October 28, 2012

Ithaca Police Officers Say Department Was Understaffed on Night of Shooting

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Low staffing levels in the police department hampered its efforts to respond to the shooting of an officer earlier this month, according to officers who warned that proposed budget cuts to the Ithaca Police Department could exacerbate the challenges city police face.

Under the IPD’s preferred staffing guidelines, a minimum of six officers are supposed to work the “midnight shift” to replace the six officers who have just worked the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. Therefore, when Officer Anthony Augustine was shot on Oct. 12 shortly before the time of a shift change, 12 city policemen should have been available to respond to the crisis, according to Officer John Joly.

But because of staffing shortfalls, three of the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. officers were scheduled to work overtime and also cover the later shift, Joly said. Additonally, only five officers were slated to work the next shift — giving the shift commander only two new bodies to send when the commander of the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift called for backup, Joly said.

“[The midnight commander] only had two people to send — in situations like this, when the suspect is still at large, we need more people,” Joly said. “Anything could happen, but if we’d had more people, the chances of catching this guy sooner would have been greater.”

It took about six hours, half a dozen police agencies and two helicopters for police to find suspect Jamel Booker, who has since been charged in the shooting. That extensive and potentially dangerous manhunt might have been cut short if six new IPD officers had been available to for the next shift, Joly said.

IPD Lieutenant Vincent Monticello, while not confirming the exact staffing levels at the night of the shooting, also said “we were at our minimum staffing.”

“We could’ve used more people that night,” Monticello said, adding that the low staffing level “definitely had an impact on setting up the perimeter and getting people right to the scene.”

Monticello said that the cuts to the IPD proposed by Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 could hurt the department’s already “critically” low staffing levels.

“We were able to get there quickly; next time, we might not be so lucky,” Monticello said.

Myrick’s proposed budget would reduce the number of police officers by about nine and the number of firefighters by four as a part of suggested measures to close the city’s $3 million deficit.

Should the cuts pass, the Common Council will aim to provide IPD with all that it requires to “operate effectively,” said Alderperson Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward).

As the Common Council prepares to make its recommendations for the budget, city officials have yet to come to a consensus on the budget, according to Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward).

Defending his proposed budget at a public meeting earlier this month, Myrick said that while he recognized that the city “needs more officers, not less,” the costs of maintaining the fire and police departments have skyrocketed over the years, increasing by $4 and $5 million, respectively, from 12 years ago.

“Everything you have told me weighs heavily on my conscience,” Myrick said at the meeting. “[But] we can’t afford the amount of personnel that we have.”

However, some residents have criticized the proposed budget, backing IPD officers’ claims that it will hurt public safety.

Cornell Republican Misha Checkovich ’13, who is running to represent the 4th Ward, said that Myrick’s plan “reflects dangerously misplaced priorities.”

“Over the past month, an Ithaca Police Department officer was shot and badly injured it the line of duty [and] a federal jury awarded $2 million in damages to another officer in a suit against the city for alleged retaliation after the officer filed human-rights complaints,” Checkovich said in a press release.  “We should put the safety of our citizens ahead of other considerations.”

Original Author: Manu Rathore