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Police reforms are a minefield, even in progressive communities

Police reforms are a minefield, even in progressive communities
© getty: People walk down 16th street after “Defund The Police” was painted on the street near the White House on June 08, 2020

In February 2021, GQ declared that “the most ambitious effort to reform policing may be happening in Ithaca, New York.” Responding to the protests following the killing of George Floyd and Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition New York City Marathon returning with smaller field Cuomo book deal worth at least .1 million: report MORE’s executive order mandating comprehensive reviews by New York’s local governments of their public safety policies and procedures, Svante Myrick, Ithaca’s articulate, ambitious, young mayor, decided to replace his city’s 63-person police department with a Department of Public Safety. The entrenched culture, Myrick concluded, made it impossible to implement reforms from within.

Based on massive evidence throughout the nation of police violence against people of color, data demonstrating that Ithaca policemen and women spend one-third of their time on calls that do not result in arrests, and assessments of public safety — in community engagement surveys, town hall meetings, public forums, and focus groups — the new entity, headed by a civilian superintendent, would retain (an unspecified number of) armed officers and add unarmed “community solutions” personnel. Mental health interventions would be outsourced to a standalone unit of social workers. The current $12.5 million budget would be increased.

Myrick indicated that although Ithaca police officers would have to reapply for positions in the new department, he had not yet decided whether to use the word “abolish” when discussing the proposal: “The plan would abolish the police department while not abolishing policing.” He predicted a big battle: “Fox News will lose their shit.”

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GQ and Mayor Myrick, it turned out, had gotten out ahead of their skis.

The tumult that ensued in Ithaca (where I live) serves as a potent reminder that while comprehensive police reform in the United States is long overdue, the issue — when framed by polarizing debates about de-funding — is a minefield, on which one misstep can be fatal, even in politically progressive communities.

A few days after the GQ story appeared, Myrick apologized to the Ithaca Common Council and the Police Department. He should have given them a heads up before agreeing to the interview, the mayor said. His claim that police officers would have to reapply for their positions had been a mistake. Emphasizing that he continued to stand “fully behind the reform package,” Myrick admitted his “serious errors in the rollout” might reduce the chances it would be approved.

Although Myrick and Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molina defended the proposals for providing transparency, combatting racial profiling, and giving armed officers “a smaller footprint,” criticism from across the ideological spectrum intensified. The Ithaca Police Benevolent Association denounced the reforms as radical, union busting, and corrosive to morale; unarmed social workers, the IPBA warned, would encounter violent individuals. Members of the Tompkins County Legislature and the Ithaca Common Council worried about costs and potential conflicts with the County Sheriff, an elected official. Racial justice advocates dismissed the reforms as a rebranding exercise, an abandonment of restorative justice and accountability for police transgressions that “feels performative, placating and self-serving.” A leader of the Tompkins County Anti-Racist Coalition blasted the mayor for “suppressing or erasing the fundamental demand for massive police defunding.”

Forced to act ahead of the April 1 deadline mandated by Gov. Cuomo, the Ithaca Common Council unanimously endorsed a vaguely worded resolution about joint efforts with Tompkins County to evaluate and improve policies and practices related to crisis intervention, SWAT services, traffic stop enforcement, a public safety dashboard, and a more diverse workforce.

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Myrick emphasized that his proposal was “a living document. We need more time, we need more study, we need more research.” The Council reaffirmed the job security of Ithaca police officers, but made no other decisions on policy or implementation, resolving only to create a new department, “tentatively called the department of public safety, which may be led by a civilian director.” And, as “agenda item one” for the city, the Council promised to create a task force to make recommendations, no later than Sept. 1, 2021, on the department’s organization, functions, and budget, naming conventions, and a timeline for public review and comments.

Ithaca probably will — and should — enact some public safety reforms, including separate units for armed officers and unarmed community solutions workers, headed by a civilian. Mindful, no doubt, that Ithaca activists are in no mood for compromise, Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff reminded her colleagues and constituents that the city has taken “a baby step, and a first step, and a step in the right direction.”

Ithacans also know, of course, that “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of "Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century."