Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 made national headlines after unveiling a sweeping proposal to replace the Ithaca Police Department with a civilian-led agency. But over a week after Myrick’s announcement, several Ithaca activists are clamoring for revisions on the proposed changes that they feel don’t go far enough.
The proposal recommends a new department, composed of both unarmed and armed workers who will be trained to respond to different types of crises. The unarmed members of the department will be trained in de-escalation and a variety of services, while armed members will focus on preventing serious crime — shrinking the number of calls that armed officers are supposed to respond to.
Calls for racial justice haven sustained in Ithaca over the past year, starting in late May after the murder of George Floyd. Every Sunday since May 2020, protesters have taken to the Commons, calling for police reform, budget cuts and organizing in local groups such as the Ithaca Pantheras, a group planning protests, mutual aid and fundraising in the community.
In response to similar rallies for Black lives across the country, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 203 in June 2020, which calls for municipalities with police forces across the state to review their policies and practices.
According to Myrick, the city held several private focus groups in November and December 2020 to hear community members’ perspectives to shape the proposal. These groups consisted of veterans, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and other communities.
“There are a lot of people who don’t typically get invited to participate in the civic space because of the time or the place. Showing up to a city council meeting, writing to your legislators are exclusive and make them feel unwelcomed,” Myrick said. “We did personal outreach, to frontline workers in the community, people who work in social services and homeless outreach.”
But according to Ray Kenyon, one of the leaders of the Pantheras, this outreach was not thorough enough, and they said the Pantheras were never reached out to as a part of the conversations around shaping the proposal, despite their presence in the local community.
“The fact that this proposal was framed with the concept that it was from the community — it was not,” Kenyon said. “I can say distinctly, it may have been from the well-off people who aren’t affected by the police as much. But the people that are affected were not talked to.”
Beyond feeling a lack of transparency, Keyon also expressed concerns with the unchanged $13 million Ithaca Police Department budget.
“We need funding for people in the community. [The IPD] has close to $13 million coming in, and most of that is for gratuitous funds,” Keyon said. The proposal in its current form makes no concrete budgetary changes for the department.
Several activists also said they were frustrated with the apparent rebranding of the police department, which they feel does not enact substantive changes.
“[Myrick]’s using all of these talking points to be like OK, we’re firing all the cops and there are not going to be cops anymore,” said Ary F., a local activist involved in the Pantheras organization. “But then, he goes on and he says these sentences about how he does not plan on a single officer losing their job. So if he wanted to put a plan out where that was the case, he should have just said that, instead of saying he was abolishing the police.”
The Cornell Abolitionist Revolutionary Society, which has been involved with the local Black Lives Matter movement since the fall, has also been organizing over the past week, hoping to pressure the city to revise the proposal.
“We’re following the lead of the Pantheras. CARS is trying to act as a pipeline that transmits information that city organizers want Cornellians and Cornell activists to know and the activist scene here to follow,” said Tyler Brown ’22, a member of CARS.
The city is currently accepting feedback on the proposal online. Myrick said the city has received several comments already and will be open to comments until the Common Council votes on the proposal March 31.
“Not only does this proposal still need to be voted on by Common Council, but will continue as a living document to grow and change based off of public feedback,” Myrick said.
According to Kenyon, Ithaca activists have been proactive in contacting Common Council members and attending public forums. Kenyon said they believe, however, that the city government should make a larger effort to listen to marginalized voices.
“Actively getting people that have been marginalized on their own behalf is damn near impossible if they don’t feel the system is going to change,” Kenyon said. “We’ve reached out, we’ve said stuff. It really is upon our government to decide if they want to listen to the community at all.”
Keem A., who has been regularly attending local Black Lives Matter protests, said he believes that direct action such as protests should continue while the proposal awaits its vote.
“Doing direct action with activists and organizers, constantly emailing and contacting elected officials, and also doing demonstrations and having sit-ins — that all is part of the general will to get towards collective liberation,” Keem said. “Especially now, more than ever. The time to stop protesting isn’t now for sure. It’s actually time to keep going, more and more.”