City Hall security

The current security apparatus at the entrance to City Hall. 

Brought this week before the City Administration (CA) Committee, Ithaca is discussing whether or not it wants to change its security protocol at City Hall, changes that could impact the ease and extent of access to the building for members of the general public. 

The discussion was had in response to a memo sent by the city’s Chief of Staff Dan Cogan, who outlined the potential benefits and drawbacks such a law would have and detailed the background of how the city came to its current security protocol at City Hall, which involves one security guard stationed at the front entrance, a set of security cameras throughout the building and around its perimeter, and a metal detector for each person who enters (except City employees, appointees and elected officials, who also don’t have to pass through the building’s metal detectors as long as they show their badge). 

An official proposal has not been discussed or advanced yet, just Cogan’s memo. The meeting’s discussion didn’t clear much up, but did show that the City of Ithaca understands at least some of the pitfalls that could accompany actual legislation requiring IDs for entry. Another alternative the memo mentions, which would theoretically be less obtrusive, is ensuring that people sign-in when entering the building. 

“Our current security protocols try to strike a balance between maximum safety for City employees and the public’s desire for unfettered access to local government,” reads the memo. “However, while we do not have uncontrolled public access to City Hall, we also do not have a reliable way to ensure that members of the public who have been flagged as security risks are identified at the security desk. Checking IDs would help with this.”

The memo lists other benefits as discouraging problematic meeting attendees through heightened interaction with building security, and allowing security more opportunity to assess someone’s mental state as they enter a meeting. 

Cogan also references a 2016 survey of city employees, which showed that the majority of employees would prefer to have a photo ID or sign-in system of some kind for City Hall visitors. Other than one incident in 2009, which involved a member of the public hurling a shoe at then-Mayor Carolyn Peterson, Cogan does not list any actual security threats that have stemmed from public presence in City Hall, although police have certainly been called to meetings in City Hall to remove certain members of the public deemed overzealous. Later in 2009, the city contracted with a private security firm to provide guards at City Hall’s entrance and began restricting entry to just the building’s east entrance and formed the Workplace Violence Prevention Committee, in accordance with state law. 

“One of the issues that’s come up a number of times when discussing members of the public who potentially pose a threat or a risk to people who work in or visit City Hall or come to public meetings is we pretty much rely on visually IDing people,” Cogan said during last week’s meeting. “If someone has been identified as a security risk, we trust the security guards to identify them and follow some sort of security protocol [...] It’s been pointed out that that’s a fairly unreliable approach.”

Intentional or not, there are other implications that would accompany implementing a photo ID requirement for City Hall entry. For a city that touts the accessibility of its elected officials and city staffers, blocking people without photo IDs from the city’s headquarters is at least shaky optics, although providing alternatives could mitigate that impact. Lack of photo ID is also something that impacts primarily marginalized communities, most evidently people of color and the impoverished. Much of the research on the topic has been done through the lens of the controversial debate over voter ID laws and correlated voter suppression in the United States, but a Washington Post article from 2016 showed that it’s historically more difficult for minorities to obtain photo IDs even when they have the required paperwork for a myriad of reasons. 

In the proposed resolution, the city does acknowledge those points, noting that some people who wish to access City Hall might not have photo IDs, or might not have one on their person when they go to enter the building; that could preclude them from accessing some of the important services in City Hall, like building permits or marriage licenses, etc. CA Chair Deb Mohlenoff noted the validity of both sides of the argument at last week’s meeting. The memo also notes the hesitation some people might feel to show their IDs, especially if they are immigrants, because of fears that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be notified of their whereabouts if there is a problem with their citizenship status. 

CA member George McGonigal further noted that if people are forced to show photo IDs, it could slow down entrance to public meetings significantly, which could in turn discourage the public from showing up even if they do have IDs; one compromise in Cogan’s memo was only having the requirement during business hours, which would exempt most public meeting times, especially ones that can tend to be crowded like Common Council. 

“I’m very concerned about trying to implementing an ID system, there’s voter suppression and all kinds of perspectives that come up here,” fellow CA member Graham Kerslick said. “We have to have a strong justification for doing this [...] If we’re going to try something, we need to be very clear about what the reasons are, and also alternatives: if you don’t have your driver’s license [...] It’s challenging to have that environment where people don’t feel threatened by trying to get into the building. It’s a tough one.”

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