Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Activists in Ithaca have rallied to defund the police for months, but the city government has largely pushed back on these calls.

December 14, 2020

Activists, Government Officials Continue to Clash Over Police Budget in Town Hall

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For months, activists in Ithaca have rallied to defund the police, citing the mistreatment of marginalized people, particularly Black and Indigenous people of color. 

But the city government has largely pushed back on these calls as the police department has shrunk, stressing the continued need for officers.

On Dec. 11, tensions remained high as county officials answered questions about the future of the Ithaca Police Department during a Zoom town hall.

Nearly every Sunday afternoon since May 25, protesters have gathered in the Ithaca Commons to rally for Black lives, following several prominent killings of Black Americans by police officers and nationwide calls for police reform.

The Ithaca rallies often move from the Commons to crowd outside the IPD headquarters to chant, “Defund IPD” and “No cops, no KKK, no fascist USA,” urging the city to defund the IPD’s $12 million annual funds in the 2021 municipal budget.

Recently, the Common Council approved city funding for two Ithaca Police Department hires, both of which will begin in July — rejecting the calls of rally-goers. The department has been operating with eight vacancies for over a year.

A broad racial justice coalition, comprised of organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and Tompkins County Showing Up for Racial Justice, has outlined the most prominent proposal to defund IPD, calling to reduce the Ithaca police budget by 80 percent.

The recent clashes between protesters and police in Ithaca has been one of the most frequent concerns for those calling for reform. On Oct. 22, officers arrested six protesters during a demonstration they deemed an “unlawful assembly.” The protesters had migrated to the IPD headquarters after police arrested one person was arrested following a GOP graffiti clean-up event.  Protesters proceeded to stay at the IPD headquarters for several hours, before officers forcibly dispersed them with threats of arrest and pepper spray. 

Genevieve Rand, one of the protesters who was arrested, said she was repeatedly misgendered by officers while in custody. These events eventually culminated into a petition demanding the resignation of Deputy Police Chief Vincent Monticello, who arrested Rand for obstruction of governmental administration after she stood in front of a police car with its siren on.

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 addressed these concerns at the town hall, emphasizing that the IPD isn’t silencing these protests without permits, but is ensuring they can continue without further harm.

However, upon Myrick’s request, the Community Police Board, a community liaison to IPD, is investigating the Oct. 22  Rand’s arrest and is scheduling interviews with witnesses and participants.

The New York State Attorney General’s office and New York State Division of Human Rights are also investigating the incident. New policies, training and procedures have been implemented to guarantee no incidents of misgendering take place. 

Skeptical that Myrick was taking the issue seriously, Rand responded that the Community Police Board has not communicated with the public about the incident in the two months since it occurred.

Rand added that officials at the meeting seemed to blame the community for distrusting IPD. 

“I’ve been disappointed with this whole process, but this meeting is a new level of disappointment for me,” Rand said. ”There has been a lot of lies in this and a lot of hand waving away the problems that have happened and promising that you are working on it. Meanwhile, people who are actually affected by those problems, of whom I am one, are getting nothing.”

In response, Myrick said that the investigation will take time. Myrick added that he thinks firing someone, without going through the Community Police Board or an internal investigation, is dangerous because of allegations and minimal video clips on social media.

“I think this is what it takes to move real change through a system. It is real, deliberative, honest, open and transparent communication,” Myrick said.

Myrick also touched on the late October footage of Sergeant Kevin Slattery’s inappropriate comments about aggressively subduing a suspect and planting evidence. Slattery was suspended with pay on Dec. 3; the department is currently conducting an internal investigation.

Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor and Tompkins County sheriff Derek Osborne responded to the possibility of defunding the police, acknowledging that law enforcement responds to too many calls that could be diverted to better suited agencies. In the past, Nayor has frequently lamented how job vacancies and the number of calls have strained his officers.

Myrick agreed that the city should consider ways to fund social services, but said that they were not going to cut the Ithaca Police Department by 80 percent. He did suggest the possibility of diverting a portion of calls sent to other response agencies and funding more homeless shelters, and creating transitional and supportive housing to decrease the number of calls.

Myrick noted that police staffing has shrunk over the last several years. “We have to build the world we want to live in before we pull out that support,” he said. 

IPD used to account for around 23 percent of the city budget, but has shrunk to around 15 percent, according to Myrick. Meanwhile, programs like the Greater Ithaca Activities Center have seen funding increases by around 50 percent.

Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino ceded that investing in greater services and their availability is crucial to supporting the community. But he stressed that violent crimes will always be in the city — and Ithaca will consistently need support from public safety officers.