ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s been nearly a year and a half since former Ithaca Police Department Chief Dennis Nayor stepped down from his position, and Deputy Chief John Joly stepped in as Acting Chief.
Now, Joly aims to continue in the job. On Monday he became the first of three candidates seeking the title of IPD Police Chief to sit before a public forum where the community will have an opportunity to meet, ask questions, and supply feedback to the City of Ithaca as it chooses who to hire. The other two candidates are former IPD Lieutenant Scott Garin, and Christopher Bracco who is currently a Lieutenant at the Binghamton Police Department. Their forums will be held on Oct. 25 and 26, respectively.
The forum was held at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), and was conducted by Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, the Executive Director of GIAC and former Tompkins County Legislature chair. She posed questions to Joly, and coordinated questions from the crowd later in the event.
When asked what in his professional experience made him the ideal candidate for Chief of Police, Joly said that of the three possible choices, he has the broadest experience—starting in the Atlanta Police Department before returning to his native upstate New York. He’s been with IPD for the last 17 years. Joly emphasized that he’s worked almost every position within the department, and served as union president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA) for seven years.
Joly cited that his biggest challenge as Acting Chief is the officer shortage, resulting in staff burnout. As acting chief, Joly said that he’s trying to “take everybody from this negative time where we’re short staffed, get everyone on board, make progress towards reimagining, make progress towards increasing morale.”
Community relations between the City of Ithaca and its police department, and Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan were prominent topics in the back and forth of the forum, as well as IPD’s staffing challenges throughout the evening. IPD has 52 officers and is currently trying to fill 13 vacancies.
McBean-Clairborne asked how Joly intended to implement the City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety plan. He cited progress that’s been made already, such as the Ithaca Police Community Dashboard which allows anyone to view the call types police are responding to, and where they are responding to.
He cited that IPD has begun to contract services from Lexipol, a company that’s specialized in servicing law enforcement agencies. The department, Joly said, is using Lexipol to update internal policies, and provide online training to officers. He further said in the forum that he wants the community to have a better understanding of the problems that the department is facing, like its staffing challenges, but that he wants to work with Common Council to bring the rest of the recommendations to fruition.
Joly’s take on co-response
In a follow up question from McBean-Clairborne, she asked if there were any RPS recommendations that concerned him. Joly said that what concerns him the most are “call delineations and sending unarmed responders to calls that could potentially be dangerous.”
Joly said that the way he envisioned a co-response best working is if regular police officers are heading to the scene of a incident first, or meeting service providers at a location in order to “ensure that it’s a safe scene.”
Joly voiced his support for the plan to adopt a co-response model, but indicated that under the current plan to replace IPD with a Department of Community Safety with a Division of Community Solutions staffed by unarmed responders, and a Division of Police mirroring the current police department, the city of Ithaca will need to engage in time consuming negotiations with the PBA.
Joly said that certain call response duties that would be assigned to unarmed responders would need to be negotiated out of the police union’s contract with the city, then incorporated into another contract with whatever union will be representing the unarmed responders in the Division of Community Solutions.
“Realistically, I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” Joly said. “I think that will get tied up, potentially, in litigation. And then in the meantime, the community is not getting additional benefits.”
When asked what reconciliation led by the police department means to him, and what the approach to achieving community healing between the department and communities of color that have been mistreated by police, Joly said that “there are a lot of people that wear a uniform that don’t wear it well.” He said that IPD needs to “continue having high standards” for its hires in order to avoid putting officers on the job that would create unnecessary negative interactions, while fostering a good relationship with the community through outreach.
“My perspective is we kind of allowed the department to be on an island. We lost connections to our community, we lost those relationships. And that really became evident with the death of George Floyd,” he said, adding that the convictions for the officers involved in Floyd’s killing were “appropriate.”
The process of building trust, Joly said, will be slow. “We have to build trust again. And that’s kind of what we’re talking about with all this Reimagining, and before we can run, we have to walk.”
Working with the community
A member of the public submitted a question to Joly, asking him what his experience was working with an ethnic group different from his own.
Joly shared an experience from when there were consistent protests outside of the police department after the death of George Floyd, and how he and former Police Chief Nayor decided to build a relationship with community activist Yasmin Rashid, of the Unbroken Promise Initiative.
Joly said that he has “regular meetings” with Rashid, but Joly made a gaffe that angered the crowd while describing a conversation during one of the meetings.
He said that he went to Rashid after a promising IPD applicant had not been truthful in the background process. The potential hire, Joly said, was a person of color who would have added needed diversity to IPD, and so while weighing what the next steps would be in the hiring process, Joly said he’d explained the dilemma to Rashid in a conversation. Joly said the insight that he drew from the conversation was that, “Black and brown people have had to lie to the government to get apartments and to get fair treatment over the years, and that it’s somewhat of a cultural thing.”
Joly’s clunky delivery held the implication that lying is a “cultural thing” among Black people. Immediately, attendees of the event were audibly disheartened by what Joly had poorly worded, and he tried to clarify what he’d meant to express.
Later in the event, as it was closing, City of Ithaca Alderperson Phoebe Brown asked Joly to further clarify what he’d meant, to which he said, “I delivered that terribly. My point was that [Rashid] helped me understand that a lot of people grew up in situations that I hadn’t even thought about and that I don’t understand and that I have a lot to learn and so that’s what I was trying to get at.” Joly indicated that, after speaking with Rashid, he had felt the issue in the background process regarding the applicant was not a major one.
