ITHACA, N.Y. –– On March 19, city and county officials again presented elements of the Reimagining Public Safety draft report, this time specifically tailoring the event to answer questions from people of color in the community. 

The town hall was moderated by Nathaniel Wright, Calvary Baptist Church Pastor. Also participating in the event were Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, chair of Tompkins County Legislator; Ken Clarke, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights; former police officer Brad Nelson; Rev. Ronald Benson; J.R. Clairborne, Tompkins County Director of Veterans Services; Shelley Michell-Nunn, Director of Human Resources at City of Ithaca; County Administrator Jason Molino and Mayor Svante Myrick, who created the proposal; and Belisa Gonzalez and Sean Eversley Bradwell, researchers on the report.

The event began with an introduction from McBean-Clairborne, who acknowledged the March 17 shooting by a white gunman who killed eight people, including six Asian American women, at three Atlanta-area massage parlors. McBean-Clairborne called for solidarity and support for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community — a group that has experienced increased violence because of racist remarks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following McBean-Clairborne’s statement was an overview of the draft from Myrick and Molino. It covered the proposal’s county- and city-based recommendations — the “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” in place of the Ithaca Police Department (IPD), current police officers would reapply for their positions, and the SWAT truck would be removed from the IPD. 

Community responses to the draft have varied, with some concerned it does not do enough to address the community’s demands and others believing it goes too far. Several town halls have occurred following the release of the draft, giving community leaders and residents a place to express their responses to its proposals.

Officer Nelson, a Black former officer with the department, said that improvements should be made internally rather than through the external solutions the draft proposes. That’s not to say he didn’t have critiques of IPD –– without naming anyone specifically, he voiced his frustration over the lack of promotions for Black officers and the slowness to change. 

“It’s a little difficult for me to sit here and listen to proposals and sweet talk and Jedi mind tricks,” Nelson said. “Yes, I’m a little jaded. I don’t want to repute the efforts of what you’ve all done. I get it, but I have to step back, rewind and look at the smaller picture of folks trying to tell me ‘Reimage something.’ It doesn’t work for me.”

After the presentation, Wright prompted Molino and Myrick with questions about the proposal, including what immediate impacts the draft would have on the IPD. Myrick said that creating a Director of Public Safety and Community Solutions, whom the police chief would report to, would be the quickest step. The SWAT truck could also move from the IPD and toward the County Department of Emergency Response early in the process. 

In response to a question Pastor Wright posed about if the proposal reflects the community, Myrick said that representation and diversity will be integral to new hires in the “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety.”

“Representation really matters, and that comes through loud and clear in this report” Myrick said. “I think those lived experiences and that diversity inside an organization, leads to generally better outcomes because we just have a range of perspectives. (…) Diversity is valuable to us because it helps us see the flow in different ways.”

Job descriptions for Community Solutions workers are not detailed in the proposal, Myrick said, because the Community Justice Center and the Common Council will put together. However, he said he imagines the requirements, physical ones in particular, would be different from the current IPD job descriptions when hiring.

Background checks and psychological screenings are already conducted in the hiring process for IPD officers, Myrick said, to which Michell-Nunn added that the background checks cover a spectrum of involvement, though family members’ criminal history would not reflect on an officer who applies so long as they were not involved.

Wright also asked how the draft would address racial sensitivity training. Molino spoke to the collaboration between the Tompkins County Human Resources departments; Deanna Carrithers, Chief Equity Diversity Officer; and Tompkins County Law Enforcement departments to provide training that could change the culture of policing in Ithaca.

“This also talks about changing culture and expectations,” Molino said. “It’s bringing in outside folks to do the training, so it’s a fresh perspective. So there isn’t going to be complacency in the training that’s going on and that it continues to remain consistent as we go through this process.”

In the chat, viewers asked questions or made statements as the town hall transpired.

“I’m not here to air the degree of intelligence throughout this conversation,” wrote user Rayvon Kenyon -Panthera-. “I’m here to ask why the money isn’t going towards the people but towards furthering of police resources. People said defund.”

This sentiment was echoed in the March 6 Black Town Hall hosted by the Southside Community Center. At that event, Russell Rickford professor at Cornell University and organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America and the Tompkins County Anti-Racist Coalition, spoke to this issue.

“The primary demand was not different policing,” Rickford said. “It was less policing. Defunding and depolicing remain the primary goals.”

Wright concluded with a question about the search for a new police chief, to which Myrick said the hiring process for the position has not started. Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor said he would retire in January 2021.

“If Council agrees to move forward with the new department (…) you still would actually have a police chief inside of that department,” he said. “That’s a requirement of state law, that if we have more than four folks who categorize as police officers in New York State. (…) That chief would be the head of the Public Safety Worker Division, and they would be reporting to the Director of Public Safety and Community Solutions.”