As you may know, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick ’09 recently released a plan to replace the Ithaca Police Department with a new “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety.” The department would be divided between armed “public safety officers” and unarmed “community solution workers.”
The plan has received fulsome praise and withering criticism. It deserves neither. I was part of the process that led to this document. Though the mayor badly botched the rollout, the vision behind the plan is exactly right. If we separate process from substance, we can still achieve meaningful change.
First, a bit of background. After Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd and the country erupted in protest, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y) issued an executive order directing all municipalities in the state that had a police force to conduct a “comprehensive review” of police practices and to “develop a plan” that would “foster trust, fairness, and legitimacy, and … address any racial bias and disproportionate policing of communities of color.” To make sure everybody got the message, Cuomo threatened to withhold state funding from any municipality that failed to comply.
Ithaca and Tompkins County responded to the order by teaming with the Center for Policing Equity and creating several working groups, each of which examined a different piece of the puzzle. One group analyzed data from the Ithaca Police Department and Tompkins County Sheriff, another conducted a series of community forums, etc.
I was a member of the Law Enforcement/Public Safety group, which met regularly from September, 2020 until mid-February, 2021. The group included, among others, the most senior law enforcement officials in Ithaca and Tompkins County. It did not, however, include the mayor.
Without disclosing internal deliberations, it is fair to say that by the end of January, a consensus had developed within the group that Ithaca Police Officers should respond to only those calls for service that require an armed, uniformed officer. As someone said in one meeting, a police officer doesn’t need to respond to every call for a cat in a tree. I do not feel it is right to reveal who said what, but I can say that I have advocated this position for years, and that I repeatedly made my position known. And it bears emphasizing that there was great support within the group for this broad vision.
In the course of our meetings, we spent a great deal of time discussing how we could achieve this vision. In particular, we looked closely at alternative models of public safety that have been developed and implemented around the country over the last several decades. Though these models vary from place to place, they have one thing in common: they all try to shrink the blue footprint by enlisting someone else to respond to calls that do not require an armed officer.
But as this consensus developed, I also repeatedly sounded a warning. Though a number of successful alternatives operate in large and small cities nationwide, no one should imagine they are easy to implement. Many cities have tried to adopt an alternative model and many have failed. When it has worked, the success can be traced to a careful, patient process in which all stake-holders collectively and collaboratively crafted a solution that met the unique needs of the particular jurisdiction. There is no quick fix, and what works in Tulsa may not work in Topeka. I had hopes that we would try to develop an alternative model and that it would be tailored to our needs.
These matters stood until Friday, February 19, 2021, at 6:09 p.m., when I received an email from a city official containing a confidential draft of a plan. I could not tell who else received the email as it was addressed to the sender, which means I was included as a blind copy. I assume everyone who had been on a working group received the same email, since the opening line read, “Thank you all for your extraordinary efforts….!”
This was the first I had seen of any written plan, and from discussions with others, I believe that is the case for everyone who had been on a working group. None of us were consulted beforehand or involved in the drafting. Yet the draft plan was 95 pages long and had obviously been in the works for some time.
Critically, the draft contained the recommendation to eliminate the IPD and fold it into a new unit containing both armed and unarmed officers, but nary a word about how we’d get it done or what the final result would look like. To put it charitably, it was little more than a vision statement. I can say unequivocally that no such model was ever discussed in any meeting of the Law Enforcement/Public Safety working group.
The email announced that the plan would be released to the public the following Monday. After working collaboratively for more than five months, we were presented with a draft plan on a Friday evening and told it would be released to the public in three days. Several of us worked feverishly over the weekend to propose detailed changes to the plan. None of our proposals made it into the final document. Rubbing salt in the wound, Mayor Myrick apparently released the plan to a reporter with GQ, which ran a glowing puff piece about him and touted “Myrick’s plan” as possibly “the most ambitious effort yet to reform policing.”
Let’s be blunt: the mayor mishandled the process. To this day, we don’t know who drafted the report, which helps explain why so few people in Ithaca have rallied to its defense. Far more importantly, the ill will he created may have destroyed whatever chance there was to achieve genuine change.
That would be a great loss. The overarching vision contained in “his plan” is exactly right — we need to shrink the blue footprint dramatically. And we can do it. There is broad support for this vision. It will take great care to advance it, but we can reimagine public safety in Ithaca and achieve a meaningful transformation that will honor the memory of George Floyd and make Ithaca better for all her residents. The change will not come through misguided grandstanding from the top, but through patient institution-building from the bottom.
Whatever scorn we heap upon the mayor, we should not lose sight of the opportunity we have.
Joseph Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.