Performing Arts for Social Change (PASC) is facilitating a two-night dialog between Ithaca Police Department officers, Mayor Svante Myrick and members of the Ithaca community. The event will be held in-person at the Kitchen Theatre and available via Zoom July 9 and 10 from 5-7 p.m.
PASC held its first night of open dialogue between community members and police officers July 9. The event was facilitated by Cynthia Henderson, a professor of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College, who is gaining prominence among locals for her oratory prowess at recent rallies and her commitment to pursuing policy change in Ithaca. The dialogue is meant to establish a base via "The Social Contract" for discussing police and community expectations in the future.
Last night's event featured Harmony Malone, a local dance teacher, Mikel Moss, a local drama therapist, and Reverend Nathaniel Wright of Calvary Baptist Church representing community members; and Lt. Scott Garin, Sgt. Loretta Tomberelli and Officer Justin Baldesarre, who represented the police department. The panel was posed questions sent in by community members ahead of time and arranged approximately six feet apart facing the main camera on the Kitchen Theatre Stage. Mayor Svante Myrick arrived towards the latter half of the conversation, citing work obligations.
Only three people showed up to the event in-person, fewer than expected despite COVID-related concerns, but it didn’t disrupt the conversation. The panelists focused on unpacking the complicated relationship between Ithaca’s minority communities and the police— as well as the national conversation on policing.
The first part of the conversation centered on police visibility and familiarity with the communities they police. Malone responded by saying that the lack of community engagement demonstrated by police often creates a sensitivity among community members, leading them to the notion that police presence means there's trouble or a problem. Malone went on to say that when officers eventually do extend themselves to the community by attending random events or celebrations by stopping by during their patrols their lack of connection plus their, seeming, cultural incompetency and understanding of power dynamics perpetuates communal skepticism about police intentions.
She referenced a recent Black consciousness event in which an officer showed up without attempting to reassure the attendees that there wasn’t a problem. Malone said that oftentimes when the officer is a familiar face, the community doesn’t have a problem but that wasn't the case.
“The police’s presence is not always welcome,” Malone said. “I mean— they are welcome, we share the space, we are a community and a community is a group of diverse individuals but this was a Black conscious event and we had a crew of police officers show up and interrupt the event at the time and, I feel intentionally, interrupted the event" ultimately changing the general feeling of the event because of their presence.
Moss added that he feels obligated to “read the room” as a Black man in any space, something he feels police often fail to do.
Reverend Wright added that the damage is felt when interacting with police because "Black people immediately internalize the criminalization of their blackness. The crime is not about anything that I'm doing, it is 'what might they think I've done and will I be able to prove myself innocent, if need be. This is where building community makes the difference.”
The officers didn’t appear eager to respond or comment, at which point Henderson asked another question submitted by the community: How is the IPD addressing white supremacist policies in its department?
The officers didn’t immediately offer a comment again, but later added that the question was difficult to answer because they didn’t have a specific policy in place to address such a concern, although they were practicing new recruitment strategies and hiring practices.
Tomberelli noted that Ithaca’s diverse population requires diverse policing that really doesn’t translate into racist policing like it does in other places. She suggested that anyone with questions for IPD should feel comfortable to approach any police officers and ask them and, if they need, bring a friend for comfort.
Malone responded with her own question: How can an individual start a conversation with police when they’re afraid what might happen?
“The onus is being placed on civilians to reach out to police and that’s not the way it should be,” Malone said.
She followed up by asking the officers “who are you outside of the job?” By which she meant, if serving the community means as much to you as you claim it does, then why don’t you attend events outside of your work hours? Why don’t you celebrate with us off the clock?
Malone’s comment struck back to the heart of the initial question about visibility and familiarity. It also called back to an earlier statement in which all three officers agreed that although they enjoy interacting with the community but finding time between patrols, with only eight officers on patrol at a time, doesn’t afford the opportunity.
“There are less of us out there than there once were,” Tomberelli said. “We’ve lost those little things that were important that we used to have time for. We used to have 30 minutes to spare. I love those conversations and what I hate is when my radio suddenly goes off in the middle and I have to leave.”
The next citizen-posed question asked who on the panel considers themselves an ally, a common term for people who actively help people of color achieve racial equality and safety. Malone and Moss raised their hands, but the officers seemed puzzled, at one point asking “an ally to what?” After clarifying, the officers followed suit, raising their hands, but the confusion seemed indicative of the problems that remain between minority communities and police.
To another question: Why did you all decide to become police officers? Each of the officers shared how their opinions changed since becoming an officer; Garin and Baldessare saying that it was their positive relationships or experiences with police beforehand that inspired them to consider police work, once again brought light back to the initial dialogue regarding familiarity and visibility.
Myrick arrived 30 minutes to the end of the dialogue and answered two questions regarding policy change. He said that the complexity of police/community relationships requires that a lot of essential pieces change at the same time, and that it’s only going to take time and dedication, but the city is working towards a solution.
“Racism isn’t just the shark, it’s also the water,” said Myrick. He reiterated points mentioned by Garin earlier, regarding changes to recruiting, “I think it’s most important to hire the right person first, than to train the wrong person.”
The conversation will continue again on July 10 in-person and through Zoom. Henderson said that the social contract from which the decision to have a dialogue was born, is meant to be a point of reference for the community and police of what both should expect from the other. She encourages community members who have ideas and expectations to contribute them and help the contract grow into something that eventually effects policy change.