The city of Ithaca had big plans to reform its police force. But a year later, those efforts have largely stalled. Two police officer positions that were eliminated last year are now being restored in the city’s 2022 budget.
The moderate increase to the police budget comes as Ithaca, like many other municipalities in the region, struggles to fill its existing vacancies.
At a budget hearing last month, acting Ithaca Police Chief John Joly praised the decision to restore two police officer positions that had been cut last year.
“I have requested three [new officers]. The mayor has put two [officers] into the budget which will still help us greatly,” Joly said.
With those new positions, Ithaca’s police budget for 2022 totals $12.8 million, up from $12.5 million last year.
In the hearing, Joly said the city’s police department was shorthanded, echoing sentiments voiced by the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, the labor union that represents workers at IPD.
“For our patrol division, we have 22 officers assigned across all three shifts right now,” Joly said. “Which is the lowest number of actual officers on the street, I think since I’ve started working here at IPD.”
Ithaca pays for 67 officers. Currently, there’s only 49 officers available to work.
That’s because 13 police officers are on paid leave right now — just over 20% of the force. Many officers are on medical leave, two are on military deployment and one is on parental leave.
There are also five previously funded positions that have gone vacant for months. Joly said that those positions, as well as the two new positions, may remain unfilled for a year until the state can administer a training program for potential officers next September.
The budget also includes funding to encourage members of police forces in other New York cities to transfer to the Ithaca Police Department. An officer hired through the “lateral transfer” process would receive a one-time bonus of $10,000.
The lower staffing levels raised some concern among members of the Common Council, like George McGonigal, who suggested the 2022 budget restore four police officer positions rather than two.
“We’re growing in population and I think we just don’t have enough officers,” McGonigal said in the hearing.
McGonigal’s suggestion ultimately was not adopted in the final budget.
Cornell Law Professor Joe Margulies studies criminal justice and served on the board tasked with reforming Ithaca’s police department. Margulies said that the low staffing levels within Ithaca’s police force predate the pandemic and racial justice protests in 2020.
“The department has been at less than its full contingent for quite some time,” Margulies said. “That doesn’t necessarily translate into a shortage of officers unless you believe that the city needs the full contingent.”
Margulies said there are many jobs the police are asked to handle that might be better suited for someone else.
There also has been a number of high profile police incidents in Ithaca recently, including a bomb scare on Cornell’s campus and an hours-long manhunt and lockdown order after a shots fired incident. Neither incident resulted in any injuries or deaths. Some residents questioned the extent of the police response to the latter incident.
Margulies said the incidents shouldn’t be minimized, but he doesn’t agree with the characterization that Ithaca is experiencing a wave of violent crime.
“Everybody has a right to live in a neighborhood that is safe, healthy and viable, rich or poor,” Margulies said. “But it is it is emphatically wrong to say that there is a crime wave engulfing the city of Ithaca or anything like that. That’s just offensive in its fear mongering.”
Margulies said that crime is typically concentrated among a small group of people often acting within a limited geographic radius.
Ithaca’s police reform committee, the Re-Imagining Public Safety task force, also received funding in next year’s budget, totaling $700,000.
You can review the city’s finalized 2022 budget online here.