ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca has spent the last two years grappling with the future of law enforcement locally, an effort first born in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in spring 2020. The Reimagining Public Safety plan’s progress has been gradual, but the release of the Special Committee’s draft report on implementation and strategy going forward signals the most significant step forward in months to realizing some sort of reform to Ithaca policing—even as those reforms have changed from the initial proposals.
City of Ithaca officials held a public hearing Wednesday to gather feedback on the draft report that outlined what the Special Committee on Reimagining Public Safety believes to be the best implementation methods for the various proposals in the original Reimagining Public Safety report. The report was released last week, and far more details can be found here.
Namely, those recommendations include introducing a small team of unarmed responders who would accompany police officers as they respond to certain crime reports, in the mold of the Rochester Person-in-Crisis response team. They would also create a position of Deputy City Manager who would oversee both the police department and the unarmed responders unit, and institute. The report also explicitly calls for more police officers to be hired at the Ithaca Police Department, along with the unarmed responders.
Public response so far has been muted. The Ithaca Police Benevolent Association has not published any response to the recommendations, though they have been frequent and critical commenters on the reform process throughout the last two years. Wednesday night was the first time city legislators have gathered to talk about the recommendations, and even that was a rather brief discussion before moving to advance the plan to Common Council for a more thorough evaluation.
The public hearing, announced last week, was a bit sparsely attended when considering the intensity of the public interest there has been in the police reform process. But there were still several commenters. First was former Republican mayoral candidate Zachary Winn, who has been a longstanding critic of any police reform in the city.
Winn didn’t address the actual recommendations in the draft report, but alleged that the Deputy City Manager role overseeing public safety was being reserved for current Tompkins County Legislator Travis Brooks, who represents Ithaca and has been vocal and involved during the police reform process. That notion was rejected by committee chair George McGonigal and Cynthia Brock, who is also a committee member along with Robert Cantelmo, Phoebe Brown and Ducson Nguyen. Fellow Alderpersons Rob Gearhart and Kris Haines-Sharp were in attendance as well, but did not comment.
Other than that, all other speakers were generally supportive of the recommendations, though with some specific criticisms. Alana Byrd, who works for Ithacans for Reimagining Public Safety under People for the American Way, offered her praise for the recommendations in the draft report, as did a few other speakers.
Ithaca resident Maya Soto argued against the report’s emphasis on hiring more police officers, and have them connect with local organizations — a note that seemed to split the special committee. McGonigal noted that if local residents want the police to pursue a community policing approach, wherein officers would make a stronger effort to connect with people through community service, stopping for conversations, engaging with kids, etc., then he feels it would require more officers on-duty at a time for that to be effectively done.
“Why are we inviting more police into our safe spaces?” Soto asked. “These organizations are few and far between safe havens for our most vulnerable community members. […] I don’t think police belong in these spaces. I think this is an opportunity to be better, to think outside of the system. You can’t sugarcoat ‘increased policing.’”
Echoing a comment made during the hearing, McGonigal said “this process needs to bring the community and IPD together.” At the core of the reform process, he said, was a feeling from marginalized communities locally that they were disrespected and less-valued by police, and that IPD would need to be included to cure that ill. There was some disagreement on that, with Brown arguing that small examples of community policing don’t need to take up too much time and could be done with current staffing levels, but the discussion moved on.
The committee eventually conversed about what the immediate next steps should be. Brock posited that more community feedback should be solicited before sending the report on to council for consideration—despite there not being many material changes to the draft report necessary, she said more input would be good. Nguyen and McGonigal both said they felt enough time had been taken for feedback and wanted to move forward, also sensing a demand for progress from the community, so Brock then proposed comment opportunities at a future City Administration Committee meeting or Common Council meeting.
“My variation on this would be a second hearing around the creation of the department, all of the statutory changes to code that are going to be required,” Cantelmo said. “Perhaps, given the consensus of committee members on the report, I’d be happy to do it at CA or at Common Council, have another public hearing opportunity and then give the City Attorney’s office a heads-up to start working on whatever draft legislation will be required so that we’re not sitting on our hands.”
Members agreed with that and approved sending the draft report to Common Council. Knowing that the public will have some space to weigh in on the proceedings, Brown’s words earlier in the night ring more significant.
“We need the community to come out, I know it’s frustrating, I know it’s been some time that you’ve been waiting and wanting to see change happen, but we still need you to come out and use your voice,” Brown said, continuing to urge marginalized communities to participate in the formulation of the law enforcement reform’s final shape. “We want this to happen, but we need the community to please guide us.”