This is an op-ed written by Ithaca Common Council member Ducson Nguyen. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been two years since George Floyd was killed. Two years of discussion and study have followed where we’ve asked the community of color to trust the process and work with the City to develop a plan to reform public safety in Ithaca. A working group that included Common Council, police officers, and community members worked diligently and provided regular updates to Common Council. Three months ago the Reimagining Public Safety working group delivered its full report. It is past time for us to act.
It’s with that in mind that I’ve filed a proposed local law on this Wednesday’s Council agenda to create a Commissioner of Community Safety who would head a Department of Community Safety with separate unarmed community responder and police divisions, as proposed by the RPS report. This draft is the starting point for what I hope will be final legislation we can vote up or down at our July 6 meeting, with successful passage triggering a referendum in November asking the residents of the city whether they support this path.
To be clear, the strict and complicated state laws governing how this type of legislation must proceed makes the timeline tight. But I believe that after years of talk and study we must honor the charge we were given by the community with extraordinary effort.
While a number of suggestions in the report warrant further study or adjustment, in conversations I’ve had with members of the community I’ve heard broad agreement for:
- the hiring of unarmed emergency responders to handle mental health and other calls where armed responses might be unnecessary or even counterproductive
- civilian leadership of the city’s public safety efforts to bring, as the report states, a “culture of service and transparency that centers the community experience and will define the department’s values”
I’ll be the first to concur with the report’s recommendation that we need more analysis to determine call type delineation (i.e., which emergency responder addresses a given 911 call) in accordance with the law, best practices, and availability of resources. To that end I certainly support the formation of a committee or working group to address that work. But such refinement does not preclude making decisions on the structural changes needed for that split of armed/unarmed duties to be even possible. Moreover, the Commissioner will play an important role in evaluating and readjusting that balance in response to real-world results. This is a plan that will require both innovation and agility.
A new Department of Community Safety would serve as the hub for an expanded notion of public safety. With a Commissioner and a Division of Community Solutions, we would have infrastructure to support not only unarmed responders, but the credibility and resources to work with other community based groups doing violence prevention in Ithaca. As the RPS report notes, other public safety functions could eventually be part of this department, allowing for a comprehensive approach with consistent values and principles. And our Division of Ithaca Police would be freed up to focus on violent crimes and have the time for more purposeful building of trust with the community.
This separation is important because, as the Center for American Progress “Community Responder” report cited by the RPS Working Group shares, unarmed responders “will be less effective with residents who distrust law enforcement if they are perceived as working hand in glove with the police.”
My sense of urgency is also influenced by the city budget process, which begins in October and is approved at our regular meeting in the first week of November. At best, with voter approval of a referendum a week after the 2023 budget is passed, the new Department of Community Safety would be funded in the 2024 budget. I fear that delays beyond that already ponderous timeline will weaken our resolve to continue this important work.
Community Leaders of Color, a group formed in the wake of Shawn Greenwood’s shooting, recently wrote Common Council to support the RPS report because “it expresses the spirit of good faith in which the community has been willing to recount trauma and move through fear and mistrust to create real benefit for all of us.” To ensure that this good work was not done in vain, we must begin acting now and bring this question of how to move forward to the voters. If we do not match the good faith that was given to us by the community, this moment will be remembered and will inform all of our future efforts.