday night as the City of Ithaca mulls its next permanent chief of police. 

Bracco was the second candidate interviewed, following Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief John Joly last week and preceding former Ithaca Police Department Lieutenant Scott Garin (whose forum took place Tuesday night at 6 p.m.). Forums at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center are being held for each candidate, giving the community a chance to evaluate the three finalists for the position during a fairly tumultuous time for the department with some level of reform and restructuring seeming inevitable. 

Touching on a wide variety of topics, Bracco’s answers throughout the night did not inspire much of a reaction, positive or negative, from the crowd of about 20 who gathered into the GIAC gym to ask questions and assess his answers via feedback form afterward. The only real moments of back-and-forth during the evening came from forum leader and GIAC Executive Director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, who offered a firm but gentle correction when Bracco twice referred to George Floyd’s killing as an “incident” instead of a “murder,” and once again when Bracco offered a somewhat tepid response about how to handle relations with the Police Benevolent Association in Ithaca. 

As a brief background, Bracco has been a Binghamton police officer since 1995, with a brief pause in 2015-2016 working as an agent for the Nevada Gaming Commission before returning to BPD. He also is a financial adviser on the side, and said he plans to pursue that career full-time if he is not chosen to lead the Ithaca Police Department. 

Building Trust

One of the overarching goals for police, locally and elsewhere, is the same as it always has been: trying to foster a relationship with the community that it is policing. That goal is the genesis of countless initiatives and new strategies, though the effectiveness of all of those is arguable. Bracco spoke about that repeatedly, noting that a lack of trust can poison attempts at improving the community’s relationship with the police, or vice versa.

“People are supposed to see us and think, ‘That’s a safe space for me to go,’” Bracco said. “If we don’t have that here, there’s going to be all kinds of problems. There’s going to be recruiting problems, there’s going to be a lack of trust. […] Police get legitimacy through you. It spirals from there.”

Bracco took an early opportunity to hammer home what was clearly an important point to him: he believes that if officers treat every person with respect in every interaction, much of the negative perceptions of policing would fade away. That respect would produce better relationships with the community, at large and individually, and help lead to better efficiency of policing and more effective investigations when crimes occur. 

He also drew on his experience in Binghamton, saying that after rising to a certain level within IPD, like shift commander, an officer’s phone number should be published publicly to be used for crime reporting, relaying a concern, etc. 

Reimagining Public Safety

Obviously, one of the largest issues that a new police chief will have to tackle is implementing the approved reforms in the Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) report, and navigating that process among the rank-and-file police officers in the department. Bracco first made a point to say that he would work to implement any plan the city’s Common Council deemed necessary, including RPS. 

Bracco stated his main critique of the plan, as it is currently presented, is having unarmed Community Solutions Workers initially respond alone to certain situations that are categorized for them as opposed to armed police officers—one of the main tenets of the plan. He instead advocated for a model similar to Binghamton’s, where specialized workers respond with police officers, then when a situation is assessed and calmed, the specialized workers take over and the police leave. He also pointed to CAHOOTS, the oft-cited program in Eugene, Oregon as a good model to follow. CAHOOTS is a mobile crisis intervention service used to respond to mental health crises, calls for people too intoxicated, non-emergency medical care, etc. CAHOOTS responded to about 16,500 calls in 2021, and received just under $800,000 in funding from the Eugene government. 

He endorsed a dual response approach for mental health and domestic dispute calls, at least. 

However, he also acknowledged that there are times when a police officer arriving at a scene could put the situation at further risk of a negative outcome. 

“There’s absolutely times and situations where police make the situation more dangerous,” Bracco said. “Some of the mental health calls we respond on, and someone is in crisis, you’ve just inserted an armed individual who’s confronting someone in crisis. There are times, yes, when inserting an officer into it makes it more dangerous.”

That answer was in response to a question about whether or not there should be specific phone lines that would differentiate 911 calls from the police department and other emergency response. Bracco endorsed the idea, though cautioned that there are certain situations, like a mental health crisis that involves threatening or hurting another person, in which a police officer should be involved. 

“It’s public safety over politics” was a term Bracco used during a failed run for Broome County Sheriff in 2016 on the Working Families Party ticket. He was asked about that through the frame of dealing with the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents IPD officers and is vocally opposed to several parts of the Reimagining Public Safety, particularly the restructuring plan. Bracco said he still believes in the phrase. 

He said that he understands police unions and their positions, and that there is an inherently political element to the job of police chief. Bracco insisted that navigating the differing political views of the IPBA and large swaths of the Ithaca population is a feature of the job, not a bug, for him. He said the volume of “diverse viewpoints” in Ithaca was attracting him to the job, and that the union’s apprehension to parts of the Reimagining process is just one of those. 

“I think the union would come to understand, and I would foster that, that the city is trying to help its police department and citizens by providing these trained mental health professionals, domestic violence professionals, social service professionals so that these officers can address more serious matters in the city,” Bracco said. “I think it could be a win-win, and if the chief buys into it, we can win them over.” 

