ITHACA, N.Y.—First, there was Reimagining Public Safety, then there was the Reimagining Public Safety Special Committee. Now that committee has submitted its final report on specific recommendations regarding how to proceed on a litany of the law enforcement reform efforts that have consumed Ithaca government since spring 2021 when they were first introduced.
The recommendations add a layer of specificity to some of the previous reform proposals that have been a near-constant topic of discussion, including far more notable suggestions regarding the best way to proceed with community oversight of law enforcement, one of the core tenets of the Reimagining Public Safety process. Plus, the report endorses an approach to law enforcement reform that would imitate the actions taken by the City of Rochester.
The city has scheduled a public hearing on March 8, 2023 at 6 p.m. at City Hall to field feedback on the report, its recommendations and its impact on the overall public safety reform effort. Those interested can also attend or comment via Zoom or submit written comments. You can read the full report at the bottom of this article.
The report recommends and details five general actions that the city should undertake on its own, compiled by a committee formed last summer to refine the initial action recommendations in the Reimagining Public Safety proposal.
These recommendations are to be separate from the city’s collaboration with the county on public safety reform, parts of which are currently being managed and implemented by the Community Justice Center led by Monalita Smiley.
Those five actions are: develop a “crisis co-response team” to assist police when necessary; create a Deputy City Manager position which would oversee the city’s public safety apparatus and “create a holistic public safety response approach;” “maintain and support progressive change in Ithaca Police Department;” strengthening whistleblower protections inside and outside of IPD and add resources and oversight training for Community Police Board members; and create a system to continuously review oversight and reporting structures.
All these actions, the report says, should be conducted in conjunction with efforts to increase Ithaca Police Department staffing from where it currently stands.
The committee also served as a bit of a mea culpa for the City of Ithaca, which had faced criticism for not including enough law enforcement voices in its first proposal, so Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten, Ithaca’s Acting Police Chief John Joly and two other IPD officers were all brought in to provided input and feedback to the committee, which was led by Alderperson George McGonigal and included fellow Alderpersons Cynthia Brock, Robert Cantelmo, Phoebe Brown and Ducson Nguyen.
The Crisis Co-Response Team would be a group of “peer support specialists” who would co-respond with law enforcement to situations as deemed appropriate. The report calls for it to be designed in the vision of Rochester’s Person-in-Crisis model. This team would be about 3-5 people, “preferably people with roots in Ithaca, connections with local marginalized communities and with training and ‘lived experience.’”
The team’s full role is laid out here:
It seems, in role and structure, similar to the unarmed Community Solutions Workers team that had initially been proposed in the Reimagining Public Safety report, a division that would have been under the umbrella of the Department of Community Safety along with the Division of Police. That proposed structure appears to have changed, thanks to the second recommendation of a Deputy City Manager position. The other main difference is the first proposal pushed responses based on call delineation, meaning there were a significant number of calls that police would not respond to at all, instead of the co-response proposed in the special committee’s report.
Regarding the Deputy City Manager position, here is the suggested structure in that scenario:
The deputy city manager would be in charge of recruiting police officers who fit the vision of the reimagining efforts, as well as establishing public safety response protocols, presumably to determine which agencies or groups respond to which calls. It also calls for a pilot program for unarmed responders.
“The Deputy City Manager will work in collaboration with the Ithaca Police Department to develop and initiate a pilot program utilizing unarmed respondents to respond to non-violent calls for service,” the document reads. “Performance of the pilot program will be reviewed and evaluated to minimize the risk to civilian first responders and police officers, while also protecting the rights and interests of victims and considered for permanent implementation, as appropriate.”
One of the most significant parts of the recommendations is the section on community oversight and strengthening the Community Police Board. As mentioned previously, the resources and funding for the CPB would go towards training from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
Beyond that, though, recommendations call for updated policies to require IPD chief and officer participation in CPB investigations and reviews of incidents involving officers, as well as funding for third-party review of IPD internal investigations and CPB investigations dealing with “complex or high-interest community generated complaints.”
The CPB would be able to request the help from the third-party review body or organization and would hold concurrent jurisdiction that would grant them the ability to investigate all community complaints regarding IPD. The third-party would remove the possibility of IPD investigating its own internal complaints, a practice that is obviously fraught with the potential for bias.
“By making funding available for third-party investigations into police conduct, the IPD and CPB can provide assurances to the public that the review is fair, and free of bias,” the report reads.
There is no explicit mention of subpoena power (beyond the requirement that chiefs and officers participate in investigations), which would further align Ithaca with the City of Rochester’s approach to public safety oversight. However, CPB members in Ithaca have not embraced the thought of being given subpoena power during its investigations. While the CPB would not have legal authority to compel participation from IPD, the participation requirement policy would carry some weight to it, in theory.
In the same vein of community oversight, the report also recommends the reassembly of the Public Safety and Information Commission to serve as another liaison between the public and public safety providers. Additionally, the report recommends the establishment of a new, permanent body called the Standing Committee on Public Safety to “continue conversation, listening, and policy deliberation on an ongoing basis.”
The report ends with a brief next steps section that calls for state reform of police recruiting schedules and Civil Service Law disciplinary procedures. Additionally, it calls for state legislators to authorize Ithaca to utilize red-light and speed cameras “to improve public safety outcomes while also reducing the need for a traditional law enforcement response to minor traffic incidents.”
“We are optimistic that hiring a community crisis co-response team will improve this situation,” the report concludes. “The City of Rochester has seen good success in their crisis response configuration, which is designed to be separate from the police department, while working closely with their officers. The idea is to avoid unnecessary high stress interactions with police, and to provide needed follow-up for victims. […] It must be acknowledged that Reimagining Public Safety in the City of Ithaca cannot succeed without an adequately staffed police department.”