ITHACA, N.Y.—March will mark 10 months since the day police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, killed George Floyd. Conversations around reimagining or reforming public safety have swept through the United States, ramping up locally in Tompkins County through protests, conversations and calls to action.
One such conversation took place March 4, called “The Future of Public Safety” — a Black Town Hall hosted by Nia Nunn, associate professor at Ithaca College and the President of Southside Community Center (SCC) Board of Directors, and Dominique Johnson, Senior Director of Community Engagement at the Center for Policing Equity. It was organized to center Black community leaders’ voices as guests discussed the highly debated and somewhat controversial 19 recommendations of the “Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative,” recently released by the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. The event drew nearly 100 people to its live-stream, and the recording of the town hall can be viewed here.
Alongside a lively chat during a live streaming on YouTube, Nunn Johnson prompted speakers to express their thoughts or pose questions about the report to Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and County Administrator Jason Molino, who helped formulate the proposal.
“A great majority of us were born and raised in Ithaca,” Nunn said. “We are parents of Black children, among a long list of other things as educators and leaders in our various roles in this community.”
The draft report replaces Ithaca Police Department (IPD) with a “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety,” which includes both armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers.” The proposal states that the 63 current officers would have to reapply for their positions. The report also institutes the retirement of the IPD SWAT vehicle, which Myrick said during the Black Town Hall could be used for public health purposes like mobile vaccine rollout.
The plan has received mixed responses, with some calling it too radical with others believing it is not doing enough for the community.
Speakers included Amos Malone, board member at SCC; Russell Rickford, professor at Cornell University and organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America and the Tompkins County Anti-Racist Coalition; Kayla Matos and Nesiah Lee, youth leaders at SCC; community member Rakim Jones; Nicole LaFave, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Ithaca; Mona Smiley, Director of Youth Outreach of the Learning Web; Denise Malone, the mother of Cadji Ferguson; Yasmin Rashid, Executive Board Member Unbroken Promise Initiative and Common Council candidate for the First Ward; Charles Rhody, food and nutrition coordinator at SCC; Phoebe Brown, regional coordinator at Alliance of Families for Justice and Common Council candidate for the Second Ward; and Harry Smith, executive director of Black Hands Universal.
“Having a young male, black male, that has been wronged by the Ithaca Police Department, I just want to be able to hear what it is going to be going forward and seeing if there can be some type of intervention for these type of things not to happen again,” Malone said, summarizing the sentiment of the reform push’s efforts.
The event began with a presentation from Myrick and Molino outlining the proposed changes, the document and supplemental materials of which can be read here. Then, guests chimed in with questions or comments. In addition to the community guests, Drs. Belisa Gonzalez and Sean Eversley Bradwell, who conducted research for the draft proposal and are Ithaca College professors, attended the Black Town Hall.
“I’m aware that what we’re presenting is in some regards a low bar,” Eversley Bradwell said. “I’m also aware that, for Jason and Svante, they’re gonna have a hard time getting this passed with their legislative bodies.”
After the presentation, which took approximately 25 minutes, viewers spoke in the YouTube chat of their wish to ask questions between each slide rather than at the end. LaFave echoed these concerns as well as questioned how the proposal would address racial profiling and if the statistics used in the draft were accurate or extensive enough. In response, Myrick said preventing racial profiling is the goal of the 19 recommendations in total and it would not be solved as a result of one singular recommendation.
“I’m not sure I see any of these 19 recommendations actually being a solution to racial profiling,” LaFave said. “I’m wondering what the statistics are regarding the success rates (…) of seeing a decrease in police involvement. But the other cases or the other states you all used didn’t have specific statistics. LAPD was the first one that you all listed, and I thought that was fascinating given how much corruption, police brutality has taken place with the LAPD.”
At one point, Myrick reiterated his belief in the proposal and his commitment to seeing it through the negotiation and approval process, responding to a question from Malone. He emphasized that he knew there would be resistance to the plan, particularly once the police union’s leadership began their campaign against it.
“I got texts from mayors all over the country who just said ‘Good luck.’ They couldn’t believe that we would release a plan that the union didn’t support,” Myrick said. “Politically, it’s not a winning issue. I’ve heard from some people who say ‘Oh, you only like this plan because it’s so progressive that it’ll help you politically.’ To which I just want to say, if a plan is too progressive for Ithaca, where’s it helping me politically? (…) I wanted to let the people know who participated in this process that we were going to take this seriously, and make as deep a transformation as we could towards justice. I want to move this far because I live here, my mother lives here, my brother lives here. (…) I want to live in a community with a Department of Public Safety that we can rely on, that we can trust, that would actually enhance community safety and community building.”
Acceptance of the plan’s efficacy, though, varied among the crowd. Smith spoke to his frustrations with the proposal, that he felt it was more or less calling the police by a different name and didn’t reallocate enough funds away from law enforcement.
“The biggest thing we can do is take the money and fixing our people,” Smith said. “The police thing, it’s a drop in the bucket. You get rid of the police, you switch it to whatever, we’re still in the same situation, we’re still finding ourselves getting in the same sh*t. If we don’t take the money and invest it into upward mobility for our people at this very moment in time instead of waiting and waiting (…) Every idea that I’m hearing right now is doing nothing for us.”
Some guests did not come with specific questions but rather responses to the reform policy. Rickford said that the Tompkins County Anti-Racist Coalition wrote a letter with three demands to change policing in the county — to defund and shrink policing with an 80 percent cut in IPD budget; taking weapons like tasers out of IPD’s use and allowing working class people to keep and decide what to do with the SWAT vehicle; and reinvesting in social programs and services in the community rather than putting more money into policing.
“In a white supremacist society, can you have anything but white supremacist policing?” he said. “The primary demand was not different policing. It was less policing. Defunding and depolicing remain the primary goals. … Will reimagining public safety take us closer to where we want to be as a society, or is reimagining just rebranding? Is it putting lipstick on a pig in an attempt to distract us from the popular demand for public funding? My point it that policing itself is the problem.”
Rashid said that although the reform is not perfect, it is certainly a step in the right direction.
“This is by no means scratching the surface of what’s been going on as far as addressing everything that needs to change within that police infrastructure,” Rashid said. “White supremacy is not ready to play that much of their privilege. … So it’s gonna take time.”