ITHACA, N.Y.—The Southside Community Center, one of the City of Ithaca’s preeminent Black institutions, served as the site of a town hall on Wednesday intended to improve engagement between the Ithaca Police Department and the community.
It is a relationship that police union officials say they are serious about improving.
“We’re not unique in the fact that we need to improve our relationships with the people we serve. That’s happening all over America,” Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) president Tom Condzella told The Ithaca Voice in an interview.
Wednesday’s town hall is meant to be the first of more to come, Condzella said. The event offered an opportunity for members of the public to ask police and community leaders of color pointed, or general questions about community policing, diversity in the police department, or Reimagining Public Safety, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s public safety reform effort.
Sitting next to each other on the stage in the Southside Community Center’s gym was Reverend Nathaniel Wright of the Calvary Baptist Church, IPBA president Condzella, IPBA secretary Mary Orsaio, Richard Onyejuruwa, who sits on the City of Ithaca’s Community Police Board, and Tim Dymond, president of the New York State Police Investigators Association. Almost 50 people attended.
The event was organized by the IPBA, the Southside Community Center, and the New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), an umbrella union of the IPBA.
Members of the media were allowed to attend Wednesday’s event only on the condition that reporters refrain from recording the discussion that took place, or divulging the contents discussion in great detail. That condition was requested by all the event’s organizers given the sensitivity of town hall’s topics, and in order to allow members of the public and the forum’s panelists to be more candid. The Voice chose to abide by this request in the case of this event. This reporting relies mostly on interviews conducted after Wednesday’s panel discussion.
One of the largest throughlines of Wednesday’s discussion was IPD’s short staffing, and the challenge that presents in enabling the department to engage in community policing. Condzella said in the late 1990s there were over 80 officers working in the department. He said that now there are 44 active police officers, including the acting chief.
Condzella puts a lot of the blame for IPD’s struggles to recruit on a decade long fight the union had securing a new labor contract with the city in 2021, as well as the rollout of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety Initiative, which saw a notorious article published in GQ featuring an interview with former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick that gave the impression that all officers at IPD would have to re-apply for their jobs.
It was an aspect of the article that Myrick quickly corrected in a letter sent to IPD officers after the article’s publication but, either way, Condzella said he does not want to dwell on the past or negativity any more. He also said that he feels that the perceptions of the policing profession has been blemished significantly in recent years, adding to the challenges of recruiting new officers.
“I think the more we can partner and move forward together, is what’s going to make our community stronger, especially when we are tested by those tough times.”
Community healing events and public forums to tackle the topic of community-police relations have been proposed and put on throughout the City of Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety initiative. Notably, Wednesday’s event is a result of the IPBA working with various members of the community, and the AFL-CIO’s Task Force on Racial Justice, which is led by the New York State AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Reverend Terry Melvin.
Melvin moderated Wednesday’s panel. He said that the creation of the Task Force on Racial Justice came after the summer of 2020, when the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor centered the nation’s attention on longstanding racial disparities in law enforcement. The taskforce, Melvin said, is aiming to host community conversations to mend rifts between police departments and the communities they serve as part of its work. Wednesday’s forum in Ithaca was the task force’s first such community forum.
“We were looking around to see where could we start where we’d have a community that had been through some struggles with the police, and a police department that was willing to go through a healing process to look at a new way of policing the community and working with the community. And Ithaca came up,” Melvin told The Ithaca Voice after the forum.
The event went well in Melvin’s eyes. He said, “There’s hope. There are willing hearts on both sides that want to do the right thing.”
But he admitted, “To be perfectly honest, I was a little shocked that we didn’t have more — for lack of better words — in-your-face questions from either side, more pointed questions.”
It is a point that Condzella brought up as well.
Condzella said, “If someone did bring a grievance about a contentious issue, we need to hear that. And we need to allow that person, or people, or group, the space to be heard and to express themselves. And then we need to try to turn things that may not have been positive in the past into learning points, or things that we can improve upon in the future. I honestly was expecting some of that [Wednesday] night.”
Chavon Bunch, executive director of the Southside Community Center, said she left Wednesday’s event with a sense of optimism. Bunch said that she would have liked to see more people of color attend, and that she initially received a little push back for hosting the event, but she sees this “as just the beginning.”
Bunch also expected there to be sharper conversation during the town hall. She mentioned Shawn Greenwood, an Ithaca native who in 2010 was shot and killed in the city by an officer as police tried to arrest him in relation to a narcotics investigation. The officer that shot and killed Greenwood, Bryan Bangs, was cleared of wrongdoing. But for some longtime residents of the Ithaca community and friends of Greenwood, the incident lacks meaningful closure from law enforcement.
Adding to the division of the situation, Bangs’ home was burned down in 2010 in what was determined to be an act of arson by New York State Police. No one has faced criminal charges in connection to the incident.
“As a community, we have to try to heal. Because then — God forbid something else happens. It’s that trauma over and over and over again,” said Bunch.
Bunch recalled that when she was growing up in Ithaca during the ‘90s, she can remember knowing police officers by their first names.
“I feel like we’ve gotten away from that. There’s not many locals that are on the force,” said Bunch.
In Bunch’s view, IPD replenishing its ranks is necessary for the department to build bridges.
She said, “If there are three officers on in a shift, one of them can’t be here at Southside hanging out and just two on duty for the rest of the city. We just need to figure out how to get officers in there and then retain them.”
With more forums to come, Bunch said she can imagine why someone might be skeptical of the impact attending one in the future might bring. But she’s urging more people to come out next time.
She said, “Be the change that you want to see. You need to be a part of it.”