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Misconceptions, strong opinions abound in public discussion of Ithaca's police reform proposals

Ithaca's Common Council heard resident input on its plans to reform public safety. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)
Ithaca's Common Council heard resident input on its plans to reform public safety. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)
council police drama web

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — Ithaca residents spoke out on the city's proposed police reforms during Wednesday night’s contentious Common Council meeting. There was some confusion about what exactly the proposals entailed.

Last month, the Reimagining Public Safety working group recommended adding five unarmed police officers and hiring a civilian to oversee both armed and unarmed divisions. It also called for additional training for all officers. There would be no change to the existing armed police force or its budget.

But both supporters and opponents of the police reform plan said that they’ve seen fewer police on the streets in recent months. Some expressed fear the city’s police reform effort was to blame for the changes. The reforms have not been enacted yet.

Dean Servos owns Simeon’s Bistro, a restaurant on the Ithaca Commons. Servos said he was having trouble hiring workers for his restaurant and said it was the lack of police that was driving potential hires away.

"In 2020, we started to see less police presence and more rhetoric from the mayor's office about how to get rid of the police," Servos said.

There has been a decline in the number of police officers on duty, but it's not because of the proposed police reforms. Over 20% of the Ithaca Police Department are away on a voluntary leave of absence — some are on parental leave, some on medical leave, others are on military deployment.

Another common misconception during the meeting was the idea that the reforms would abolish the police force altogether.

"It's a slippery slope to consider removing or shrinking the police force," said Nick Domster, of Bangs Ambulance. "My only comparison to that is that would be like removing the locks and doors from your house. You may be comfortable with that, but I'm certainly not."

The Reimaging Public Safety plan does not call for any changes to the city's existing armed police force. On the contrary, Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis said the city is actively recruiting additional armed police officers and had separatelyincreased the police budget this year.

Alderperson and Reimagining Public Safety working group member Ducson Nguyen said many of the misconceptions voiced during the meeting were also repeated in emailed comments.

"A number of comments and emails that we received recently made me feel like I was living in some alternate universe," Nguyen said.

Other commenters, like Ithaca Democratic Socialist leader Teresa Alt, said it wasn't enough to hire five unarmed responders. She said compared to the number of armed police, five unarmed responders were insufficient to deal with the volume of non-emergency calls.

"When five [unarmed] responders, all rookies by definition, can't handle what 30 police officers and a dog do, then the public will declare them a failure," Alt said.

The report said the five unarmed responders would be expected to provide services for which police aren’t currently responsible. 

Some residents, like Tompkins County Latino Civic Association President, Patricia Fernandez De Castro, praised the proposals.

"Our people have historically experienced marginalization and discrimination, especially from those who are called to provide us with safety and peace," Fernandez de Castro said.

Fernandez de Castro said the reforms were a step in the right direction and called on the council to adopt the recommendations.

Ithaca's Common Council will hear public comment and discuss the Reimagining Public Safety report again in May.

You can read the Reimaging Public Safety report here.