Mayor Svante Myrick took to Facebook Thursday afternoon to address the community about his steps moving forward regarding the Ithaca Police Department and local public safety in general, creating a task force that will deliver a list of potential changes for local policing by spring 2021.
"I believe it's long past time that we fundamentally transform how we deliver our public safety services, and our policing services, here in the City of Ithaca," Myrick said in the Facebook Live session. "To that effect, I'm assembling a task force that I will lead personally. This City of Ithaca working group will have a broad mandate, which is both simple and enormous in its scope: to consult the public and deliver to Common Council by April 1, 2021 a set of recommendations for the Ithaca Police and all of our public safety programs that fundamentally reimagines them in a way that makes us all feel safer."
Myrick also announced the launch of the webpage www.cityofithaca.org/reinventpublicsafety, where people can sign up to participate as community advisors in surveys, meetings, and feedback forums to make their voice heard directly to the city. Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino and county Sheriff Derek Osborne are both also involved in the effort, as Myrick said they'd be "working to create a countywide coalition of municipalities to review and reform policing in our community."
Acknowledging he didn't have all the answers and didn't want to dictate the direction of the task force to begin, he said the first agenda item will be to review public safety policies, especially use of force policies, then examine public safety funding and what alternatives money could go to. After that, Myrick said a priority of the task force would be demilitarizing local police forces, another popular sentiment among criminal justice reform activists.
"Our police department cannot be an occupying force in our community," Myrick said. "They can't look like it, they can't act like it."
Acknowledging the fraught relationship the Black community has with police departments, Myrick said he would draw upon his own experiences to inform some of the goals he'd have while leading the task force.
"We are at higher risk of being on the wrong end of police violence, so this is real for me," Myrick said.
Myrick credited the Ithaca Police Department with making strides to become more community-oriented, but said there isn't enough room for error considering the literally lethal stakes at play. He said he did support the department and recognized the need for police officers, perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of divergence from the momentum-gathering "abolish the police" movement that has arisen in the wake of the Minneapolis police's killing of George Floyd and the protests that generated.
"I'm proud of the progress our department has made," he said. "But I acknowledge that it is not yet perfect, and perfection must be our goal. So to create a new dynamic, one that makes our community safer and our police more respected for the work they do, we have to do this work."
Of course, Ithaca Police Department hasn't been free of allegations of brutality. In last year's infamous Commons incident in April, police's actions were called an "overreaction" by Judge John C. Rowley as he dismissed the charges against Rose DeGroat, who along with friend Cadji Ferguson were thrown to the ground and arrested by Ithaca police after an altercation with a separate group. Both were later cleared of wrongdoing. Body camera footage later showed police with a knee on DeGroat's head as she was pinned down, and Myrick apologized months later for IPD's behavior. No officers were punished as a result of the incident.
Myrick reiterated that the police's budget has only slowly grown over the last 10 years, and again praised the direction the police have taken over that time. Myrick also noted that IPD has been hit by similar cutbacks as the city due to the city's revenue shortfalls, including having to eliminate six staff positions, representing about 10 percent of the total force, from the city budget.
"You can't expect the department to do more with less, so we have to do something different," Myrick said. "I will confess that this process is going to be lengthy. It's going to take many months and will need a lot of input."
Some collaborators Myrick said would likely be involved in the process: Community Leaders of Color, Black Lives Matter, the Public Safety and Information Commission, the Community Police Board, Mutual Aid Tompkins, the Police Benevolent Association, neighborhood groups, student organizations, the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, other municipalities, etc.