ITHACA, NY -- Tompkins County and the city of Ithaca held a public forum on Nov. 6 to hear what residents wanted when it came to police reform. The goal of the forum was to answer the question, “What do we need to know to reimagine public safety in Ithaca and Tompkins County?”
The responses ran the gamut, from continued criticism of the Ithaca Police Department to reevaluating the roles police officers play in the community. The forum was hosted by County Administrator Jason Molino and Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick.
“We need as many voices as we can get,” Myrick said. “We need to build a reimagination that will work for everyone.”
Genevieve Rand, one of the protesters arrested on Oct. 22, has been consistently outspoken about IPD and her negative experiences with them, and she encouraged forum attendees to continue making their voices heard.
“I think it’s all of our responsibilities to participate in government, but we have to ask what participation means,” she said. “And if those ways aren’t working, we need to come up with new ways to participate. If you want less police and are frustrated with the militarization of police, don’t let that frustration stop here. Talk to anyone you can. Do what you can to make that frustration heard, and find a way to move the needle.”
A few residents discussed their experiences with police and suggested there are times where the police are not the agency that should be responding to some emergencies.
“There are times where the police are called and they’re not helpful,” resident Megan Cosgrove said. “I have experience with domestic violence […] When we’re in fear for our lives and safe and our children’s safety, calling the police is the furthest thing from our minds because they will not help us most of the time. They can’t help until harm has already happened.”
Leon Miller-Out agreed, and added that the function of police of the country is vague. He suggested that as part of reimagining public safety officials should look at the calls police respond to and figure out who best could serve that purpose.
“The most important thing from my perspective is a list of what the police are currently asked to do, and then ask ourselves, ‘Who are the best people to respond to this situation?’ Most of the time that won’t be the police,” he said. “I’ve lived in Ithaca for 20 years and have never needed the assistance of an armed police […] I think there are some places where have an armed first responder would make sense. I don’t know if that’s a police officer or if it’s a newly created position with a much narrower function, but I think police often escalate things.”
Resident Ashley Cake echoed that sentiment, adding that oftentimes the only number people have to call is 911 when they need help.
“Police don’t need to be called for noise complaints,” she said. “That leads to escalation. We need conflict resolution between community members.”
A couple residents also suggested community advisory teams to increase accountability within police departments, as well as adding more community outreach programs.
“One of the things we can try to do is get our finger on the pulse of the expertise and interest in the community to try and use people who exist already and have strong relationships within the community to see who has the potential to grow into these positions, like responding to domestic violence incidents,” Katie Anderson said.
Resident Rudy Nunez said that he thinks funds from the police should be shifted to independent oversight committees.
“Funds should go to forming a new institution that is a public and independent oversight committee to ensure a real change in consequences and how they’re enforced,” he said. “I think consequences are an important all-around solution.”
A few residents also referenced the arrest of Benjamin Thonney the afternoon before. A suspect in a string of violent crimes, Thonney was believed to be suffering from psychosis. The SWAT team was on scene to take him into custody, where he was then brought for medical intervention. Community members took issue with the fact SWAT was involved.
“[We need to] get rid of that SWAT team that terrorizes people,” resident Rochelle said. “And not just the person who was arrested yesterday, but my friend who saw it with her baby […] and thought she was going to die in a hail of bullets.”
Another resident, identified only by his first name Nick, echoed that point.
“It’s a pretty reasonable thing to think someone in a mental health crisis doesn’t need the traumatizing incident of people in military fatigues and AR-15s to pick you up off the street,” he said.
At the end of the meeting Myrick thanked everyone for speaking up, and noted there are five months until the reform plan is due to the governor’s office on April 1.
“I know it feels like a long way to go in this process, but it will go very quickly,” he said.
The next public forum will be on Friday, Nov. 13.