Ithaca’s Black community weighs in on police reform plan

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Reimagining Public Safety working group leader Karen Yearwood spoke at the virtual town hall hosted by Southside Community Center. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — Ithaca recently finalized a plan to overhaul its police force. Last Thursday, that plan was presented to members of the city’s Black community at a virtual town hall.

The city’s “Reimaging Public Safety” campaign released the proposals in a report that’s been nearly two years in the making. Among the most significant proposals is a plan to hire five new unarmed “community responders” and to place both the armed and unarmed officers under civilian oversight.

The report does not call for any cut backs to the existing armed police force. Recently-elected Common Council member Phoebe Brown pointed out the previous Council had passed a budget that allows Ithaca to hire two additional officers, increasing the total number of armed police positions to 64.

“We’re talking about reimagining public safety. And we’re still hiring more [armed] officers,” Brown said.

She added, if Ithaca hires more armed police, she wants them to better reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the city. 

“Because if it looks the same, it’ll be the same,” Brown said.

Mayor Laura Lewis said the city is trying to improve diversity within the police force. The city recently hired three new officers, and at least one of them is Black. 

The report also calls for additional training for new and existing police officers, including modules on verbal de-escalation, implicit bias, crisis intervention and trauma informed policing.

Tommy Miller, a program director at Catholic Charities of Tompkins County, said existing hiring practices make it too easy for dangerous or problematic applicants to become police officers.

“They can go through the training, they can do the dance, and then we give them a gun,” Miller said.

Miller called for additional psychological evaluations for officers to weed out those who would abuse their power.

Christa Nunez, who runs an educational farm in Ithaca, echoed Miller’s sentiment. She said that when she first moved to the city a few years ago, she was often stopped by police for “driving while Black.”

“When I moved here it was like, is Ithaca a police state?” Nunez said. “It was like so many cops on the street at all times.”

Schelley Michell-Nunn is the city’s director of Human Resources and is a member of the working group behind the police reform proposals. Michell-Nunn said the screening process for new police officers is already fairly rigorous. 

“There’s the psychological evaluation, there’s a required medical evaluation, there’s also a background check, as well as a polygraph that’s required,” Michell-Nunn said.

The report does not call for any changes to the current psychological evaluation potential hires must undergo as part of their basic training.

Police trainers with IPD said in the report they’d like to have a more formal “police academy style” program for additional training and evaluations, to be modeled after a program currently in place in Broome County. However, police trainers said they were told the city does not have the resources to create such a program.

Currently, prospective IPD officers complete their basic training at one of the state police academies.

Many of the community members who spoke at the virtual event have been involved throughout the Reimaging Public Safety process. Moderator Nia Nunn said it’d be best to solicit input from other voices within Ithaca’s Black community.

Last month, the police reform proposals were submitted to the Common Council, which will then vote on whether to adopt or reject them.