ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca’s next police chief will enter a department rife with tension, drama and a dwindling workforce. They will be asked to navigate the department through an implementation period of reforms that are relatively popular in the community but have struggled to find momentum inside IPD headquarters. But whoever it is will be well-compensated for the task.
The city’s Common Council debated and approved a bump for the police chief position at the Ithaca Police Department, bringing the position’s maximum allowed salary from about $132,000 to $150,000 and adding a $50,000 signing bonus to be paid out over three years.
The raise was based on the recommendation of Public Sector Search and Consulting search firm, with the resolution noting that the firm’s leadership had communicated to the city that the pay would be too low to attract suitable candidates, based on their initial gauging of interest around the country.
“People are not even going to consider it, if we don’t have that flexibility,” Ithaca’s Human Resources Director Schelley Michell-Nunn said. Michell-Nunn further said that the search firm is typically able to produce a candidate, or a list of candidates, after about 120 days, meaning that the department’s next leader will become clearer over the summer.
The move increases the salary ceiling by about 14 percent. Mayor Laura Lewis noted that the resolution gives the city the option of offering a salary of up to $150,000 with the signing bonus, but doesn’t obligate the city to do so.
The police chief discussion seemed predetermined to roil tensions among council members, especially considering that law enforcement reforms have hung over the council’s proceedings, in one form or another, for over two years now. But the middle of the conversation took a rather odd turn.
Alderperson Tiffany Kumar, who ran on loud progressive bona fides but has been a quiet presence on council during her five months in office, delivered a withering statement explicitly directed at Jorge Defendini, a fellow progressive alderperson who represents Collegetown alongside Kumar.
Kumar took Defendini to task for his apparent intention to vote against the police chief salary increase. She said that while she does not support increasing funding for police, a position she has openly expressed, the lack of a permanent head of IPD would only further stall progress.
“Some of the opposition I’ve been hearing about this change is not about materially lessening police presence in our community,” Kumar said. “It’s about posturing at the cost of safety and progress. Voting against this resolution does not stand up to the criminal justice issues facing our community, but rather it just kicks the can of true police reform further down the road.”
Kumar took the rare step of making an apparently private conversation public to the rest of council. She said directly that Defendini had “privately acknowledged” that without a permanent police chief, progress on police reform would be more difficult, but that he still intended to vote against it because he knew it had the support among council members to pass rather easily.
“For an empty political move, opponents of this change would risk keeping guns in front of our Black and Brown community members, robbing Ithacans of the unarmed responders that we promised them, delaying, once again, any real change at all,” Kumar said.
Defendini had not been a vocal opponent or proponent of raising the police chief salary—at least not publicly—though his previous statements on the matter made it nearly a foregone conclusion that he would not support it. He voted against the increase, joining Alderperson Phoebe Brown. It passed 8-2. Defendini did not respond to Kumar’s statement during the meeting.
Brown had an issue with the language of the resolution, positing it gave the impression the city was paying a premium because of its law enforcement reform process.
“To mention, because of Reimagining Public Safety, that we need to give someone $150,000 plus $50,000 sign-on bonus, doesn’t feel right,” Brown said. “It sounds like we have to convince someone that Reimagining Public Safety will improve the safety and wellbeing [of the community].”
Michell-Nunn responded to Brown’s statement and said the language is intended to attract people with the necessary skill to implement the reforms put forth by the RPS process, not to preemptively apologize for the process’ results.
For all the reform talk, the feeling at the meeting seemed to be that the Ithaca Police Department is currently in such rough shape that a meaningful bump in salary might be the only way to get a candidate who is capable enough to pull off guiding the department through the current era of change.
For one reason or another, the city was unable to find that candidate in 2022—the search committee (and, arguably, the community) chose former IPD lieutenant Scott Garin, but Mayor Laura Lewis selected then-IPD Acting Chief John Joly. That appointment was met with thorough backlash from council, leading to Lewis then withdrawing the selection, a bungled scenario that, six months later, has left the city with an embarrassed, absent, and litigious acting chief after Joly took an indefinite personal leave and confirmed his intention to sue the City of Ithaca for a hostile work environment.
“It’s May 3, and we should be thinking about how this resolution affects May 4, May 5, and the times ahead to come,” Cantelmo said, a sentiment that Lewis later emphasized. “We spent a lot of time working on the recommendations for Reimagining Public Safety, and for those to be implemented, our department has to have permanent leadership.”