As the Chauvin trial continues, the US must reinvent public safety
On the third day of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the killing of George Floyd, the city council of Ithaca, NY, unanimously embraced a dramatic proposal to reimagine public safety. The plan will replace the city’s police department with a civilian-led department of public safety that would be staffed equally by armed officers and unarmed social workers.
The timing was coincidental, but I do not believe the outcome was.
Floyd’s killing, caught on video by a courageous bystander, reinvigorated a movement for more justice and accountability in law enforcement. Enraging and heartbreaking testimony in the trial has once again made the need for systemic change painfully clear. That is true even in places like Ithaca, where last year saw protests against incidents of racism and brutality involving local police and Black residents.
Change is coming. Last year’s massive street protests were the most visible sign of the renewed multiracial, multigenerational movement for criminal justice reform, but they were not the only action taking place.
Activists and public officials have been talking with law enforcement, community leaders and scholars to move beyond protests and develop new policies to make policing more just and accountable. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring municipalities with police departments to submit proposals for reform.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino led a creative, collaborative process in partnership with the Center for Policing Equity. They released their report and wide-ranging recommendations — including the creation of a new public safety department — in February.
People don’t normally think of a 100-page policy report with 19 policy recommendations as something exciting. This proposal is exciting. It is an outside-the-box approach to improving transparency, accountability and public safety. And now it will move toward implementation.
The Ithaca vote created a task force that is charged with designing the new department and coming up with a plan to implement the rest of the recommendations. There are many more hours of consultation and collaboration ahead to hammer out the details.
Of course, there is and there will be political resistance.
Police violence has often been defended, justified, and excused with a false narrative that public safety and police accountability are somehow incompatible — that making policing more just will inevitably make communities less safe. The day after Ithaca adopted the new public safety plan, Republican state senators followed that worn-out script in a highly partisan press conference.
Across the country, young elected officials like Myrick are rejecting that false tradeoff and are intent on building a public safety system that works for all of us. “Together we can challenge systemic bias in policing and make Ithaca safer for everyone,” he says.
Ithaca is lighting a path for public officials across the country. Change is needed. Change is possible. It requires creative thinking, community collaboration, and political courage.
And it will take energetic public involvement to shape new policies and support the public officials who are willing to take the heat in order to make progress possible.
Let’s work together to make it happen.
Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, DC, and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is also a visiting Scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.