Rashid told The Ithaca Voice in her conversations with Joly that he has demonstrated to her an interest and willingness to grow. Since the other two applicants for Police Chief haven’t yet spoken at a forum, Rashid declined to say who she would be supporting as Police Chief.
‘Why did you deny Christine Barksdale a walkout?’
Chrstine Barksdale worked as an investigator at IPD who in Januray of 2020, was revealed to be at the center of more than 100 cases that showed little to no follow-up once the crimes were reported. Many of these cases were dealt with sex crimes.
At the same time, Barksdale was a celebrated in Ithaca as an example of a bridge builder between the police department and the community. She was the first black woman to serve in IPD.
The “deeply troubling failure” of Barksdale to further investigate these cases was brought forward through an audit initiated in IPD’s investigations unit after Joly was promoted to lead the unit in March 2019.
In 2019 Barksdale had filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights (DHR) against the City of Ithaca, IPD, and Joly for discriminating against her on the basis of her gender and race. DHR ruled against Barksdale in Dec. 2019. After the results of the internal audit into IPD’s investigations unit was released in Jan. 2020, the City of Ithaca sought to fire Barksdale, while other officers involved in the backlog of cases were punished internally.
Barksdale also filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Ithaca, seeking damages from Joly, former Mayor Svante Myrick, and former Police Chief Nayor. Defamation and damage to Barksdale’s reputation are detailed in the suit.
Barksdale chose to undergo arbitration rather than accept the termination, and the City would settle the case with the approval of Ithaca’s Common Council by July 2021. As a part of the settlement, Barksdale dropped her federal lawsuit.
McBean-Clairborne asked Joly why, as Acting Chief, he had declined to walkout Barksdale as she was retiring in Aug. “There have been few officers of color at IPD. And members of the community, particularly those who are of color, really appreciate and value those officers.”
Joly Declined to answer the question citing continued litigation. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss that here.”
Why is the department struggling to recruit?
Joly has on multiple occasions attributed IPD’s staffing challenges to the RPS effort. McBean-Clairborne quoted Joly, stating he said that the “Reimagining Public Safety Initiative has […] ‘entirely killed interest in working for IPD.’ She asked, “Why is that? Especially since nationally the majority of police departments, even in large cities, are having challenges with new applicants?”
Joly said he doesn’t believe that the quote could be accurately attributed to him. The phrasing mirrors a line in an Ithaca Voice article that reports Joly’s IPD budget presentation to Common Council, though it is not attributed as a quote to him.
He further said that the initial messaging around the RPS Initiative was “very insulting to the police department” and played a part in hurting recruitment, specifically pointing toward an article former Mayor Myrick was interviewed for in GQ Magazine. The article incorrectly stated that all the officers at IPD would have to reapply for their jobs at a new public safety department. That notion has been dispelled plenty of times now, but Joly insists the initial messaging harmed interest in IPD, which lateral transfer incentives have failed to significantly boost.
“What we’re learning is that it’s not about the money, ” said Joly, adding that he thinks that IPD needs to focus on its messaging to potential hires. “I think we need to just continue to talk about the positive things that are happening here at IPD, and the progress we’re making with the community, and reaffirm that it’s a stable place to work.”
The PBA’s Messaging
Community member, and former Chair of Ithaca’s Public Safety and Information Commission, Aryeal Jackson, asked Joly if he felt that the PBA’s messaging about crime in the City of Ithaca has contributed to challenges in recruiting officers.
The type of posts Jackson was referring to usually involve strongly worded, sometimes combative statements regarding the City of Ithaca’s government and its alleged disinterest in addressing crime. One recent example of this type of post concerns a report of a man on a bicycle allegedly pointing something that appeared to be a gun at someone driving a car on South Albany Street in the City of Ithaca around 8 a.m. on Oct. 14, according to a police press release.
The gunman reportedly biked away after pointing the gun at the driver, and police could not locate him.
The IPBA’s Oct. 15 Facebook post on the incident of menacing reads “How was your morning commute in the City of Ithaca? Why do you think a motorist had a handgun pointed at their head this morning on South Albany Street? We think it is because of a lack of police staffing, an inability to proactively police, and an emboldened criminal element that has infiltrated our community.”
The post then says City Administration should be “ashamed” and accused them of union busting.
Answering Jackson’s question, Joly said, “There’s many layers to the onion, and I think that certainly some of the messaging on the PBA’s Facebook page is not helping recruitment at all.”
‘I still think that the Center for Policing Equity came in with a road map pre-determined’
Joly has expressed his criticisms not just around the initial messaging of the RPS Initiative, but also for the heavy hand he believes that the Center for Policing Equity played in shaping the plan.
Particular criticism from IPD has been given to the findings of the Matrix Consulting Group report that analyzed the department’s efficacy and workload. Among other findings, Matrix determined that 59% of IPD officer’s time is uncommitted, or can be used proactively. Joly wrote a letter in January 2021 to Ithaca’s Common Council rebutting this finding as well as others, arguing that IPD’s data collection system at the time did not gather the detailed data for conclusions like that to be accurately made.
Joly told The Ithaca Voice on Monday that “I still think that the Center for Policing equity came in with a road map pre-determined,” for Ithaca’s public safety reforms. He also said on Monday that he feels his involvement with the RPS process and ability to provide information to Ithaca’s Common Council has improved in recent months. The RPS process, Joly said, is now “more based on this community, and people from out of town are not controlling it.”
Correction 10/20/2022: This report originally attributed Leslyn McBean-Clairborne as asking Acting Chief John Joly if felt the Ithaca PBS’s messaging was hurting IPD’s recruitment efforts. The question was asked by Aryeal Jackson.