As Cornell looks to hire its first new police chief in nearly a decade, administrators have been tight-lipped about what the search process will entail and who will be involved.
Cornell’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, Joanne DeStefano, to whom the police chief reports, said in a brief statement Monday that she hopes to share more about Cornell’s plans to pick the next police chief “within the coming week or so.”
DeStefano has declined multiple interview requests since Chief Kathy Zoner announced last week that she will leave Cornell on March 4 for a safety consulting firm. DeStefano did not answer questions about which campus stakeholders will be involved in the search for Zoner’s successor or what Cornell’s timeline is for finding and interviewing potential replacements.
“We are taking this opportunity to engage with Cornell Police officers and local law enforcement agencies to understand the leadership qualities that are needed to fill this important role,” DeStefano said.
Even then, the Ithaca Police chief said he hadn’t heard a peep from Cornell about its search. Members of the Cornell Police Union said they are hoping to meet with administrators soon.
Both Zoner and her predecessor, Curtis S. Ostrander, were hired to lead the department after serving in the force’s No. 2 spot, making current Deputy Chief David Honan the most apparent candidate to be Cornell’s next top cop.
Honan demurred this week when asked if he was planning to throw his hat into the ring.
“Our department will continue to operate seamlessly through the leadership transition,” Honan said in an email to The Sun. “I will defer to [Executive Vice President] DeStefano to comment on her plans moving forward.”
Ithaca Police Chief Peter Tyler, who announced last week that he will retire in May, said he is not seeking the Cornell job.
The next Cornell Police chief will lead a department of about 43 sworn officers who are deputized by the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office and, like municipal police departments, allowed to carry weapons, make arrests and use physical force — including deadly force — when permitted by law.
Unlike many municipalities, there has historically been no period of public comment between when a Cornell Police chief candidate is nominated and confirmed. Zoner was sworn in as chief in 2009 mere hours after Cornell appointed her to the position, The Sun reported at the time.
Student Assembly President Varun Devatha ’19 said late Wednesday that he had reached out to administrators to discuss how to ensure students were involved in the process in some way.
“I do think it’s important to have student engagement on this because students are the people who are going to be interfaced with most when it comes to the police department on campus,” Devatha said. “I think it’d be beneficial to have students engaged sort of from the beginning.”
The next chief will also be in charge of about 25 additional staff members and oversee a constituency of about 33,000 students, faculty and staff, in addition to those who pass through the campus.
In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 21 rapes, three aggravated assaults, 10 fondlings, one robbery and 13 burglaries that were reported to police as occurring on campus. Police received four additional reports of rapes that occurred in off-campus buildings that are frequently used by students or for educational purposes.
Cornell police have also responded with local agencies to high-profile crimes in the last few years, including the murder of one Ithaca College student and stabbing of another near Ho Plaza in August 2016, a man who barricaded himself in his home on Dryden Road after fatally shooting a UPS driver near Walmart in December 2016 and the arrest of a Cornell student in September 2017 on a hate crime assault charge that was later dropped.
“We’ve worked large cases together — homicides, politically or racially charged incidents — and those all take a delicate balance of leadership, a delicate balance of understanding each other and what the object for each particular entity is,” Tyler said. “Sometimes those differ, and if you don’t have those close ties, that’s something that can blow up.”
The announcements within three days by the city’s first black police chief and Cornell’s first female chief leave both town and gown residents clueless about who will next lead their police departments.
“It’s a unique situation where you have two fairly large departments where you have two chiefs leaving” so near to one another, Tyler said.
But many students said they were not bothered by the lack of information and only knew Zoner, if at all, by the Blue Light newsletter she emails to students most weeks.
“I think they’re doing a pretty fine job,” Michael Zhao ’21 said of Cornell Police as he walked along Ho Plaza. “They mostly stay out of the way, but they chip in when people need help. That’s pretty solid.”
“I have no idea,” said Jessica Piggott ’20 when asked what she wants to see in the next chief. “I honestly just delete all the Blue Light emails.”
Several student representatives, on the other hand, are asking that administrators seek input from students and engage with historically marginalized groups before and after selecting Zoner’s successor.
Devatha recommended that administrators hold a forum at which students could tell DeStefano and others what values they want in a police chief, and for the University to also allow a small number of students to advise during the search itself.
“Something that the administrators want might be very different from what students need,” he said.
Members of the Cornell Police Union also said they were eager to provide any assistance Cornell desires in its search.
“We would like to thank Chief Zoner for her time and commitment to the personnel and to the department. She will be missed,” Officers William Carpenter and Ray Schweiger, the union president and vice president, said in a statement. “We also offer whatever assistance they desire to the University in finding a replacement and look forward to working with the University in whatever process they decide.”
Haven, Cornell’s LGBTQ student union, said LGBTQ people, particularly those of color, have historically faced violence or humiliation from police departments and the next Cornell chief should work to understand and address that fact.
Yahya Abdul-Basser ’20, president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, said the chief search presents “a great opportunity to improve the relationship between students and CUPD.” Abdul-Basser and Gabriel Vergara ’21, treasurer of Amnesty International, both said they hope the next chief communicates effectively with a diverse campus.
Maryam Zafar ’21 contributed reporting to this article.