The Ithaca Police Department took to Common Council Wednesday night to lodge their complaints about years-long under-staffing that they say is inhibiting their ability to effectively police.
With several police officers making up an uncommonly sparse crowd for the monthly meeting, the two highest ranking members of the police department's union spoke passionately about the impact long-term short-staffing has had on the department. While they said they might have enough members to complete basic staff services, the type of community policing that Ithaca prioritizes exposes the weaknesses the staffing creates.
"The shortage is sorely inadequate," IPD union Vice President Ted Schwartz, an active police officer, said. "I’m here to ask for your support. I’m here to ask for more than words [...] Currently the staffing at the Police Department is adequate for basic police services, what you might find in any other city in New York State, but what is expected of us here by community residents is much higher.”
Schwartz said the current model of policing is unsustainable without more officers to alleviate the strain on those there now. When officers do interact with the community in a professional manner but not necessarily when they're on patrol -- such as the Community Police BBQ -- they are being paid overtime. That used to work as a means to incentivize officers, but over the last few years they have become less likely to take the extra money, opting instead to spend time with their families or the like. Time dedicated to community engagement has subsequently dwindled, even while the demand for those services, and the population and density of the city, have both risen considerably.
"Our workload has gotten greater, and we are at a breaking point," Schwartz said. "The men and women of the [Police Benevolent Association] are getting very burned out. Most of what we need to do is on overtime: Community Barbecue, Ithaca Festival, anything extra besides staffing the road is largely relied upon overtime, and that only carries us so far."
Staffing levels have been a years-long gripe among the police department. Police officers at Wednesday's meeting said the rate of officers retiring outpaces the number IPD has been allowed to hire in recent years; they said the four new hires scheduled for 2019 doesn't even cover the number of officers who are slated to leave the force in the first few months of next year.
Their pleas came at an interesting time, as just last weekend the city saw two violent assaults in the heart of downtown. That was never directly mentioned, though it was vaguely alluded to by PBA President Eric Done. Also, as noted by the mayor, the city is about to dive into the meat of budget season.
“Some of you have seen the consequences of running short, and I won’t get into the graphic details of that [...] This city has outgrown what we’re capable of," Done said during public comment. "We don’t want to be in a position where people get hurt because we don’t have the resources to respond properly. That would be a terrible tragedy.”
Despite the police's pleas, and apparent sympathy from the council, it was unclear if the night's appeals would result in any actual extra officer hirings. Mayor Svante Myrick said that while they could certainly look at police staffing another time, nearly every department in the city is short-staffed. Alderperson Seph Murtagh was the only Council member to respond to the assembled officers, though he only said he was glad they had taken the time to alert the city officials of the situation and their stance, particularly with budget season around the way.
"Obviously we want to make sure there's enough staffing in the police department to protect the city, and we've had to claw our way back over the last several years from the terrible financial recession as we all know," Murtagh said. "But I think you're coming at an opportune moment to have this discussion, heading into the budget, and I'm glad that you came tonight and alerted us to this."