This is the third installment in a three-part series delving into a large set documents released by the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board as it continues its investigation into potential ethics violations during the Reimagining Public Safety process. The first installment can be read here. The second installment can be read here.
ITHACA, N.Y. — The Center for Policing Equity’s (CPE) response to the Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board stands more as a staunch criticism of the investigation that the board has taken previously than a simple response to the board’s inquiries.
The Ethics Advisory Board’s investigation hinges on various allegations of potential third-party influences on Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) process, outlined in a 60-page complaint submitted in the spring by City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock.
To make navigation easier, this story includes CPE’s responses to the Ethics Advisory Board, a detailing of its relationship with the city, and an analysis of the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group meeting minutes.
While ultimately answering questions that the Ethics Advisory Board posed, CPE takes sharp, measured jabs at the substance of Brock’s complaint, calling it “meandering and misleading.” The integrity of the Ethics Advisory Board is also criticized by CPE in its response for taking up an investigation on “threadbare and internally inconsistent” allegations.
CPE further noted that the Ethics Advisory Board has not made it clear what larger questions it is trying to answer, writing, “To be clear, CPE remains in the dark as to what the Ethics Advisory Board is even investigating.”
The allegations concerning CPE in Brock’s wide-ranging complaint raise the issue that no screening of CPE or review of the organization’s qualifications were officially conducted by the City of Ithaca when it took the organization on as a partner in local RPS effort. The complaint indicates that this could have facilitated to a possible conflict of interest, and Brock asks the Ethics Advisory Board to determine if CPE had a larger scope or role than previously disclosed — the implication being that CPE may have exercised an agenda with a predetermined outcome in mind for Ithaca’s RPS efforts.
In her complaint, Brock cites an interview with CPE co-founder and CEO Phillip Atiba Goff in which he says that former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and him had at one time agreed that the City of Ithaca did not need a police department. Goff apologized for the comment, and the dissolution of the department was never officially proposed.
Brock’s complaint also asks the Ethics Advisory Board to consider if city and county staff interpreted and enforced procurement laws effectively in the acceptance of CPE’s donated services which, only considering the work of the analytics consultant, Matrix Consulting Group, that CPE paid for, totaled over $47,000.
Responding to a request for information from the Ethics Advisory Board on this subject, Tompkins County Administrator Lisa Holmes stated that the partnership between the county and CPE is a part of a “long history of collaborating with nonprofits […] in a similar manner to achieve common overarching goals.” The services provided by CPE were “in-kind,” Holmes stated, which she added does not require the approval of the county legislature.
City Attorney Ari Lavine issued a similar response to the Ethics Advisory Board, contending that a normal procurement process did not need to be followed with CPE’s services since they were donated to the city.
In its response to the Ethics Advisory Board, CPE said that it does not track or place any monetary value on the services it provides, but cited that it has worked with over a hundred other “sites” in public safety reform without ever receiving payment.
That it may have influenced the results of the RPS working group’s report, CPE wrote that “there is no support for such allegation, which defies logic when viewed in light of the hundreds of hours spent on the RPS project by CPE and its affiliates.”
To accompany its response, CPE attached eight objections to the inquiries of the Ethics Advisory Board, while asserting that any of its response to the board is not “an admission that any information contained therein constitutes evidence relevant to this Ethics Investigation.”
Among its objections, CPE indicates that it thinks that the Ethics Advisory Board has breached its jurisdiction, and that the grounds on which the investigation is being conducted are “vague and ambiguous” — rebukes that are paralleled in the responses to the board from the Lavine and Myrick.
CPE’s history with the city
CPE is a nationally recognized nonprofit research center focused on addressing inequities in public safety systems such as the disproportionate impacts that law enforcement has had on Black and brown communities, became involved with first the City of Ithaca and then Tompkins County by August 2020 after issuance of Executive Order 203 by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling for transformative police reform on the local level. Myrick and former County Administrator Jason Molino agreed to work with CPE on behalf of the city and Tompkins County respectively.
The executive order created wide latitude for local governments to change their public safety systems, and the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s effort would produce an almost 100-page report in February 2021 containing 19 recommendations to improve the equitability, transparency, and mitigate the risk of excessive force in local law enforcement. The first, and most controversial, dealt with a plan to restructure the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) under an umbrella department, the Department of Community Safety, alongside the Division of Community Solutions.
