On March 9, Cornell Democrats hosted a panel with leaders of the Reimagining Public Safety Working Group, an organization working to restructure the Ithaca Police Department to improve policing equity. The panel featured former Mayor Svante Myrick ’09, Ducson Nguyen, 2nd ward alderperson of Ithaca and Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood, co-leads of Reimagining Public Safety Working Group.
Following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, former Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 203, the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. The order urged all jurisdictions with police forces to evaluate their public safety policies, with the goal of improving service to their communities and addressing past racial biases.
In response to the order, former Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino and former City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 called together a collaborative of 40 individuals — experts in public safety and policing policy — to revise the Ithaca Police Department’s public safety policies to improve policing equity. On March 31, 2021, the Ithaca Common Council unanimously voted to pass the plan.
The event focused on the group’s proposed restructuring of Ithaca’s Department of Public Safety into the Department of Community Safety, an umbrella organization with civilian oversight in the form of a commissioner. The new department would be comprised of two branches: the Division of Police — staffed by armed police officers — and the Division of Community Solutions, which will be staffed by unarmed respondents.
“This is all about creating more access to meaningful solutions, decreasing contact with the criminal justice system and freeing up police so that they can focus on preventing crime and solving crimes,” Rosario said. “We over-rely on [the] police, and that creates adverse outcomes disproportionately for black and brown communities and other marginalized communities.”
The Department of Police would respond to calls such as assaults, burglaries and bomb threats. Meanwhile, the majority of calls for situations such as property checks, noise complaints and animal bites would be directed to the Division of Community Solutions.
The group’s proposals left the employment of the police department intact, without suggesting a decrease in staff. If implemented, it will call for the initial hiring of five respondents for the Department of Community Solutions.
The group cited other municipalities that have successfully diverted certain public safety issues away from the police department, such as Denver’s STAR program, which deploys Emergency Medical Technicians and mental health experts to non-violent calls related to mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.
The group hopes that the police department’s new structure can operate more efficiently and ease much of the burden currently placed on police officers.
“A lot of the police don’t want to go on all these calls either. But there are some policies that require them to do so. Sometimes when EMS is going to a homeless shelter, they require the police to come with them to secure the scene. Sometimes the police officers are uncomfortable because there’s someone with abdominal pain but they’re standing uniform.” Rosario said.
Yearwood noted that police officers had complained about lack of staffing and feeling overworked. He hoped that the department restructuring would help address these burdens.
“I think there’s more diversity of opinion within the police and you don’t get to always hear all of it,” Rosario said. “I know that some police have said there’s good in this report. I don’t think anyone agrees 100% with it, but I know that at least there’s some recognition that there’s some good in there.”
The team did not enjoy unanimity on all of its proposals and had to make several compromises to their original plans to appeal to a broader array of perspectives.
“I came in thinking we could be a little more radical than I expected, and I guess I was hit by a lot of political and legal realities and labor law realities,” Nguyen said.
Despite this challenge, the team expressed satisfaction with the results.
“But the product, I think, is good — it’s a good foundation to make truly systemic change. In the best tradition of being deliberative, taking into account multiple voices and viewpoints.” Nguyen continued.
For their suggestions to be enacted, the working group still needs to complete an official legal document to get their proposals on the ballot in the November elections. If accomplished, Ithacans will have the opportunity to vote to include the proposals in the city charter.