Ben Parker/Sun File Photo

John Poleway and Thomas Kelly shared their visions for leading the Ithaca Police Department.

November 6, 2023

Ithaca Police Chief Finalists Discuss Community Policing, Implicit Bias at Meet-and-Greet Event

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Ithaca’s two police chief finalists, John Poleway and Thomas Kelly, attended a community meet-and-greet on Nov. 2 to share their visions for leading the Ithaca Police Department, answer questions and respond to concerns including crime impacting the city and racial bias in the police force. 

The event was also an evaluative stage of the police chief search process, and a QR code posted prominently at the event allowed attendees to share their experiences interacting with the finalists.

The announcement of the two finalists comes after several turbulent years for the Ithaca Police Department. The city has not had a permanent police chief since former Police Chief Dennis Nayor retired in May 2021. In an interview with the Ithaca Voice, Nayor said that exhaustion from dealing with an unusually high volume of crises from 2019 to 2021 was a factor in his decision to retire.

The first search for a new police chief, initiated by Nayor’s retirement, culminated in December 2022 with the rescinded nomination of John Joly, the acting police chief at the time, when he was at the brink of being approved for the permanent position. The rescission was due to widespread Common Council objection over Joly’s remarks about the Black community at an October 2022 community forum and allegations that Joly contributed to a toxic workplace environment as a police lieutenant for IPD. 

Joly remained in his role as acting police chief until April 2023, when he stepped down from the role over what he claimed to be a “hostile work environment” and alleged racial discrimination on the basis of being white. Joly is currently pursuing legal action against the City of Ithaca over these allegations.

Acting Police Chief Ted Schwartz, who served IPD previously as a lieutenant, has led the department since May.

The IPD’s lack of a permanent chief over the past two years has coincided with officer staffing shortages. According to Thomas Condzella, president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, the IPD consisted of only 38 officers in August, down from over 80 in the early 2000s and 71 in 2011.

At the meet-and-greet, both finalists aimed to convince Ithacans that their backgrounds and experience in policing were sufficient to address the problems they would inherit as Ithaca’s new police chief.

John Poleway

Poleway spent much of his law enforcement career in Larchmont, New York, where he held several ranks, including police officer, detective, sergeant, detective lieutenant and chief of police, a position he served from 2008 until his retirement in 2021. Poleway emphasized throughout the event that policing is a profession in constant flux.

“I always felt it was important to continue to engage and educate myself, especially in policing, which is a very difficult profession because it’s constantly changing — certainly legislatively and societally, expectations change,” Poleway said.

The IPD is currently experiencing significant departmental changes. On April 5, the Ithaca Common Council unanimously passed the Reimagining Public Safety report, resolving to support progressive changes to the IPD, increase coordination between IPD and outside groups — such as the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, No Más Lágrimas and St. John’s Community Services — establish a deputy city manager position, improve accountability within the force and create reporting structures. Although this plan is significantly different from former Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 original 2021 proposal to replace IPD with a civilian-led agency, which was poorly received by the IPBA, it will change many processes within the department.

Poleway said that an essential step in ensuring that the department is changing to fit the needs of Ithacans is engaging directly with community members.

“Community policing is really what proper public safety or law enforcement is about. It’s about getting to know the community and then responding to their issues [by] working in collaboration with them,” Poleway said.

Thomas Kelly

Kelly has a background in both policing and professional development. He is one of the lead instructors for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services in procedural justice and implicit bias. In his 22 years serving the police department in Schenectady, New York, Kelly has investigated and responded to homicides and major crimes that affected the city while also investigating the use of force within the department. At the meet-and-greet, Kelly highlighted the importance of mitigating the impact of implicit bias.

“One of the things I learned about six years ago when I started this process [of working in professional development] is that everybody has implicit bias. Right or wrong, it’s implicit. It’s not explicit. It’s not somebody vocally saying ‘I don’t like this person’ or ‘I don’t like that person,’” Kelly said. “It’s implicit, so it’s an involuntary reaction based on your education, your experiences, your upbringing, the media [and] social media.”

Kelly continued that officers can reduce the harm caused by implicit bias by slowing down and making more fact-based decisions in addition to engaging with implicit bias training. At a larger scale, he has experience working with the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety to survey arrestees on their interactions with law enforcement and is in favor of evaluating the racial composition of arrests and traffic stops to measure the impact of implicit bias on the over-policing of people of color.

However, to Kelly, working to resolve these present-day issues that create distrust between police and marginalized communities does not go far enough. Police departments, he said, must acknowledge their historical contributions to systems of oppression. 

“Part of the conversation we have with procedural justice — there’s a history component. We talk about the fugitive slave patrols. We talk about Emmett Till. … the lady that started that… just died recently. That was a very real case that was still active, and they wouldn’t prosecute her,” Kelly said, referring the lynching of Till, a 14-year-old Black boy in Mississippi, which was sparked by an accusation by Carolyn Bryant that Till whistled at her — and the decision not to indict Bryant over charges of kidnapping and manslaughter. 

“We have these conversations because maybe I wasn’t there, and maybe the police officer next to me wasn’t there, but it’s our problem,” Kelly continued. “We wear the same uniform.”

As Ithaca nears the end of its second search process, the final candidates vie for the approval of a community that struggles to reconcile with a vast range of opinions about how policing should address city problems. At the meet-and-greet, community members shared contrasting lived experiences with policing and crime with the finalists. Despite differences in opinion, Ithacans generally expressed optimism about the potential the two candidates had for improving policing in the city.

“I came [to the meet-and-greet] because it’s very important to choose somebody that understands and is willing to build a relationship with this community for a better and safer community and safer officers as well,” said Anesti Isufaj, one of the co-facilitators of the Alliance of Families for Justice men’s support group, in a post-event interview with The Sun. “For both candidates, their point of view seems to be in line with what the city needs at the moment, especially with the crisis and everything going on on the streets. They’re strong, and they’re standing by their opinions, which is very important.”

Kate Sanders ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].