The Most Ambitious Effort Yet to Reform Policing May Be Happening In Ithaca, New York
Mayor Svante Myrick’s new proposal would replace the city’s existing police department with a “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” intended to reduce the involvement of armed officers in disputes. BY WESLEY LOWERY February 22, 2021 It’s been nine months since the George Floyd protests thrust “Defund the Police'' and other abolitionist rhetoric into mainstream political discourse, yet the results have been meager so far. While some municipalities have sliced significant chunks from their police budgets—$150 million in both Los Angeles and Austin, Texas—a Bloomberg News review found that about half of the nation’s largest cities saw their 2021 police budgets either increase or stay the same . Of those departments that have cut back police funding, the Associated Press found, defunding has been modest , not monumental. Yet even as mainstream political operatives have declared the concept a political loser—just last week President Biden reiterated his opposition to defunding during a CNN town hall—a handful of cities have significantly reexamined the role of their police. In Berkeley, Ca., armed officers no longer conduct traffic stops or respond to mental health and homelessness calls. Portland ended the deployment of “school resource officers,” long linked to the criminalization of Black and brown youth and the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. And now, in a proposal announced today, the mayor of Ithaca, NY will attempt the most radical reimagining of policing in the post-George Floyd era so far: abolishing the city’s police department as currently constructed and replacing it with a reimagined city agency. In a nearly 100-page report obtained by GQ, Mayor Svante Myrick will propose replacing the city’s current 63-officer, $12.5 million a year department with a “Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety” which would include armed “public safety workers” and unarmed “community solution workers,” all of whom will report to a civilian director of public safety instead of a police chief. Under the proposal, all current officers would have to re-apply for a position with the new department. “IPD currently spends one third of its time responding to calls for service that essentially never lead to arrests,” Myrick writes in the report’s introduction. “Those calls, as well as a majority of patrol activity, can and should be handled by unarmed Community Solution Workers well trained in de-escalation and service delivery. This will allow our new Public Safety Workers to focus on preventing, interrupting and solving serious crime.”
If the proposal is approved, calls for service will be evaluated to determine whether an armed or unarmed respondent is necessary, or another public agency altogether would be best to respond. Mental health calls would be outsourced to a standalone unit of social workers based on the CAHOOTS program pioneered in Eugene, Oregon. The goal, ultimately, is to have far fewer encounters between citizens and armed government agents.
“Everyone wants the police to perform better when they show up, everybody wants that. What this plan is saying is that we also want the police to show up less—and that’s a radical thing for a city and a mayor to do.” Myrick, 33, told me in an interview Sunday. While it may have been possible to push for similar reforms within the current department, Myrick said the entrenched culture would make them impossible to fully implement. In recent years, the city has battled with the police union over discipline for problem officers, including one officer who was caught on body camera bragging about dragging a handcuffed suspect down a set of stairs and another who was found to have inadequately investigated hundreds of crimes assigned to her over the course of a decade.
“This is my 10th year overseeing this department. And at times I feel like I’m managing a fish tank that somebody dumped a bunch of red dye in,” he said. “When that happens, you have to scoop a gallon of water out, and put fresh water in, and the tank becomes a little less red with each gallon. This is a way of starting over with a fresh tank.” 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.”