ITHACA, NY -- It’s been a common refrain in Ithaca lately: Violent crime is increasing. Seemingly every other week, Ithaca Police Department (IPD) is releasing information about a shooting or a stabbing. And statistics provided by IPD do seem to back it up. This has spurred discussions about police reform, how to stem crime and the Reimagining Public Safety efforts among community leaders.
We used the following charges to examine changes in crime patterns: rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, kidnapping, criminal possession of a weapon, criminal mischief and simple assault. We left out charges like embezzlement, driving under the influence and forgery. Violent crimes are charges that fall under the four main categories of aggravated assault, robbery, homicide and rape.
In 2020, there were combined 1,999 charges made in the above categories, up from 1,401 in 2019 and 1,494 in 2018. However, though there were more than 500 increased charges of violent crime from 2019 to 2020, it’s important to note where the biggest jumps were. Combined, there were 1,195 charges of robbery, burglary and larceny. That’s more than a 350 charge increase from 2019 when it was 817 and 2018 when it was 841. Put into context of 2020, a year of economic instability, soaring unemployment rates and an uncertain future, it’s not all that surprising to see a rise in crimes of desperation.
And while there are a handful of charges that see eyebrow-raising jumps from 2019 to 2020 in IPD’s statistics, the numbers aren’t too far from 2018. For instance, rape charges jumped from five to 12 from 2019 to 2020, but there were also 12 in 2018. A similar trend occured with kidnapping — there were nine in 2020 compared to three in 2019, but there were eight in 2018.
Aside from robbery, burglary and larceny, there were alarming jumps in criminal possession of a weapon charges and aggravated assault charges. There were 21 criminal possession charges in 2020, up from five in 2019 and three in 2018, indicating an upward trend. Additionally, there was a large jump in aggravated assault charges: 52 in 2020, compared to 27 in 2019 and 38 in 2018. It is important to note that IPD statistics don’t differentiate between domestic assault and random assault, so it’s unclear whether or not the fact some people were stuck home with their abusers in 2020 could play into the increase
Statistics from 2021 were not able to be made available in time for print publication, but the number of press releases regarding violent crime have doubled in 2021 compared to 2020. However, without those statistics it’s impossible to know whether IPD has just sent out more press releases to call out attention to violent crime or if the numbers of violent crime are actually higher.
Ithaca’s Police Benevolent Association recently began the campaign “Ithaca 4 For Safety” which claims violent crime is “skyrocketing” in Ithaca, and said the campaign was designed to “address the dangerous rise in shootings, assaults and armed, weaponized crime in our city.”
Earlier this month, the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights held a panel with community leaders about violence in Ithaca where they looked at what violence really means, what influences it and the perceptions around it.
According to Travis Brooks, the deputy director at Greater Ithaca Activity Center (GIAC), there were upticks in violence caused by the pandemic, systemic and equity issues and racism.
Dr. Sabrina Karim, an assistant professor of government at Cornell University, said most criminal violence is related to structural violence. She described structural violence as the systemic ways in which social structures harm or otherwise disadvantage individuals.
“It’s subtle or invisible, and often no one person can be held responsible,” she said. “So things like racism, elitism, sexism, ethnocentrism, adultism even […] And when you think of these kinds of structures that exist it’s pretty easy to see the connection to violence.”
She gave the example of youth that lack resources due to systemic racism which leads to fewer opportunities for jobs. This means they have less access to healthcare, legal protections and safe housing, and things like this may lead to more crimes of desperation.
Richard Rivera, who works with Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) and the Re-Entry Program, pointed out how racialized the idea of violence is in America.
“When you say terms like inner city or impoverished areas, this is the place [Black and brown people] are relegated to and because we’re relegated here, we’re painted as more violent,” he said. “Violence comes out of a history of systemic racism. It’s perceived as Black and brown violence because violence has been pressed on them.”
Rivera also cautioned against throwing police reform ideas out the window and trying to “police our way out of it.”
