ITHACA, NY -- Ithaca’s Common Council unanimously voted to approve the Reimagining Public Safety resolution on March 31. The resolution was due to the governor’s office on April 1 after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed executive order 203 last summer, whichrequired municipalities to reexamine their law enforcement agencies through the lens of marginalized communities in an effort to reduce unequitable policing toward Black and brown communities.
The monumental vote came after six weeks of meetings and public forums in which everyone from council members, residents, parents of college students and Ithaca police officers had the chance to share their opinions.
Department of Public Safety
The resolution included the controversial recommendation to replace the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) with the Department of Public Safety (DPS). It was originally named the Community Solutions and Public Safety Department, but the name was amended on the floor during the meeting, and Mayor Svante Myrick and council members agreed to leave official naming conventions up to the task force created to implement the changes. For consistency’s sake, the department will be referred to as DPS for the remainder of this article.
In the weeks since Myrick unveiled the proposal that included the DPS as a replacement for the IPD, there has been much concern about the future of current officers. The mayor has been accused of trying to union bust (which he has repeatedly denied), and there were many concerns that officers may lose their jobs. However, the resolution preserves the roles of current IPD officers as the armed portion of the future DPS, which will also have an unarmed unit. Additionally, the resolution has stipulations in it that protect the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA), or the police union, as well as the benefits, ranks and retirement standing the officers have.
Common Council members were mostly on the same page when it came to this recommendation. However, there was some discussion over the language and its implications. In its original form, the recommendation read: “Create a department — tentatively named the Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety (DCSPS) — led by a Superintendent who may be a civilian employee, to oversee various public safety functions in the city.”
Alderperson Donna Fleming suggested amending the language away from creating a department without first creating a task force to study and design a new department. Alderperson Cynthia Brock agreed, and Alderperson Seph Murtagh suggested new language that said “create a task force to design a new department…” Myrick was not in favor of this change, stating that he thought it was prioritizing creating a task force over creating a new department.
“I’ve spoken at length about the benefits I see to building a new department,” he said. “We need to build a 21st century department that responds to our 21st century needs.”
Alderperson Ducson Nguyen agreed and said he thinks it’s important to set a direction.
“I’ve thought about this a long time and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is how we can achieve the cultural and accountability changes we’re looking for,” he said.
After some more debate, Fleming’s amendment failed but Murtagh’s new language that would add a bullet to create a task force to implement the new department passed.
Throughout the Reimagining Public Safety process, Myrick has made it clear that the SWAT truck has been one of the biggest issues cited by community members. Painted all black with the words “knock knock” on the top of the windshield, it’s undoubtedly meant to be an intimidating vehicle. In the original Reimagining Public Safety draft released in February, the idea was for the city to relinquish ownership of the vehicle to the county, which would add it to the Department of Emergency Response and use it as a mobile command center.
However, in the resolution approved on March 31, Myrick noted that he had added a resolution that dictates the city and county will jointly study how best to use that truck. IPD Lt. Jake Young has been in talks with the county and the city about the future of the truck and has said the department is open to repainting it to be less intimidating and militaristic.
Alderperson George McGonigal was completely on board with the new idea.
“I think we can get started on these adjustments right away,” he said. “I think we can take the guns out tomorrow. I think IPD already has plans to redesign and repaint the graphics […] This is an opportunity for IPD to prove that they really get we want to repurpose this vehicle.”
After approving another amendment from Alderperson Laura Lewis that added a recommendation regarding improving community outreach and policing, the board went on to give their thanks to the groups who had participated in the process, including the PBA.
“They’ve shown a lot of leadership,” Murtagh said of the police union. “They listened to our concerns and I’m getting the sense for the first time there are police officers who are listening and not immediately jumping to defensiveness and that gives me a lot of hope for the future. It has been appreciated and hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
The vote passed unanimously, though the resolution creates no new laws and there is still much work to be done before the community sees any changes.
“This is a baby step, a first step, a step in the right direction,” Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff said. “It gives me hope that we have people who will come to the table and do the hard work.”
Alderperson Graham Kerslick echoed that.
“The work really just starts,” he said.