ITHACA, NY -- On Mar. 18, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County held a virtual Reimagining Public Safety Town hall titled “Lifting Voices of People of Color; While All Are Welcome.”
The meeting was held in conjunction with Baptist Church of Jesus Christ of The Apostolic Faith, Calvary Baptist Church, Tompkins County Veterans Services and Tompkins County Office of Humans Rights.
The zoom panel was made up of community members and city and county officials. City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino led the meeting. They were joined by Rev. Ronald Benson, Rev. Nathaniel Wright and Rev. Ken Clarke Sr. as well as J.R. Clairborne, director of Tompkins County Veterans Services, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, and former police officer Brad Nelson.
Sean Eversley Bradwell and Belisa Gonzalez, two Ithaca College professors who were part of the academic/research group and the communications/community working group of the reimagining initiative, were also on the panel.
The collaborative is currently in its final stage, seeking community feedback on the proposed draft. Under Executive Order 203, New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, all municipalities with police departments in New York State must adopt a plan for police reform by April 1.
The Zoom began with a short speech by McBean-Clairborne, who stressed unity during this time of change.
“The conversations that have ensued since we have started this and the recommendations came out have spiraled down into us versus them and this is not what it’s about,” she said. This is about systemic change. This is about addressing and digging up the root of the problem, getting rid of that rotten root and figuring out how we grow a brand new system that treats everybody equitably and keeps everyone safe…”
Myrick and Molino then gave an overview of the findings of the reimagining collaborative and the draft of the plan which was released back in February. Among the 19 recommendations is to replace the City of Ithaca Police Department with a Community Solutions and Public Safety Department.
Reverend Benson expressed support for change, saying now is the time to take action.
“We do need to address the mental attitude of our police department and the mental attitude of our society to bring about what we need and I am saying, ‘let’s go for it,’” he said. “...I think now is the time for us to push forward and make this effort.”
Nelson was skeptical about any chances of reimaging public safety, saying the city had already had its chance to fix policing in years past, but failed to do so.
“There’s one focus I cannot let go by the wayside, and that’s trying to listen to a proposal to change something externally when the change needs to come internally and it needs to come from how employees are dealt with and, more specifically, I’m going to say officers of color,” he said.
He said that he remembers four times when officers of color had the chance to be put in a position of authority but it didn’t happen.
“I don’t want to refute the effort of what you all have done but I have to step back, rewind and look at the smaller picture for folks trying to tell me to reimagine something,” he added. “It doesn’t work for me.”
Wright was in charge of reading the submitted questions, as due to the panelist setup, community members could not personally pose their questions or voice their opinions.
One of the main questions from community members was why the recommended changes will take so long to implement, with many expressing a desire for immediate action.
Community member Megan Cosgrove asked in the chat, “Why the 12 month wait to take big concrete steps forward on making mental health crisis services available to the community and shifting other responsibilities to unarmed responders?” She added that there are plenty of cities around the country already implementing similar programs.
Molino said most of the timelines for the project still need to be developed and that this will take time to plan and get resources together.
“Probably it’s a fair statement to say that it’s not quick enough and I think we all recognize it,” he said. “Some of this takes time to plan, to put resources together, I think what’s important is the ball continues to move forward, accountability and transparency stays in the forefront and resources are put towards it
Myrick admitted that there would be “very little” immediate impact.
“What it really is is an outline, or a road map, for the path forward and that road map would have to be filled out by months, and frankly years, of continued community input, collaboration and design,” he said.
Myrick did say the first changes that can be implemented in the coming months will be creating the position of director of public safety and community, which a police chief would then report to. Myrick said that under state law, there still must be a police chief, but that the police chief will have to report to this new director position. Currently, Myrick said the search for a new police chief following IPD Police Chief Dennis Mayor's resignation has not yet begun.
Other initial steps will be designing the job descriptions for “community solutions” officers and transitioning the SWAT truck from the police department to the Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response.
Myrick did not give an exact timeline for any of these proposed plans and said that any other changes will be much more gradual.
There were also questions about plans for racial sensitivity training and better background checks on officers.
Community member Katie Compton said in the chat, “I’m a bit disheartened by what I see as an underwhelming concern for the prejudicial biases that contribute to troubling interactions between some police and members of the community. Can you speak to any plans for racial sensitivity training and re-education as part of these new initiatives/”
Community member Nialah Wilsone echoed this asking, “In this newly imagined system, what steps will be made to make sure diverse equitable hiring decisions are made?”
“It’s also about starting from a fresh culture, a new culture in which the expectations for what gets rewarded and who gets promoted are clear to everyone from the jump.” Myrick responded. “This is something our department has struggled with for the past 20 years and it’s an old culture bumping up against a new culture.”