Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Two people involved in the altercation were arrested on Nov 11.

October 20, 2020

Tompkins County Racial Advocacy Coalition Demands Police Defunding Measures

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Echoing anti-police sentiments resounding across the country, Ithacans are calling for decreased responsibility and funding of the Ithaca Police Department.

In a letter addressed to Ithaca-area residents, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, members of the Ithaca Common Council and representatives of a broad racial justice coalition — including organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and Tompkins County Showing up for Racial Justice — have outlined demands to reduce the Ithaca policing budget by 80 percent, enact an immediate Ithaca Police Department hiring freeze and reallocate funds to support Tompkins County communities.

“In a city with a population of roughly 30,000 people, the IPD has 64 officers and a budget of $12.7 million dollars,” the letter states. “Meanwhile, vital community programs have been slashed, rent and housing throughout the city remain unaffordable, and many residents face a deepening economic crisis exacerbated by COVID-19.”

David Foote, chairman of Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America, wants to take money from the police and enact a more democratic budget-making process that involves more community members.

Foote believes that paying officers to patrol the streets saps the city’s budget without offering much benefit.

“More than half of police resources are not spent on investigating crimes or preventing crimes, but just on patrolling people, on cruising through neighborhoods looking for people to harass,” Foote said. “That’s a huge amount of money that’s basically spent on nothing.”

This concern reflects one of the biggest demands made in the letter, a budget cut of 80 percent, which would reduce the budget from $12.7 million to $2.5 million.

The letter implores its readers to remember Ithaca’s history of racial bias and mistreatment, characterized by the same sort of inhumane misconduct that resulted in the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“We cannot forget the killing of Shawn Greenwood and Keith Shumway by IPD officers in 2010 and 2011, nor the four teenagers of color held at gunpoint by an IPD sergeant in 2014, nor the brutality experienced by Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson on the Commons last year, nor the police misconduct in the Nagee Green trial, nor the SWAT raids in West Village, nor the countless other accounts of daily dehumanization and punishment at the hands of police,” the letter reads.

Veronica Pillar, member of Tompkins County Showing Up for Racial Justice, said that “no changes to the police department were made” after Cadji Ferguson was arrested — and later acquitted — on the Ithaca Commons, which Pillar said was “a pretty glaring incident of racist police brutality right here in Ithaca.”

Tompkins County Showing Up for Racial Justice is an advocacy organization that encourages “white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability to people of color-led organizations locally and nationally,” according to its website.

For Pillar, even if Ithaca approved of an IPD budget cut, the allocation of funds needs to be made by the right people.

“Everything has to be grounded in what leaders of color are saying,” Pillar said. “And of course that’s complex because people are going to have different goals and perspectives.”

The letter also demands the allocation of IPD funds to “Re-fund, Rebuild and Heal Community.” Demands listed in this section of the letter reflect goals to “reallocate $2.8 Million to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and $5.06 Million to Ithaca Youth Bureau to ensure the continuation of existing youth programs” while prioritizing spending for Black, working class organizations such as Black Hands Universal and other community advocacy groups.

Black Hands Universal is an organization “formed in response to racial injustice,” according to its website.

“We believe in rehabilitation rather than punishment, as well as creating and maintaining a platform for the disenfranchised,” the organization’s website reads.

According to the letter, these initiatives would help “ensure that those most impacted by racism and gentrification in Ithaca decide democratically how the money is spent.”

Education is another key issue worsened by the pandemic, which the racial justice coalition believes can be remediated through the proper allocation of police funds.

“People who are poor have to roll the dice with their kid and hope when they send them to school they’re OK,” said Harry Smith, lead member of Black Hands Universal. Witnessing the difficulty of distanced learning, Smith created his own zoom tutoring program with volunteers from Cornell and Ithaca College.

For Smith, the lack of reform made to the police budget and the subsequent lack of community reform in education is not entirely a result of racial bias.

“I don’t think it’s racism so much as it is laziness,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to take the time to do the research to see what people need in certain areas. They just take the easiest route.”

Smith said he has seen first hand how policymakers’ inability to act has disenfranchised minority groups in the Ithaca area and believes that substantial reform is necessary to socioeconomically uplift marginalized communities.

“When people say they wanna help Black people, they always come up with these ways of giving out food, clothing or shelter, but it’s like … we’re not starving,” Smith said. “We’re probably eating better than you. We don’t need clothes. We probably spend more money on clothes than anyone else. What we need is certification, education, things that allow us to catapult from where we are.”

But in more extreme cases, the absence of a police force entirely is something many leaders in the racial advocacy coalition would like to see in Tompkins County.

“A dream would be to set up a response system for people who would normally call the police but for whom a police presence is unnecessary, situations where you don’t need someone showing up with a gun and an armored cruiser,” Foote said. “We need to set up brand new organizations that can respond to calls for help that wouldn’t involve the police.”