The City of Ithaca’s search for a permanent Chief of Police to lead their Police Department is officially entering its third year even though the search committee supported former IPD Lieutenant Scott Garin to become the police chief following a series of community forums held at GIAC in the fall of 2022.
The community forums saw current Acting Chief John Joly, Garin, and Binghamton Police Captain Chris Bracco answer questions from the public about why they would make the best chief of police at the Ithaca Police Department.
In December 2022, Mayor Laura Lewis announced that her final nomination for the position would be current acting Chief John Joly. However, immediately after this announcement was made several members of the Common Council came out publicly against the mayor's nomination of Joly, saying that more change was necessary to make improvements at the department. The members included Cynthia Brock, Jorge DeFendini, Ducson Nguyen and Jeffery Barken.
In an interview following the the rejection of Joly, 4th Ward Common Council member Jorge DeFendini said, “particularly with the reimagining public safety process, we've had a lot of head butting with the acting chief and those conflicts have led to a lot of uncertainty and misinformation regarding the reimagining public process.”
In response to the criticism Mayor Lewis revoked Joly’s nomination and announced that she would be re-opening the city’s search for a permanent chief of police. Lewis did not explain why she didn’t follow the recommendation of the police chief search committee, which recommended Garin.
In a recent interview, Mayor Lewis said that the city has signed a contract to work with an executive search firm to help find the best candidate for a permanent police chief. According to Lewis, “we want to pay close attention to someone who has experience leading a diverse department, someone who embraces the reimagining public safety reforms that are much needed.” She continued saying that the search would be nationwide.
The Common Council has allocated $57,500 to pay for outside assistance from a search firm based in Rocklin, California known as Public Sector Search and Consulting Incorporated to assist the city in its nationwide search process during a meeting that took place in January.
The search firm website describes itself as a “boutique-style national search firm focused solely on recruiting top police executives for our clients.” It continues saying that their team consists of former police chiefs that prioritize inclusivity and transparency in the search process.
According to the website, “In every project, we offer our clients several strategies to incorporate the community into the search process.” Additionally, “In 60% of our searches, the hiring authority selected a candidate from a traditionally underrepresented group.”
The City of Syracuse and Albany worked with the firm to hire a Chief of Police in 2018, and the City of Beacon in Dutchess County hired the firm for the same reason in 2020.
President of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA) Thomas Condzella is wary of a nationwide search because he and other PBA members would prefer the city to hire someone from within the department that already has connections to the community.
“It’s going to be challenging to find someone who understands Ithaca and the challenges that this community is facing,” he said. “I’m not really supportive of bringing someone in from a different part of the state or country who doesn’t have connections to Ithaca.”
Condzella said that he would prefer the city to hire a police chief from within the department “because they have an understanding of the organization and ties to the community.” Additionally, he says that hiring someone internally would show that there is upward mobility within the department.
He added that the union would “like to see someone who is going to keep us moving forward with our police reforms, but also make sure that our basic needs as police officers are met in terms of training and equipment.”
During a Community Police Board (CPB) meeting in December 2022, CPB Chairwomen Shirley Kane said that it doesn’t make much sense to do a nationwide search.
Kane continued saying that she was “troubled” about the city “farming out” important responsibilities to outside sources. Kane said, “we farmed out the reimagining process, and now we’re farming out contract negotiation with an attorney. We farmed out an internal investigation for whatever may or may not have happened with the reimagining process. And now we’re gonna farm out a national search.”
In response to Condzella’s concerns, Lewis said “we’re not precluded from any outcomes. It may be someone from within the department or it may be a better choice to identify someone from outside. We’re completely open to considering and hiring the best candidate for Police Chief.”
Even though a nationwide search has been announced, Kane still thinks that a local selection is possible. “They’ve [started with nationwide searches] repeatedly at the county level and they always end up with somebody that’s already here,’ said Kane.
Condzella has commended the work that acting Chief Joly has been able to accomplish, but said the union has been seeking formal leadership since former chief Dennis Nayor resigned in the spring of 2021.
Condzella has said that the lack of permanent leadership “creates an unstable work environment.” He added that officers look to the chief for direction and leadership. Without someone in that position to keep the department flowing in the right direction, “there’s a serious trickle-down effect.”
This trickle-down effect has gotten worse over time as IPD continues to suffer from staffing shortages with no end in sight. Based on numbers from the fall of 2022, IPD was down to around 52 officers with just 22 of them on patrol shifts. According to Condzella, that’s down from around 71 officers in 2011. Some officers have blamed the city’s reimagining public safety process on the inability for the department to attract new recruits because they feel like the community no longer supports the department.
In addition, the recent events regarding the chaos involved with finding a permanent Chief of Police have not helped recruitment efforts. In fact, the difficulty related to finding a new Chief of Police is representative of the overall staffing issues being experienced at the department. This caused one member of the Community Police Board who could not be identified through Zoom to ask, “why would a nationwide person want to come here? I think opening a nationwide search is just spending more money and spinning our wheels.”
As a result of these sentiments, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County have set aside $75,000 for the Community Justice Center to launch a holistic law enforcement officer wellness plan to retain current officers and attract new recruits.
The release announcing the officer wellness plan said that in addition to receiving public input, the working group will be issuing a survey to law enforcement personnel and dispatchers to gauge what has positive and negative impacts on wellness as well as what tools and programs may be beneficial if offered.”
The public can submit their input online through the reimagining public safety website. Residents have already begun to submit recommendations such as paid access or private mental health therapy and Brazilian Joy Jitsu training for officers.
Regarding the wellness program, CJC Director Monalita Smiley said “Our community is best served when officers are at their best. Our ultimate goal is to develop programs that reduce stress and promote wellness so that our officers can perform their duties with clear minds and high levels of physical wellness.”
Smiley continued saying, “This plan is under Reimagining Public Safety because we’ve seen too many times in this country examples of fatal outcomes and mistakes in part due to stress or anxiety.”
Condzella also expressed his frustration with the Mayor’s lack of transparency during the last search process.
“The mayor did not explain her decision-making process in terms of what happened [in December] with Acting Chief Joly’s appointment,” Condzella said. “She didn’t explain why the other two candidates were unfit and she didn’t explain why the whole thing was declared a failed search.”
This lack of clarity has left the public and former finalists for the position in a state of confusion, to say the least. In comments made to the Ithaca Voice, current acting Chief Joly said, “I will not be reapplying,” and “I have no interest in going through it again.” The current acting chief has called the city’s search process a “shit show.”
During previous comments to the Common Council regarding the botched search process in December 2022, Joly said “The manner in which the mayor and members of this council have handled this selection has highlighted the underlying dysfunction within city government.” He continued saying that “this will directly impact our recruitment efforts. This public spectacle is not an example of function.”
Binghamton Police Captain Cris Bracco said that he might still be interested in reapplying for police chief, but that the city would need to assure him that he was being “seriously considered” for the position. It’s unlikely that he’ll reapply if the search process is as unorganized as the last one.
When asked how the city is planning on approaching the search process differently this time Mayor Lewis said that the city is “approaching it considerably differently by working with a consultant firm that has been involved in hiring police chiefs in other municipalities.”
It remains unclear what the terms of the agreement between the city and the consulting firm contracted to help find a permanent Chief of Police are, but the Mayor has said that information will be made available shortly.
According to Lewis, the city does not have a specific timeline in place for when the search would be completed but did say that she “fully expects and sincerely hopes that we will have a successful search by the end of this year.”
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