The Most Ambitious Effort Yet to Reform Policing May Be Happening In Ithaca, New York -

The Most Ambitious Effort Yet to Reform Policing May Be Happening In Ithaca, New York

 The Most Ambitious Effort Yet to Reform Policing May Be Happening In Ithaca, New York

Myrick first came to Ithaca a decade and a half ago to attend Cornell University. Initially he planned to become a journalist, but before long he was working as the assistant to a member of the city’s Common Council. He’d long been fascinated by the concept of public service. His family had been in and out of homeless shelters during his childhood, and his mother often worked multiple jobs to keep them afloat, so he vowed to learn more about the role the government played—or should play—in helping people like him. When his boss retired in 2007, Myrick, still an undergraduate student, was elected to replace him on the Council. In 2011, he was elected mayor—the city’s first Black mayor and, at 24-years-old, the youngest mayor in state history. A decade later, he’s been re-elected twice by wide margins.

Now, he’s investing his political capital in a plan that would remove armed officers from most civilian interactions, which he said should free those who remain to fully investigate and solve serious crimes. “The investigators are going to be focused on the shooting last Tuesday, they will have nothing on their plate except finding that gun, finding that shooter and taking them off the street,” he said. “They won’t be pulled away from that work by a motor vehicle crash on 3rd Street or a welfare check on Madison.”

In order to move forward, Myrick’s plan will have to be approved by the city council, which is expected to debate and vote on it by the end of March. The mayor believes his proposal is likely to gain council support, yet it remains to be seen how much opposition it may face from the city’s police union, which has publicly sparred with Myrick previously and has gone nearly a decade without a contract. “I do think it will be a big battle,” Myrick told me, adding that he aspires to have the re-envisioned department up and running by Summer 2023: “Fox News will lose their shit.”

And the proposal will provide new fodder for the national semantics over policing, even as the plan itself lays bare how undercooked public perceptions are around much of the terminology. Depending on your rhetorical goals, it’s possible to argue that the Ithaca plan would mean the police department is being “abolished,” or policing in the city is being “reformed” and “reimagined,” or armed government response to public safety is being partially “defunded.” Myrick notes that the new department would likely result in more city money being spent on public safety—while the specifics are yet to be finalized, he envisions the combined staffs of the department’s unarmed and armed workers exceeding the city’s current number of police officers. He admitted he’s yet to decide whether he’ll use the term “abolish” when discussing the proposal: “This plan would abolish the police department while not abolishing policing,” he said.

The proposal is part of a report Ithaca and surrounding Tompkins County intend to send to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who last June signed an executive order requiring local governments to conduct comprehensive reviews of their police departments. With the help of the Center for Policing Equity, officials conducted a community engagement survey, held a series of town halls and public forums, and convened 21 targeted focus groups that included members of law enforcement, the formerly incarcerated and homeless citizens.

According to the report, community members said they often feel disrespected by police during interactions and questioned whether local police officers knew how to properly deescalate situations. As a result, respondents told city officials, they were hesitant to turn to the police for intervention. During the law enforcement focus group, police officers and sheriff’s deputies said they don’t believe the public understands what their jobs entail. They think the department is understaffed and under resourced; and called for better coordination between police and other public service agencies. “Few people who participated in the Reimagining Public Safety trust the process,” the report notes. “Both targeted focus groups and law enforcement think the other needs education. Both respondents from targeted focus groups and law enforcement agree that the lack of trust is a major issue that needs to be addressed.”

Yet even with the public and law enforcement in agreement that the status quo is lacking, it remains to be seen if everyone will be on board with such a radical reimagining of public safety. While Myrick’s recommendations are based on the thematic feedback collected during community meetings and forums, the specifics of the proposal have yet to receive public feedback and direct input.

Often, Myrick noted, change is more risky than doing nothing, even if the results stay the same. He gave the example of a citizen who has their bike stolen. Today, perhaps they blame that on the police, or on him as mayor, or on society as a whole. “If you announce this new change, and then the bike gets stolen, you wonder ‘was the bike stolen because the criminals are emboldened?”

Still, he said, it’s clear that the system is not working as is and he’d rather try to find the solution than continue to kick the can. “Once you can fully imagine an alternative response agency,” Myrick told me. “It’s hard to defend what exists currently.”

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