Proposal recieves mixed reviews from community and IPD
After an incident involving an Ithaca police officer drawing a weapon on a group of teenagers, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick introduced a new plan at the end of August to improve relations between the community and police force. However, many aspects of the plan have not been welcomed, particularly by members of local law enforcement.
Myrick released an outline of the plan on Aug. 25 via Facebook. He said the plan was proposed in part because of the Aug. 9 incident in which an out-of-uniform Ithaca police officer followed and pulled a weapon on two African American teenagers. The incident occurred on the same day as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri and has sparked a discussion about community-police relations.
Jamie Williamson, the public information officer at the Ithaca Police Department, said he doesn’t believe the Aug. 9 incident was the only motivating factor behind the Mayor’s plan.
“I am sure that the events of August 9th furthered the process and perhaps put it to the forefront of the mayor’s long list of things to do, but I am confident this incident was not the sole catalyst for his proposed plans,” Williamson said in an email.
Myrick said his initiative, which is called “Plan for Excellence in Policing,” features eight steps he believes will improve the IPD.
The steps of Myrick’s plan are body cameras on officers and cars; an Ithaca city residence requirement for incoming police officers; a community action team; a downtown outreach social worker; a new district office on the west end; a full review of policies and procedures; a 10 percent increase in police staffing; and improved community outreach programming.
“I think it’s going to lead us into the next generation of policing,” Myrick said.
The plan was formulated after conversations with law enforcement and community members and a review of academic literature, particularly related to body and dashboard cameras, Myrick said. He added most parts of the plan should be ready by Jan. 1.
Residency requirement controversy
While certain aspects of the plan — such as opening a district office on the west end — have been embraced by the IPD, others parts, particularly the residency requirement, have been strongly condemned.
Repeated attempts to reach the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the IPD, were unsuccessful. However, in a lengthy statement published via Facebook on Aug. 28, John Joly, president of the Ithaca PBA, raised issue with the mayor’s proposal to require incoming officers to live within the city of Ithaca.
“The suggestion that officers who live in the City would be any more invested is inaccurate and unsupported and a slap in the face to the members of the PBA,” Joly wrote. “The notion that resident officers would have a quicker response time is also absurd since officers rarely if ever are called to immediately respond from home.”
Joly went on to note that the cost of living in Ithaca is higher than in surrounding communities.
Myrick agreed that Ithaca is more expensive, but said the median income in city is $29,000 a year and police officers start out making $45,000 a year.
Joly said that the PBA is also concerned that a residency requirement would make it impossible for officers to separate their work lives from their personal lives.
“People call the police when they have exhausted all options and a situation has gotten out of their control,” Joly wrote. “This almost always involves conflict of some level. If the officers live in the City, they and their family now becomes an easy target for retaliation.”
Myrick responded to the PBA’s criticism, saying a residency requirement would strengthen the connection between the community and police force. He also said that public servants should be willing to sacrifice the ability to separate different aspects of their lives.
“I can say that any public servant has a hard time separating their work from their personal life,” he said. “As
somebody who works both for the taxpayers of Ithaca and lives inside the city, I know that better than anyone.”
Myrick also noted that the residency requirement would only be for incoming officers, not those already serving on the force. Myrick did acknowledge Joly’s concern that living in Ithaca is more expensive than living in surrounding towns, but said police officers are paid well enough to make it financially feasible for them to live in the city.
There has been an effort to compromise on the city residency requirement. On Wednesday Sept. 17, the Ithaca Voice reported John Barber, the IPD chief, brought forward a counter-proposal to Myrick’s residency requirement plan. Barber suggested that instead of making incoming officers live in Ithaca indefinitely,officers be required to live in Ithaca for three years, after which they would only be mandated to live in-county. Myrick said he is willing to consider Barber’s suggestion, but still believes a city residence requirement is best for Ithaca.
