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ITHACA, NY -- Officials faced some tough questions and criticisms from residents on Dec. 11 at a public forum about the reimagining police process as people asked about trust and what is currently being done to change policing.

Right off the bat, people wanted to know why they should trust the government in this process. Mayor Svante Myrick said he understands the hesitation, but that he feels like this time is different.

“I think there’s evidence of this change,” he said. “The intense community input has never happened before.”

He said that fixing the problem in public safety is dependent on fixing the racial discrimination, particularly anti-Black racism, within the justice system.

“[Racism] has been the case in America for as long as there’s been an America,” he said. “Past reform has stalled out because people in power couldn’t admit that. Without acknowledging that, we can’t agree on any of the needed steps. This summer really changed things. The murder of George Floyd, the uprising that followed […] in my 13 years of public service I have never seen such unanimity among officials that anti-Black racism is a problem in our system. That gives me confidence that this effort will be different.”

Both County Sheriff Derek Osborne and Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor agreed that public approval is critical to their jobs, and that they’re hoping to achieve that through this process.

“Everything is meaningless if the public we serve doesn’t support us and trust us,” Nayor said. “I think this movement and reform is a great example of that. I think what we’re going to be able to do is learn how we can better be the police departments that the communities we serve want us to be.”

The group — Myrick, Nayor, Osborne and County Administrator Jason Molino — also discussed the working groups, and why there aren’t many community members involved.

Molino explained that the groups are city and county staff that have specific backgrounds in this area, but that they were working off of the suggestions from the community voice forums. Myrick added that they didn’t want to put the burden on the public.

“This is a tough thing to design, to figure out how to get people’s input without burning them out,” he said. “And the truth is, we have folks on staff and we should rely on them to do the work. The community can give input and expect the work to flow […] Working groups aren’t there to decide where to go, they’re here to curate the ideas from the community and do the footwork to get us ahead.”

Echoing the calls of protesters for months, one of the questions asked the group for their thoughts on defunding the police.

Nayor focused less on taking funding away from his department and more on adding funds to others.

“So many things the police are called to do are better suited for others, and should be filtered for others,” he said. “So how can we find ways to fund other services so the things we are doing can go to the correct entity and we can connect more with the community and do more preventative policing? How do we fund those other things we need?”

Myrick agreed, and said that by funding other agencies, the police budget would likely decrease over time.

“We really do need to fund alternatives,” he said. “We have to pay other people to do more […] If by defund the police you mean reduce the department by 80%, we’re not going to do that. But we can find alternatives so that 20, 30, 40% of call volumes are sent to other agencies. We absolutely should take that course. So it depends on what your definition of defund the police is. We need to fund alternatives and need to ask the criminal justice system to handle less. Then we’ll have less discriminatory and less violent outcomes.”

The follow up question, of course, was why not defund the police by that 80%? The answer, Myrick said, is that it’s just not realistic in the society we live in.

“In the City of Ithaca, especially in the daytime, we have about 100,000 people in Ithaca,” he said. “We normally have six officers. Could we do that with […] one officer? No. We have as many guns as people in this county, and […] the City of Ithaca is still part of this county. We do exist in that broader reality.”

He said that to get to the point where we need fewer police, we have to build a better society.

“Building the kind of community that doesn’t require such intensive police cover I do believe is possible,” he said. “If we had better policies — housing first policies, higher minimum wages, more affordable housing, better and earlier mental health support — and if we had universal and universally affordable healthcare treatment you would need fewer police officers. But do you slash the police department and figure it out from there or build that better world gradually? […] I say this as someone who isn’t unsympathetic to the idea that funding social supports can lead to less crime, we have to build the world we want to live in before we pull out that safety net.”

However, one resident asked that if more funds need to go to social programs and the police budget is around $13 million, then wouldn’t it make sense to defund the police in favor of those programs?

Myrick said it was more complicated than that, and that the city would need way more money than any amount it could pillage from the police budget and that it would have to come through taxes.

“A progressive tax, where we tax not only income but wealth, would build a society with less crime,” he said. “But even in those societies, like the Netherlands, they still have a baseline of public safety. It’s not like if we build bike lanes we don’t need sidewalks. You need both.”

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