Within an hour of the report’s release in February 2021, a GQ article quoting Myrick and touting Ithaca’s proposal as “the most ambitious police reform plan in America” was published. Myrick has since apologized for certain parts of the article and clarified that no police officers would have to re-apply for their jobs under the plan. In his response to the Ethics Advisory Board, Molino wrote that the GQ article “compromised the integrity of the process” in his view. Molino would announce his departure from Tompkins County government in April 2021, taking a job leading the Livingston County Water and Sewer Authority.
The City of Ithaca voted to adopt the report and the recommendation on March 31, 2021. In a June 2021 media event, Myrick announced the finalization of a working group that would be tasked with the initial design of the new department’s structure to include unarmed responders, emergency call delineation between unarmed and armed responders, training for officers and an operating budget among other points.
Myrick had said that he had chosen the members of the working group himself, which included members of the Ithaca Police Department, Common Council members and community activists. With CPE facilitating the efforts of the working group, Myrick chose Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood as co-leads of the effort. They would end up presenting their report in March 2022, Implementing the City of Ithaca’s New Public Safety Agency.
Brock’s complaint would reveal that Rosario and Yearwood, as well as other community members on the working group were compensated for their work on the report through a $60,000 grant awarded by the Park Foundation to the Dorothy Cotton Institute. The plan to compensate working group members had not been presented to the Common Council.
Rosario and Yearwood would end up receiving $10,000 each, leading Brock to question if these payments had influenced their work on the report, which they have strongly denied. The payments, Brock’s complaint cites, violated the City of Ithaca’s Code of Ethics which prohibits City Officials from soliciting, accepting or receiving gifts or compensation that “could reasonably be expected to influence [them] in the performance of his or her official duties.”
On a technical point, CPE argued in its response to the Ethics Advisory Board that Rosario and Yearwood were never “appointed” to their positions by Myrick and that they were not technically city officials, echoing conjectures provided in the responses to the board from Lavine and the Center for Transformative Action.
“Mere participation in the Working Group does not equate to a formal appointment to perform a critical government function,” stated CPE.
Tompkins County Legislator Rich John’s position as the Chair of the Ethics Advisory Board is not ignored by CPE, which stated that it “calls into question the legitimacy and integrity of this purported investigation.” John, who has voted on legislation stemming from the county’s reimaging process, has acknowledged the appearance of a potential conflict of interest his position on the board creates.
The Tompkins County Ethics Advisory Board is by law required to have one elected official from the county legislature sit on it.
Ultimately, the Ethics Advisory Board is only able to issue an opinion on the matters it’s investigating. Brock’s complaint asks the board to make a determination if the working group’s report, Implementing the City of Ithaca’s New Public Safety Agency can be considered, “impartial, unbiased and appropriate for recommending legislative changes in accordance with County and City Ethics Code.”
The separate relationships between CPE and the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County came to an end in June, a little over a month after the start of the Ethics Advisory Board agreed to start an investigation spurred by Brock’s complaint. In its response to the Ethics Advisory Board, CPE stated that it had proposed a $700,000 budget to continue working with the City of Ithaca in the continued phase of the RPS process. At the time that the City had ended its work with CPE, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis had said that the relationship had reached its “logical conclusion.”
Digging into the Meeting Minutes of the RPS Working Group
An object of hot interest since the ethics investigation came to the forefront has been the actual role of the Center for Policing Equity in the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group meetings, how much impact, influence and direction they had on the proceedings.
The release of the meeting minutes shows a glimpse into what occurred behind the scenes, but the level of detail in the kept minutes leaves some gaps as well. CPE members are certainly present and appear to be guiding the conversation, but the vast majority of input appears to come from Working Group members or officials called in to allow for expert advice. The full list of Working Group members is detailed here but includes leaders Karen Yearwood and Eric Rosario, Common Council members, a Tompkins County Legislator, three police officers, community leaders both white and of color, and others. Additionally, seven CPE representatives are listed as members, though not constant attendees, and five technical advisors, who are city and county employees.
