ITHACA, NY -- “We cannot do nothing.”
Those words said by alderperson Laura Lewis best sum up the conclusions Common Council came to during a 90-minute discussion about the Reimagining Police proposal draft. That’s not to say there weren’t differences of opinion about certain recommendations, but ultimately everyone agreed that changes must be made.
One of the top questions from council members was about budget information, which Mayor Svante Myrick assured them he and County Administrator Jason Molino were working on. Rough budget estimates are expected before the council votes on March 31.
Alderperson George McGonigal thought that the recommendation that suggests conducting a review of SWAT callouts should also include reviewing Critical Incident Negotiation Team (CINT) callouts. This led to a discussion on the future of the SWAT vehicle. Molino clarified that the vehicle would function as a mobile communication center for a variety of uses, including police emergencies; it would be part of the Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response.
McGonigal also asked if that would mean the Ithaca Police would have to remove their gear from the truck. Molino said that the communications equipment would remain (and upgrades to it made), but that yes, the rest would have to be removed.
Alderpersons Donna Fleming and Seph Murtagh both expressed concerns about the recommendation to replace IPD with the Community Solutions and Public Safety Department, with Fleming saying she had “major objections” to it as written.
Murtagh said he thinks programs like the community outreach workers and law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) should be expanded instead of replacing and renaming the police department.
“Why don’t we increase those efforts?” Murtagh asked. “We could shrink the police department and expand outreach workers and LEAD. Don’t replace officers as they retire and I think it would get at the same thing […] I think there’s a lot of reform that can happen within the police department where we can get to a place where we’re maintaining the spirit of this plan.”
However, Myrick clarified that the community solutions workers aren’t intended to do the same type of work as community outreach workers or LEAD.
“Community solutions workers would be more akin to taking on calls that don’t require armed officers but aren’t mental health focused,” he said. “For instance, taking a simple report. If there’s a stolen bike or television, someone has to show up to take that report. Whoever shows up need not be armed, but should have a close working relationship with the investigative department.”
He also added that the new department would facilitate more cross-department collaboration because, as it stands, the police department usually stands alone.
“It’d be a unity of mission and purpose and create a shared culture,” he said.
Alderperson Cynthia Brock said it seems like a lot of the proposed changes are administrative and that she wants to make sure any changes that are implemented are meaningful. Specifically, she suggested that there should be a confidential reporting system for officers to report improper actions among colleagues. She also questioned the benefit of having a civilian director over a police chief, and if that meant the police chief would be eliminated entirely.
Myrick said one of the motivations behind having a civilian director is that he thinks it would bring more longevity to the leadership role than a police chief, as many police chiefs are nearing retirement age by the time they become chief. He also thinks it will increase diversity in the department.
McGonigal asked for clarification about the number of armed officers that would be part of the department.
“The proposal says ‘to the full extent of armed positions funded in said transitions,’” McGonigal said. “So if we have 60 officers now and decide to fund 45 positions in transition, does that mean there are 15 officers without a job?”
Myrick said he supposed that yes, it is what that would mean, but that he anticipated Common Council would fund as many armed officers as are in the police department now, meaning nobody would lose their job.
After some more discussion about the genesis of the first recommendation and the roles of the community solutions workers, Lewis suggested focusing on the things they can move forward on to show the public they’re serious about doing something.
“We’ve heard that the community has doubts about whether there will be real change coming from this endeavor,” she said. “I want there to be real change that is concrete, and to move quickly on some of those items we can move forward on.”
Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff echoed that sentiment.
“We’ve gotten hung up on number one, but all the other recommendations are quite significant, and we need to put our best effort into listening to the voice of marginalized communities,” she said. “We can’t just hate the status quo, we have to do something. It’s been a long time coming, and we have to do something, we can’t do nothing. […] All that said, I don’t think number one is crazy. All that you’ve been describing this evening is describing number one and doing it.”
Alderperson Stephen Smith agreed, and added that there seemed to be agreement amongst council members that the fundamentals of recommendation one need to be recognized.
“I think recommendation one has called attention to the 800 pound gorilla in the room,” he said. “And we owe it to folks to have a conversation about what to do about it.”