Increase in police staffing
Another part of Myrick’s initiative that has generated noise is his plan to raise staffing at the IPD from 60 to 66, representing a 10 percent increase. Myrick said this will better enable the police department to respond to problems in the community.
However, Joly wrote the notion that the Mayor is increasing police staffing by 10 percent is misleading.
He said on Facebook, since 2011, the size of the police force has decreased by over 13 percent, noting that in 2010 the IPD had 69 police officers, and by the end of 2012 they had 60, due to retirements and resignations. Joly said the mayor and City Council voted to remove those nine positions from the 2013 budget, despite opposition by the PBA.
Joly said replacing six out of the nine positions originally cut does not constitute increased staffing because the department is still below its personnel level of a couple years ago.
Despite sharp differences on certain parts of Myrick’s plan, the mayor and the PBA were able to find some common ground. In his statement, Joly wrote that Myrick’s idea of having body cameras on officers and cars is something worth exploring. However, he also said he is not sure there is sufficient staffing for the department to have the capacity to review tape taken from the cameras.
Myrick said he believes police officers with body cameras will improve community-police relations.
“I think there is lots of evidence that the cameras have a civilizing effect,” he said. “The police departments that have started using body cameras, the number of complaints about police went way down and the number of incidents of abuse of police went way down.”
He also noted that guilty convictions of criminals went up due to there being evidence of their crimes.
In his statement, Joly also acknowledged the merits of other parts of the Mayor’s plan including having a community action team and opening a district on the West End.
In addition to the PBA, Myrick’s proposal has also been questioned by a fraction of the Ithaca community that believes the plan was formulated without enough of their input. A demonstration on Sept. 3 outside of City Hall reflected some of the community’s displeasure with the plan.
Patricia Rodriguez, an associate politics professor at Ithaca College, attended the demonstration. She said
there were about 150 to 200 people there and some participants in the demonstration were able speak for the movement when the Common Council meeting began in City Hall.
Rodriguez said some in the community, herself included, feel the mayor’s plan didn’t go far enough in addressing police power.
“It doesn’t guarantee that there’s going to be accountability by the officers, even the whole issue with the cameras,” she said, pointing out that officers could turn off the cameras and say they didn’t function correctly.
Rodriguez cited a dismantling of military-style SWAT police equipment and increased community-led solutions to policing problems as another area where she believes the Mayor’s plan is weak.
“I think there needs to be a conversation that happens in which the community’s input is much more embedded in the dialogue about solutions,” she said.
Lynne Jackier, a member of the Ithaca community, said she had a mixed reaction to the Mayor’s plan. She said although Myrick deserves some credit for taking steps to address the problem of policing in Ithaca, she wishes the mayor’s plan went farther in “community-based policing.”
Jackier said community-based policing involves police officers being partners with the community they police and getting to know it, hopefully allowing the police to be more empathetic with people in the community and vice versa.
Myrick responded to some of the criticism from the community, saying he offered to meet with those who wanted to discuss the plan, and that some community members have taken him up on that.
“Any good ideas that come from that, I’m very willing to fold in,” he said.
Common council and the timeline of the plan
Cynthia Brock, first ward on the Ithaca Common Council, said council members reactions to the mayor’s plan were also mixed. The council reviewed the plan — specifically the residency requirement portion — on Sept. 17.
Brock said that at least two council members seemed reluctant to support the plan, while two support it. Brock said she still needs time to review the proposal; she wants the new police plan to last long-term and thinks the council should thoroughly review all aspects of the mayor’s proposal.
The process of reviewing and voting on the mayor’s plan will take place over the next couple of months, although there is some disparity between Brock and the mayor’s office over what parts of the plan will require council approval, she said.
Myrick said he expects only the residency requirement to need Common Council approval, and expects most of the other parts of the plan to be ready by Jan. 1. But Brock said any part of the plan that has legislative and financial aspects would presumably need to be approved by the council. In addition to the residency requirement, she cited cameras worn by officers, an office on the west end and any increase in police staffing as parts that would likely require council approval.