ITHACA, N.Y.—The City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety Special Committee held its final meeting of the year Wednesday, still grappling with some of the finer points of the report released last year aimed at reforming local law enforcement in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
The meeting was attended by chair George McGonigal, also an Ithaca Common Council member, as well as fellow Ithaca Alderpersons Ducson Nguyen, Phoebe Brown, Robert Cantelmo and Cynthia Brock.
To begin, McGonigal quickly noted that committee members would be meeting with representatives from Rochester next week to explore the program there which incorporates unarmed responders who are not considered part of the actual police department. He then read the portion of last year’s report that included feedback from community members regarding their experiences
Alderperson Phoebe Brown, attending via Zoom, reiterated a sentiment that she has expressed several times throughout the special committee’s meetings: her dismay that she feels like the committee is relitigating the Reimagining Public Safety process, instead of determining the best ways to move forward on the RPS report’s recommendations. That was magnified, she felt like, by the continued conversation over the report and the content therein.
She also made the point that the committee should not be looking outside of its jurisdiction, namely the city of Ithaca, for consultation on the plan any longer. If the committee’s charge is to figure out ways to best implement the reforms and recommendations in the report, it should be done with local involvement.
“We have community members who do this work, that we don’t need to go outside our community to find consultation, or people to tell us what we need in this community,” Brown said. “People who live in this community [already have].”
A brief time later, Brown’s thoughts were echoed by Tompkins County Legislator Travis Brooks, who was also in virtual attendance.
“At this point, what does this have to do with Reimagining?” said Tompkins County Legislator Travis Brooks. “The idea is, what are we going to do moving forward? We’re talking about responses that we gave almost two years ago. […] What is the point of that?”
Brooks said he understands that the committee members’ intentions are good, but that reexamining the group feedback from so long ago comes off as “disrespectful,” instead of moving forward on the feedback that was already gathered.
“I know you all, especially this four in this room, want to make this happen, so I know it’s not a diversion tactic, because I know you all want to get this done and do it the right way,” Brooks said. “But some of the things that we say and we do just sounds like [Reimagining] is not what we want to have happen, it sounds disrespectful, and it feels like a slap in the face to a group that is patiently waiting.”
McGonigal said he was instructed to read the report again by city Human Resources Director Schelley Michell-Nunn to “reemphasize” why the group had assembled in the first place, not to be disrespectful.
They then dove deeper into the job description of the deputy chief of staff of public safety, a new position slated to be created and filled in 2023. McGonigal said he had spoken to Mayor Laura Lewis and was under the impression the position would be in charge of helping oversee the police department as well as the unarmed responders unit.
However, according to McGonigal, the job description they were reviewing at the meeting had not changed. It instead maintained that the deputy chief of staff would only be in charge of managing the unarmed responders unit, which McGonigal deemed superfluous since it would be a new person tasked with only managing three or four people, which will be the full roster of unarmed responders to start.
There still seems to be quite a bit of confusion over what the full list of duties and responsibilities will be included in the position. But it was clear the committee feels that, if culture change at IPD is the goal, then whatever position ends up overseeing IPD will need some teeth, particularly when operating alongside or above the actual chief of police, whoever that may be going forward.
“In order for all those things to happen, I’m thinking that this person needs some authority over IPD,” McGonigal said. “If you want to change the culture, they have to provide some direction.”
Brock clarified that under the current structure, there is, at least secondarily, civilian oversight of the police department since the police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor and takes direction from them. That structure will remain the same when the city manager position is officially created and filled at the beginning of 2024.
McGonigal then tackled the elephant in the room, which is the quickly approaching deadline, already extended once, for the committee’s final report. He asked committee members what they want to see included. Cantelmo said he would like to identify training gaps, expand community policing practices, emphasize the “low hanging fruit” of officer wellness programs (since those are probably some of the easiest goals to achieve), and likely to assess how or if the Rochester model could be incorporated into Ithaca policing. Nguyen added that he thinks one variation on the Rochester model would be avoiding co-response between unarmed responders and armed officers. McGonigal also said he would like to see a community service component (although it would be paid) of the unarmed responders unit, while Brock said she would like to see feedback from police about what type of calls for service would not need a co-response with officers.
Brown also added that there should be a body of some sort that would allow community members to have ongoing input into the reforms and how they are playing out—Brock noted that the Community Justice Center will have an advisory board, which should serve a similar function.
Heather Campbell, the executive director of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, also delivered comments to the committee about different types of training that police could undergo, both at the start of their careers and throughout, to better respond to domestic violence situations. That has been one of the more crucial points of the conversation about call delineation, as domestic violence situations can be one of the more volatile calls police respond to.