ITHACA , NY -- As the Reimagining Public Safety draft proposal moves through the process toward votes by Common Council and County Legislature, the group behind the proposal has worked to set up public forums with different community groups. After hosting a forum specifically for people of color, this week the group met with students from New Roots Charter School, Ithaca College and Cornell University in an effort to target the community’s younger folks.
Mar’Quon Frederick, a freshman at Cornell, wanted to know what people saw as the biggest challenge to actually passing and implementing the recommendations outlined in the plan.
Travis Brooks, the deputy director of GIAC and the program manager of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, said he thinks courage is the biggest barrier.
“There’s a lot of pressure from people who don’t want to see this done, and it seems like they’re the loudest voices,” he said. “But we need council to dig deep and do what’s right for folks in this community […] Change is scary for everyone, but we’re at a place and time where we can do something amazing and special.”
Following up, Khiry Brown, a senior at Ithaca College, asked what part of the plan would be attacked first.
Mayor Svante Myrick said he thinks they would start with leadership, and specifically with the civilian director for the Community Solutions and Public Safety Department.
“If this plan gets approved, we’ll be moving quickly to define that job description, do a national search and move our community forward in this new direction,” he said.
Myrick also went into some of the reasoning behind the so-called “rebrand” of the police department, as well as the difficult task of forcing a culture change.
“It’s not just a rebrand, it’s a reset,” he said. “It’s a chance to have civilian leadership over the department and an unarmed community response […] Why is it important to change the name? Well, drill down into what makes a culture in the first place. It’s a complicated set of characteristics, it’s a language, a set of values. What’s funny inside of an organization? What’s not? What are our shared ambitions? What’s admirable? What’s unacceptable? When you attempt to change a culture it always fights back.”
Brown asked about the type of training officers will undergo and how to measure whether that training is enough or not.
County Administrator Jason Molino said that career-long training in de-escalation and mental health training were important, but so is hiring the right people in the first place.
“We need to look at those attributes when we hire candidates,” he said. “Are we hiring folks who look at people as individuals and are they going to treat them in a humane way?”
He added that as important as training is, if it’s not affecting change in the way officers are behaving, it’s essentially useless.
“It’s not just about law enforcement, it’s a culture revision and a culture change,” Molino said.
Myrick echoed that, saying that while he will pursue the most advanced training possible, it’s not sufficient.
“If we only do that, we won’t be doing enough,” he said. “We need to do better recruitment, find the right people, train them appropriately and offer the right incentives for advancement.”
Frederick said that sometimes he feels like the government isn’t listening to younger folks and asked if there’s anything that could be done to make sure younger voices are included in discussions.
“I’m tired of protesting,” he said. “We want to be able to make decisions. I’m tired of feeling powerless.”
Belisa Gonzalez, an associate professor at Ithaca College, sympathized with him, noting that government is slow-moving and frustrating.
“It’s mind-numbing,” she said. “This is why nothing ever changes. It’s not surprising to me that incremental change is not flashing, and we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the strides that we do make.”
However, Myrick, who has been involved in city government since he was a student at Cornell, offered a few lanes that could help Frederick “move the needle.”
He suggested calling a city council member, meeting them for a cup of coffee and sharing your personal experience with them face-to-face (or mask-to-mask these days).
“Relationships are the currency through which political change happens,” Myrick said
He also added that anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to serve on boards and committees, and that he himself ran for office at age 20.
“I was less well-spoken and composed than you are today,” he said to Frederick. “And I won. Voters are more interested in fresh energy and new ideas than elected officials are.”