This is an op-ed written by Common Council member Jeffrey Barken. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at email@example.com.
Last April, Ithaca City Democratic Chair, Ed Swayze contacted me to offer his reflections on the March 31st, 2021 debate in Common Council. The Special Session had resulted in the passage of the February 2021 Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) report with its 19 recommendations. Swayze wrote, “The ensuing discussion…was, in my mind, one of the best examples of sincere, informed, honest, and forthright community service shown by any level of government in current times …Common Council…set a high standard for real democracy in action.”
I agree. Good governance initiates meaningful action and reform without subverting existing laws or precedent. Amid a raging pandemic and the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd, Ithacans sought a bold vision to inspire healing. City Councilors showed courage in this tumultuous environment as they debated a pragmatic path forward.
When the Implementing RPS report produced by Karen Yearwood, Eric Rosario and the duly appointed RPS Task Force was revealed earlier this month, however, initial discussion in Council on March 2nd, 2022 was disheartening. A significant disconnect has emerged between the expectations of several of the legislators who advanced the original exploratory resolution and the unelected Task Force members who, somehow, have interpreted the unanimous vote for the resolution as a “mandate” for the city to implement their recommendations.
Acting Mayor Lewis revealed this misconception during an exchange with Councilwoman Brock beginning at minute 1:12:00 of the March 2nd, 2022 meeting. Brock responded to Task Force Project Lead, Eric Rosario’s mention of a mandate to create two separate divisions under the supervision of a Civilian Commissioner, stating that the bifurcation of the Ithaca Police Department was never explicitly endorsed. New York State law, however, allows municipalities to hire a civilian commissioner who can also be the chief of police, presiding over a dynamic, multifaceted team of public safety officers. At minute 1:14:00, Mayor Lewis jumped in to say, “That was not the intent of our resolution.” Brock objected, saying, “I don’t think that the resolution would have passed without the language that allows that flexibility….the language was adjusted to get the unanimous vote. It was clear it wasn’t going to get it without the adjustments.” Mayor Lewis responded, “I don’t want to re-litigate a resolution that was passed in March 2021.”
Mayor Lewis’ statement is indicative of the powers that have been claimed by the past and present executives throughout the Reimagining debate. Her statement directly contradicted Mayor Myrick’s prefatory remarks to Council at minute 4:03 of the March, 2021 debate, when he noted: “No part of this becomes law after tonight’s vote. And so therefore every part of this discussion will have to continue.” The opportunity to re-litigate the original resolution in light of the Task Force recommendations is and has always been the express intent of Council.
On closer examination, one finds that the reservations highlighted by legislators throughout the March 31st, 2021 debate is what renders their discourse so emblematic of democracy in action. Voicing a sentiment he stands by today, Councilman McGonigal expressed his deep-seated conviction that Police officers must be regarded as such, and not given an alternate title. At minute 48 of the debate, Representative Fleming asserted her hesitation to use the word “Create” with regard to establishing a new department, preferring the phrase “reorganize the IPD.” She suggested that the Task Force provide a data-driven plan to accomplish this feat.
There is an extraordinary exchange between Fleming and Mayor Myrick that begins at Minute 1:16:09. “I don’t know what it means to create a new department,” she stated. “I don’t know everything that that entails until the task force makes its recommendation.” Mayor Myrick responded that unless we commit to the course of creating a new department outright, the process could take twenty years. “What we’ve got to decide here,” he argued, “is do we want to move in this direction. And I have enough information—I do—to make that decision.” Pressed to elaborate, Myrick cited the initial report that “50 people and thousands of folks contributed to,” suggesting that if we did not create a new department, “We are signing up for a lot of hardship,” but “if we do create a new department we’re signing up for a lot of purchase.”
Fleming responds, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that (if) we’re asking for every last detail it might take 20 years…the fact that I’m asking the question does not imply that my heart is not in this just as much as anybody else’s.”
Councilwoman Brock spoke next. Echoing Fleming’s sentiments, she stated that the announcement of RPS Recommendation I, to create a new department, blindsided the Council and defied standard protocol for planning new initiatives in a transparent way. She sought in the Task Force a well-managed working group that could provide a roadmap for Council’s consideration, “put forward the creation of a new department…and be able to say, by the way, as part of this, this is what you gain. These are the types of things you might risk losing. These are the consequences, these are the benefits, these are the obstacles to overcome.” Her assessment was the same plea for more time and research that Mayor Myrick promised would be provided.
Current members of Council now grapple with Brock’s expectation of “consequences” and Mayor Myrick’s notion of “purchase,” as we consider the RPS report compiled by the Task Force. Ithacans must acknowledge the true cost of the consequences. The Ithaca Police Department has seen a stunning number of officers resign their commissions throughout the Reimagining process. It is disconcerting that many of the veteran officers who have left the force cite the hostile environment surrounding policing in Ithaca as the chief reason motivating their departure. That negative atmosphere has also made it difficult to recruit new officers. Council members are rightly asking how expensive will it be to replace the talent we’ve lost, let alone pay for the new initiatives? As a sign of their commitment to reform, the previous council set aside $700,000.00 in contingency for RPS in the 2022 budget. The “purchase” the Task Force proposes calls for nearly a half-million dollars MORE in additional spending, a staggering sum.
Still, I’d like to acknowledge the contributions of all who participated in this debate. Ithaca has distinguished itself as a city where residents are eager to host intellectually challenging and sensitive conversations that recognize the marginalized, and to develop resources that can help the community heal. If you have not tried to understand the other side’s ideas, history and experiences throughout this past year, then you have not truly reimagined. We’ve learned that public safety is a matter of awareness. That people on their worst days deserve a police force prepared to face erratic behavior. Police officers, likewise, deserve our respect, our support and the most effective training.
I’m confident my colleagues on Council are committed to finding a new consensus based on thoughtful deliberation and compromise. Unanimity in a democracy is rarely more than aspirational, and that solidarity often proves either illusory or fleeting. Through both the best and worst of times, the democratic process balances tides of passion and provides for the triumph of reason. The discussion over Re-Imagining has entered another crucial phase. I look forward to hearing from Ithacans as debate continues.