INTERVIEW: Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick On April Commons Incident

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) – Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick recently sat down with reporter Celia Clarke at WSKG’s Ithaca studio to answer questions about an incident that occurred on the Ithaca Commons earlier this year.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Media

Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick in the WSKG Ithaca studio. September 19, 2019. (Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio)

The forceful arrests of Cadji Ferguson and Rose de Groat, who are both black, lead to an internal police investigation and several protests by social justice groups, who want the charges to be dropped. Ferguson was found not guilty in August.

The interview took place before charges against De Groat were dismissed by a judge on September 27th.

 

[Transcript]

CELIA CLARKE:  In the August 8 Common Council meeting, you were asked if you would issue a public apology to Rose and Cadji, and you said you’d be willing to issue a public apology. You didn’t exactly do that at the moment. So, I’m wondering, have you sent an apology or met with them to apologize? And what do you think they deserve an apology for, specifically.

SVANTE MYRICK:  Specifically? Well, I think that, you know, not everything our officers did that night was up to our standard, you know. And there are several specific examples that our internal investigation found, and for the ways in which officers didn’t live up to our standards, you know. We should apologize that we should offer that to every citizen, when we make a mistake. And that’s true across all departments…

And so what I offered that night is that “Yeah,” I said, “if this counts as a public apology, saying it into a camera with microphones in the public, then, you know, accepted this as our apology. But if you’d like something else, let me know.”

So, since then, we’ve corresponded with Rose and Cadji and offered a meeting date and, several dates, and they would like to get together, but they asked to put it off a bit until I believe until after the court proceedings are over. So whenever they’re ready, we stand, I stand ready to meet with them to talk about how we can help keep their life moving forward in a positive direction.

CC:  So does that mean that they should expect an apology or that they’ll get one from the police department as well?

SM: Um, I don’t know, I think that’s very possible. I know that our department is often is very willing to meet and engage with with people, you know, in a frozen coffee or interested in meeting with the officers who are directly involved in the incident, with the chief himself and if they’re interested in that conversation, I think an apology is certainly possible from them.

CC: Um, you just mentioned the internal investigations. The investigation officially found no wrongdoing by officers, but what could they have done better?

SM:  Yeah, that’s a good question. And I should preface this by saying that, you know, this is this is going to be tough to hear if you’re a police officer, family member of a police officer or friend of a police officer who’s listening to this conversation…And in the scrutiny is unfair. But it’s important to when things don’t go right to be very honest about that and to be transparent about it, not because we want to beat up on the officers. But because that’s the way to build trust. You know, I mean, we imbue our officers with a lot of power. They have the cars that the uniforms they 

CC:  They have the guns and tasers.

SM: The guns, the tasers and the law behind.

CC:  And what people sometimes say is, it’s one thing for me to make a mistake, it’s another thing for them to make a mistake, because that can cost somebody their lives…

SM: Exactly. So, there’s a lot of power. So, we have to hold it accountable. And we have to be transparent.

So, I say all that to preface, you know, what I’m about to say, which is that yes, there were several things that even though not punishable by law, we’ve made clear inside our department weren’t, weren’t properly handled, and we’ve set up trainings to make sure that they won’t happen again.

So, in the first case, “bunching” what you’ll notice, if you watch the video, this is a fight happening on one end of The Commons — we have four, I think, five officers on The Commons, all five officers were standing in a circle talking to each other. Right? If they’ve been properly deployed throughout The Commons the odds that physical altercation would have happened at all would be much lower because we’d have greater coverage.

The second thing: the taser.  You know, one officer pulls a taser out before they even arrive on the scene of the fight. And seemed to use it pretty quickly before even you know the person who was the person who was the victim of that taser, Cadji, was able to, was able to obey commands, right?

There was a there was a problem with the way that couple of the officers penned a suspect. You know, it’s very difficult to pen folks especially if they’re wriggling around, if they’re resisting. But, you know, to pen folks down we use the torso, we use the central body mass. Sometimes you can use the arms, you can use the legs, but you should never use the head because it can lead to injury and certainly painful stuff.