“There’s a perceived fear that violence is coming to Ithaca, and what happens is the whole south side, West Village, and where Black and brown folks tend to congregate is being perceived as the most violent,” he said.
He mentioned that a Cornell professor did a study that found that when there’s an uptick in violence it’s generally caused by a few individuals acting out.
“The uptick in crime is just a few bad actors,” he said. “There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of anger, a lot of conflict, and new individuals are moving in who are making it bad. That’s the cause of it.”
Rivera also mentioned that police in Ithaca and around the country have said the call for police reform has demoralized police.
“They’re not wanting to do their job,” he said. “If that’s true, then they’re contributing to the uptick in violence.”
He said he believes the ideas that police can act without violating the civil rights of individuals and practice effective policing should not be mutually exclusive.
“The narratives are conflicted and misinforming the audience and that’s how we’re going to end up back at ‘tough on crime’ and we’re going to incarcerate more people,” he said.
At IPD, there have been some concerns about staffing levels. At a recent City Administration Committee meeting, City Clerk Julie Holcomb said that IPD would likely be unable to provide security for festivals due to too few officers. Additionally, the PBA claims that there are about half the number of sworn officers working per shift compared to five years ago, and that the number of trained sworn officers in total has been reduced by 20%.
As for whether or not having more police actually reduces violent crime, the data is, unsurprisingly, complicated. According to studies done by NPR, having more police around in areas where violent crime is prevalent does reduce that violence. And though the data shows that fewer people were arrested for violent crime, more people were arrested for lower-level offenses such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct, putting non-violent offenders (and disproportionately Black and brown people) into the criminal justice system.
However, speaking with a retired New York Police Department official, USA Today found that crime in New York City continued to decrease as the number of police decreased. So it’s safe to say that it’s not necessarily about the number of officers, but how the officers are deployed and behaving.
So to Rivera’s point, more police aren’t necessarily the answer to the uptick in violent crime.
“We should try to fix the problem instead of incarcerating our way out of it and militarizing our police,” River said. “Going back to those systems that have failed over and over again is not going to solve our problems. We can be terrified. We can be horrified. But we must also be reasonable, rational and caring. Human beings are involved on all sides.”
Brooks, who works with youth in the community, said he thinks a big part of reducing crime is reframing what healthy masculinity looks like to boys and young men.
“There’s a lot of young men brought up in toxic masculinity,” he said. “A healthy man’s masculinity is directly related to reducing violence against women.”
The panel also addressed the effect of trauma and how, when untreated, it directly relates to people perpetrating violence.
“I’ve never met anyone suffering who does not have a history of trauma,” Rivera said. “Racism itself is traumatic — being excluded, being dehumanized, being marked as different. Just because of hair, skin and bones. It’s problematic. It’s trauma. And trauma does inform how we understand violence.”
Professor Raza Rumi Ahmad from the Park Center for Independent Media agreed, and said there’s evidence that points to how trauma causes cyclical patterns.
“I would step further and ask what do we have to counter that in our communities? There are so few opportunities for families who have gone through traumatic incidents,” he said. “It’s a matter of public policy and how the government is going to address this issue.”
Brooks added that this generation is growing up seeing videos on social media of Black men being killed “two or three times a week.”
“This is what they see, and some of them don’t have anyone to go and talk to about what they see,” he said. “Or they’re misguided by falsehood heroes who give them the wrong information and wrong advice on how to deal with this. […] If folks don’t see their lives as having value, then how do they value others who look like them? […] Our mental health system is broken. Some of these folks need services they don’t get, and I think trauma plays a huge role in dealing with violence.”
So as it turns out, violence is complicated — it’s rarely people being violent just for the sake of causing harm. It’s informed by economic struggles, by systemic challenges, by racism, by trauma, by the failing of other support systems. And while adding more police may act as a Band-Aid to bring violent crime statistics down, a more holistic approach is more likely to solve the problem at its root.