Additionally, McBean-Clairborne asked Bracco how he would be able to interact with the to-be-hired Deputy Chief of Staff of Public Safety, a position that will likely oversee whatever iteration of the police department exists after the dust settles around the proposed restructuring. Bracco said he would want to establish a working group, which would meet regularly and encourage collaboration between the chief and the Deputy Chief of Staff. 

Diversity and bridge-building in policing 

On the topics of diversity and equity in policing, Bracco offered two anecdotes at different times. One had to do with a fellow officer, a Black man, who helped Bracco connect with young Black children during summertime visits to the Police Athletic League in Binghamton—Bracco said he valued the help so much that he supported the officer’s promotion to a higher position over other qualified candidates. 

Additionally, Bracco relayed a story about a recent surveillance trip he was on in a residential neighborhood, when a nearby resident came to his car to ask what was going on. They began to talk and Bracco said they’ve struck up an ongoing friendly relationship now. 

“This individual doesn’t like the police. But I made a relationship, he likes me and I like him,” Bracco said. “People like him aren’t going to go to coffee with a cop. Those programs are for people that already like the police. It’s about reaching out and building relationships with people who are difficult to connect with and may not like the police.”

As for how Bracco would ensure that Black officers feel comfortable at IPD, Bracco pointed to the first anecdote above. He said he would treat Black officers with the same care he would treat other officers, making sure they are given an opportunity to pursue their goals such as being a K9 handler, interest in the SWAT team or working more investigations. 

Bail Reform

The 2019 bail reforms have been under nearly constant scrutiny since they were introduced, and Bracco was asked how he has experienced those changes as a police officer and what his ideal bail system would look like. Bracco said that cash bail had “hurt marginalized communities” indisputably and said it represents a pre-trial conviction of sorts if someone is held after being charged, but before being given a trial. 

However, Bracco said that in cases of violence towards another person, cash bail should be utilized. 

“We have to make sure the community is safe, in that if someone has done something to someone else, for example, a stabbing or a robbery, that they won’t harm anyone else,” Bracco said.

How to police the homeless population

Prompted by a submitted question, Bracco said he would want to police the gradually increasing homeless population locally by “getting on the same page as the city,” trying to work in concert with city administration regarding enforcement in places like “the Jungle” homeless encampment. 

Bracco said he would want to offer services to those experiencing homelessness, acknowledging that the people in the encampments likely need help. He further mentioned that would be a scenario in which a specialized professional could be utilized either instead or along with a police officer’s intervention in certain situations when called. 

“In conjunction with helping, we also have to make sure that there is order,” Bracco said. “If there are blatant violations of law upsetting a neighborhood, we would have to evaluate that as well. Getting help to people that need help with trained professionals, and then addressing any type of lawlessness, trying to work with the agencies to make sure that other people were not being negatively impacted.” 

Building morale at IPD

The question of morale at IPD has become a frequent topic of conversation, often blamed on staffing issues and resulting workload. Indeed, manpower is what Bracco said his research points to as the primary problem in IPD’s morale. 

How to fix that? If you ask five people, you’d probably get 10 answers. For Bracco, his solution centered on that he “wants to build a department that people want to join” and thinks a leadership style that promotes individual empathy would work well for individual employees. Bracco said he realizes police officers are well-paid and have more job security that most, and in his experience a drop in morale can be from individual to individual as opposed to something impacting every officer universally. Still, he said a priority would be to “work with the city so that the department is staffed according to the way the city wants to have the department staffed. 

Investment at IPD

If presented with a sudden influx of a large amount of money, one question asked, what would be Bracco’s prioritized investment targets in the department? 

“I’d give the chief a raise,” he joked at first. He then pivoted to talking about the need for youth development in the city of Ithaca to fortify staffing at the police department. Bracco said he wants to build a civilian or junior police academy to further that goal. Also spoke about infrastructure improvements to IPD headquarters, or even moving the headquarters in general. 

“One of the most important things as a police officer is dealing with youths,” Bracco said. “I’d want to take that money and use it for programs so we could help youths build a strong, successful junior police academy, a civilian police academy.”

Towards the middle of the talk, the matter of Bracco’s conduct as a Binghamton police officer came up. He responded that he does not have any “substantiated reports on record,” referring to complaints that had been internally investigated and found to be true. 

It is unclear what kind of conduct reports Bracco has had filed against him, if any, and the question was asked anonymously Monday night. The Ithaca Voice is awaiting a response to a FOIL request for Bracco’s records during his time in Binghamton, however it is important to note that a New York City police officer sharing Bracco’s first and last name (but not the same person) does have several complaints against him that are publicly viewable online. Those records show that officer began working for NYPD in 2017, while Bracco was obviously still with the Binghamton Police Department.

Matt Butler

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