So, things like that. I mean from the deployment pre incident, to how they dispersed the incident to even afterwards. The questions that we asked of Cadji and Rose for the questions we asked if the other person involved in the incident could have all given us a little bit more color about what happened. And, and, and it wasn’t our finest moment.

CC: Let’s go back. We were talking about the Common Council meeting where you, where you talked about issuing a public apology. You also said I hope we can get to “true justice”. So, what does “true justice” look like for you for this, in this instance?

SM: In this incident.

CC: Mm hmm.

SM: Well,… I think, I guess, for me, justice is not about punishment. It’s about restoration. Right? It’s about seeing that people who were harmed have that harm reversed, right. People who were made poor, receive recompense. People who were victimized are made to feel safe again, right? And doing everything in our power to make sure that people who offend don’t reoffend. That’s what justice looks like to me broadly.

So, in this case, what does that mean? It means if our officers overstepped or did something improper, how do we make sure that those officers never do that again, right? If these two young people feel like their rights were violated, they weren’t treated well, they weren’t treated fairly? How do we make sure they feel like both their rights are restored, and their standing in the community doesn’t suffer?

If our police officers are feeling less secure, less safe, as I know that they are because they like when they go into a scrum, you know, somebody might take a swing at them? How do we make them feel safer again?

And if you are a person of color, who watches this incident and goes, “Geez, am I going to be safe around the police?” What can we do as a community to, to alleviate that, to give people confidence that they can get a fair shake from the police.

CC:  Want to talk more broadly, because you’ve done this publicly, but, I really wanted to give you some time to delve into this. At an earlier meeting…there were also protesters filling the Common Council room and you spoke about structural racism being throughout the city and specifically mentioned empty planning board meetings and about housing. What’s the connection between The Commons incident and people coming to planning board meetings?

SM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a good question. I think it is especially about, that’s a message for people who would be allies, you know. Folks who really want to see true racial and social justice in our community, and are maybe looking for ways to get there. And are really attracted to issues that are flashy that have video evidence, like there was there were videos of this incident so you can see it. So it’s easy to grasp, and easy to say, “Look, here’s a here’s a demonstration of not only am I not racist, but I’m anti-racist, because I’m standing up for these two young people.”

But, there are invisible injustices that happen all around us.

And if all of those allies, those people who want to stand up for true racial justice, if that’s the only work they do this year just to stand up for those two young people. But then, you know, congratulate themselves and say, “Look, we did a good job, and we can rest assured that there will be justice throughout the land now.”

I wanted them to know that it’s, it’s not really the case. That there’s an invisible form of prejudice that happens in our community around the fact that there are not enough homes for all the people who want to live here. And that every effort to build more homes for the people who want to live here is met by a wave of fierce resistance, most fears by fairly wealthy property owners who already live inside the city, and who just don’t want, quote those people to be living near them.

CC: Do you want to be more specific? It’s not just all wealthy owners.

SM: What’s that?

CC: Is it just white, wealthy owners primarily? Or is it across the board, racially?

SM: Well, it’s, well, I mean, it’s across the board racially. It is, it really is. But it’s predominantly white wealthy owners, because predominantly, white folks have been the only folks who’ve been given the opportunity to accumulate wealth and land ownership here in the city of Ithaca. So, I have no doubt that if there were, you know, a bunch of black property owners in the city that we would also see NIMBY activity from from them as well.

But, it’s, it is, it can be disheartening to, you know, I’ve spent the last 12 years in some capacity and other inside City Hall. And always, always, always, the room is packed with people who say, “This is too much, you know, we’re not against, you understand, we’re not against affordable housing, but worried about the character of the neighborhood.” Wink wink, you know, what does “character of the neighborhood “mean?

And always, there’s nobody there to stand up for the people who are invisible, the people who would be living in those projects. And what that means is that we really need people who can be allies who won’t be living in that housing. You know, people like that the great, you know, the 40 or 50 folks who are willing to show up at the D.A.’s office and in the city Council meeting, at the city court. It would be great to have them start circling those planning board meetings on their agenda,  too.

CC: I want to thank you, Mayor Svante Myrick.

SM: Thank you so much.