The meetings are fairly standard. Certain issues get a ton of attention, others are dealt with fairly quickly. There is quite a bit of discussion surrounding call delineation, spanning several meetings. This has emerged as one of the recommendations attracting the most scrutiny, with questions surrounding which calls should be responded to by armed, traditional police officers and which should be addressed by unarmed Community Solutions Workers.
Eventually, those calls were divided up as part of the initial restructuring proposal, though the categorizations have been presented as somewhat flexible since their introduction. Staffers from the Department of Emergency Response were used to advise on which calls should go to which agencies and were part of the final delineation results, specifically the department’s director, Michael Stitley.
One thing that complicates the takeaways from the meeting minutes is that names are largely redacted during passages showing discussions. Some contextual clues can be connected to identify certain parties, but it’s still mostly a guessing game, other than actual CPE members, whose named are attached to their quotes. Plus, the meeting minutes are often general summaries (usually 1-2 pages for meetings that could last up to 90 minutes) instead of actual transcripts, though some minutes do capture back-and-forth exchanges.
One consistent critique of the process is that Ithaca Police Department officers were excluded from its formulation. Whether or not the police’s feedback was taken seriously for the final product can be debated, but there is consistently at least one police officer in attendance in the meetings, and frequently more—then-IPD Lieutenant Scott Garin, Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella, and Sgt. Mary Orsaio, IPD’s LGBT liaison, are all consistently listed as attending members. Of the four subcommittees on the working group made up of four people each, a police officer is included on three of them.
Objections to the Matrix data start as early as October 2021, with officers insisting that the data does not accurately reflect the load that IPD faces. Even at the time, this seemed like a curious assertion given that IPD provided the data that Matrix based its findings on, but the police lodge general arguments that the way it is presented skews the findings. Police say the data they are able to provide doesn’t show length of call, which impacts the amount of proactive time officers have, etc., which impacts the interpretation of officer need. Matrix ended up presenting the data publicly in December 2021, concluding that IPD has sufficient staffing for its time needs, though police objected at that time as well.
While the stipends provided to working group members and leaders have generated months worth of scrutiny and an ethics investigation, they don’t appear to be a secret according to the meeting minutes of Oct. 14, 2021. Those minutes show that co-leads Rosario and Yearwood both state that stipends, presumably the ones going to working group members, are “a commonly accepted and legitimate practice to encourage participation in surveys,” citing the United Way. Further, the minutes state “we need to accommodate folks who are hourly workers, not salaried, or otherwise are troubled by the cost of participation. These are the voices who have been historically silenced, and are the voices we need to hear.”
Touching on another subject of scrutiny, the minutes generate some confusion regarding whether or not an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) was actually ever signed by working group members, making the meetings confidential. While the existence of an NDA between county, city and the Center for Policing Equity has been disclosed, minutes from the Jan. 6, 2022 meeting show the following: “While we agreed upon not signing an NDA as a group, to instead focus our trust on a verbal understanding of confidentiality and a commitment to fostering a safe space, there have been members of the working group who have publicly aired discussions, progress, and ideas voiced within the confines of the working group. We commit that our conversations in this room stay in this room.”
Multiple Working Group members confirmed that there was verbal agreement song the group to keep discussions in-house, but that they have no memory of signing an official NDA. That marks an important distinction between city and county officials, who purportedly did sign the NDA, and working group members (including elected officials from the City of Ithaca), who did not.
The minutes reveal a lot of the nitty-gritty stuff one might expect. The name of the new department takes up some time (“Department of Comunity Safety” won out over “Department of Public Safety”) as does the language surrounding who should lead the new department (a debate over whether the report would include that the leader “should” be a civilian or “may” be a civilian).
Some of these decisions aren’t made until the very end of the proceedings, in February 2022, with a fairly large focus being placed on making sure whatever the final proposal for naming the new police division is, it does not actively discourage police officers from applying to work at IPD. One person, whose name is redacted but who is clearly on the police force, mentions IPD’s recruitment struggles, while another argues that the proposed “Division of Police Operations” should be changed to “Division of Police” and that the “chief” title should be retained. Both arguments are eventually recognized and implemented.
Just weeks afterward, the plan in response to Recommendation #1 was presented publicly for the first time.