I believe it is past time for our City to examine, discuss, and ultimately transform how we fund and deliver public safety – with a particular eye on policing.
I am assembling and will lead a task force to Reinvent Public Safety in Ithaca. That task force will have a broad mandate: to consult the public and deliver to Common Council a set of recommendations that reimagines the Ithaca Police Department and all public safety programs by April 1st, 2021.
Of course the City of Ithaca doesn’t exist in a bubble. And these concerns cross municipal borders and political boundaries. Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino and Sheriff Derek Osborne are working to create a countywide coalition of municipalities to review and reform policing in our community. I’ve committed to joining that coalition, and our internal task force will be folded tightly into broader community efforts.
This work is necessary now for two reasons.
First, because policing nationally - and here in the City of Ithaca - has lost the trust of the most vulnerable populations. Most particularly because over the last five years video footage of numerous encounters has made evident what black communities have felt for generations - that we were more likely to be the victims of police violence.
This is real for me on a personal and professional level. As a black man in America I learned at a young age the extra caution all young black men are taught around officers. I’ve seen people who look like me brutalized and live in fear of the police.
But I’ve also had the privilege to lead a police department, to appoint police chiefs, and see every single day the invaluable work done by the many excellent officers of IPD. Quiet acts of courage and heroism – from responding to accidents and burglaries, to domestic disputes and shootings. Most of the thousands of interactions end positively and never make the news. And with more guns than people in America, every time our officers wear the badge and step onto the street to patrol is an act of courage.
I’m proud of the progress our Department has made. But I acknowledge that it is not yet perfect, and perfection must be our goal. So to create a new dynamic, one that makes our community safer and our police more respected for the work they do, we have to do this work.
Second - the City is facing an unprecedented financial crisis. COVID-19 has decimated sales tax revenue and will likely have a lingering effect on our economy and City budget. ’Business as usual’ won’t be possible for any city operation - and that includes public safety.
This year alone we’ve removed 6 police officer positions from the City Budget – a ten percent reduction of the available force. That follows nine years that saw IPD’s budget decline as a percentage of the City’s overall spending – from 22 percent to 16 percent.
So a reinvention is necessary. I won’t presuppose the outcomes, because they will be informed by a thorough public process that will include town halls, door-to-door canvassing, surveys, and consultation with organized groups like Community Leaders of Color (CLOC), Black Lives Matter, the Public Safety and Information Commission, the Community Police Board, Mutual Aid Tompkins, the Police Benevolent Association, neighborhood groups, student organizations, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, our neighboring municipalities - and more.
I don’t have all the answers myself, and it is so important that public input shape the future of public safety in Ithaca. But I feel strongly that we must begin our work with three specific outcomes in mind:
First, a total review and reformation of our policies. Second, the funding of public safety alternatives. Third, the continued de-militarization of our Police Department.
1. Reviewing our policies.
It is important that the policies that govern our police department meet the very highest national standard. We’ve invested heavily in developing new policies in recent years - which is why we’ve already met the #8cantwait reforms developed by Campaign Zero. But at this time of increased scrutiny and accountability it is worth beginning fresh and reviewing all relevant policies - most especially around the Use of Force. A dedicated working group inside the task force will be assigned to a detailed policy review.
2. Funding public safety alternatives.
For too long the answer to every human behavioral problem in our City has been to call the police. That has always been impractical, cumbersome, and put our officers in impossible situations. Also, it functionally serves to criminalize homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.
And in recent years it has become an increasingly and untenably expensive solution. So we must create non-police alternatives that include non-uniformed, unarmed professionals responding to calls for service. They could be social workers, peer counselors, and housing specialists. This would build on the work we started when we created the Downtown Outreach Worker Program, the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, and our work to bring Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion to Ithaca.
3. Continued de-militarization of our Police Department.
Our Department is not and should not be, look, or feel like an occupying force in our community. It should be an extension of our community. And we’ve made great strides on some levels. But we need to resolve a new understanding of the tactics, strategies, and - yes - the aesthetics of our SWAT team.
The history of SWAT teams in America is fraught because of their use of force to conduct no-knock warrants and contain populist uprisings.
In Ithaca the SWAT team was created after the tragic, violent line of duty death in 1996 of Investigator Padula and has been used more judiciously - for active shooter situations and natural disaster management. SWAT hasn’t purchased armored vehicles or used tear gas on protesters. But the people of Ithaca have been crystal clear, they don’t feel like the current SWAT is an extension of the community or its values. We need to resolve this difference and create an agreed upon set of guidelines for how and why our tactical response capabilities are used.
Look out for more opportunities for the public to own this process. If you’d like to be a formal Community Advisor to the work, please visit us at cityofithaca.org/ReInventPublicSafety. But whether you participate in informal public input opportunities or sign up to be a formal Community Advisor – we will need the full engagement of all our residents to build a better, safer, City of Ithaca.