ITHACA, N.Y.—While it seems nearly impossible that the question of whether or not to create a Commissioner of Community Safety position will be answered via referendum this year, with an early July deadline fast approaching. But there does seem to be a consensus coming together that Common Council will, in some way, move forward with civilian oversight of local police.
That seemed to be the message at Monday night’s Committee of the Whole meeting, a specially scheduled session to discuss the possibility of creating the commissioner position that would, theoretically, oversee the Department of Community Safety, including the Division of Police and the unarmed, five-person Division of Community Solutions. Exactly what form the leadership structure would take remains to be determined—and whether or not it will cross the threshold to require a public referendum.
But far more time was spent discussing the nuance of creating a Commissioner of Community Safety position versus alternatives that the city could undertake, spurred by Alderperson Ducson Nguyen’s introduction of legislation that would have created the position. There was an hour-long executive session to start Monday’s meeting, along with another executive session at the end, which unfortunately cut down on the amount of public discussion time. The meeting had been allotted two hours, but only one hour of that time was public.
Follow along with the agenda (and some potential framework for the Commissioner of Community Safety position) here and check out the recording of the meeting here.
Alderperson Patrick Mehler began by listing the three topics that council would be discussing, which had been pulled from a preceding hour-long executive session held Monday night: the civil service ramifications of creating a Commissioner of Community Safety position; those same ramifications if the city instead chose to create a deputy city manager (or deputy chief of staff) position that would be in charge of public safety; and, basically, how the chain of command would flow in the city under these new structures.
City Attorney Lavine revealed early in the evening that introducing a commissioner position would have a downward impact on the salary of the police chief, a position that would still exist in the potential new structure. Because a commissioner would be the final authority in the Department of Community Safety and be given the capacity to determine things like annual budgets, for one example, the police chief would have fewer responsibilities and authority and would thus have lower compensation.
City officials theorized that creating a specially dedicated deputy position that would focus on public safety oversight may be able to skirt the issue of lowering the police chief’s salary, which appears to be something the city wants to avoid, as articulated by Common Council members during the special meeting.
“If the chief of police remained the department head, that was in charge, inside the department, of discipline, budgeting, etc., albeit accountable to the mayor’s office or some direct, focused supervision coming from that office in the form of a deputy city manager for public safety, or a deputy chief of staff of public safety, I don’t believe that would change the department head responsibilities of the chief of police in a manner that would have a substantial impact on that point factoring,” Lavine said.
“If you’re not impacting the authorities, then it wouldn’t have an impact, deputy or commissioner,” said Schelley Michell-Nunn, the city’s Human Resources Director and a main figure in the formulation of the plan to restructure the city’s police department.
Alderperson George McGonigal countered that the creation of another administrative position near the top of the city could prove cumbersome. He postulated that if a city manager position is indeed approved via referendum, it would be close to the county’s current County Administrator structure. Citing that, he said it felt like more top-heaviness if a deputy city manager was introduced solely to oversee public safety matters—McGonigal has previously used the top-heavy critique as a count against the Commissioner position. However, later in the meeting he stated support for a deputy city manager/chief of staff position because it wouldn’t impact the police chief’s salary.
At this point, while the exact topics are different, council members end up repeating themselves quite a bit but are only coming marginally closer to moving forward with a resolution. McGonigal has previously mentioned that he thinks the proposed structures are too top-heavy; Alderperson Jorge DeFendini, as he did Monday, has suggested that it’s important to provide enough support for whatever reforms are taken that they have a fair chance to succeed (his “best foot forward” mantra); Alderperson Phoebe Brown noted again that reformative action is necessary to keep the faith of the public after the city made a commitment to change at the behest of New York State.
DeFendini did mention the concept of a Police Accountability Board as a way to support a civilian leader of a police body, something like the PAB in Rochester, which is a fairly strong public oversight body. Right now, the city does have a Community Police Board made up of volunteer city residents, though that body has considerably less power than PABs have. Rochester’s board, for example, has subpoena power that it can use during police conduct investigations. Brown later endorsed the idea, saying that the city needs a police review body with “a little more teeth.”
Brock followed, echoing Brown’s sentiments that something needs to get done and saying that she was “getting impatient.” For a few weeks, Brock’s (and others) concerns of ethics violations related to the Reimagining Public Safety process seemed to cool momentum on discussion of the plan, but while the investigation continues, council members seem eager to navigate discussion of the process around that factor.
“I think it’s important for us to make progress, to do it deliberately, consciously and without delay,” Brock said. She mentioned that she appreciated Nguyen’s draft legislation, even if she was apprehensive about implementing it just yet, considering the structure that it endorsed. “That would need to go through significant revision. I think it’s really premature at this time to consider a referendum on a commissioner on which we don’t have a complete draft.”
Brock agreed that an “individual who is solely tasked with overseeing public safety” is necessary to move forward, working with the future chief of police and collaborating with the Community Justice Center and developing unarmed response teams. Interestingly, Brock mentioned that the Community Justice Center could serve as, or create, the police accountability body that DeFendini and Brown had mentioned.
“I do believe that the work and the depth and breadth of this requires an individual person to do this,” she said. “I think that we can do this without upsetting our existing managerial structures, which I think the commissioner structure would require. I do believe that we could proceed with a deputy chief of staff right now.”
She further suggested establishing a committee that would be tasked with generating a job title and description for that position before 2023 budget discussions start in October so that it could be factored into those. If a city manager position is created via separate referendum in November, the deputy chief of staff position could evolve into a deputy city manager position without too much of a hiccup, Brock theorized, and would still be able to focus on public safety.
Nguyen acknowledged that, considering the way the discussion is trending, there is almost no chance that a referendum would take place this year, despite his attempt to jumpstart the conversation with his legislation. Alderperson Robert Cantelmo clarified that even if a referendum isn’t held this year, if one is decided on before the July deadline next year, a position could still be created and open in early 2024, which would be the maintain the current timeline anyway.
“We know we don’t want to do anything that would demote the chief or the deputy chiefs, so what are our options?” Nunn said. “None of it’s perfect when it comes to salary grades. […] My caution is that there are people there who, like Phoebe said, look like me, do want change, they do want disruption.”
Brown followed with a more urgent tone.
“Our whole goal was to reimaging public safety, so I just want us, because I think we stopped doing it, to reimagine,” Brown said. “When you reimagine, think about people who haven’t felt safe. Reimagine what it would be like if we felt safe with the police.”