Mayor Svante Myrick Says It’s Time for the City of Ithaca To “Show Its Work”

Source: Ithaca Police Department Facebook page

Since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25th, cities and towns across the country have been the site of protests against police brutality. Calls to “defund police” have predominated, but there have also been calls to demilitarize and to reform police departments. Some folks see these efforts as related, while some see them as mutually exclusive.

I’ve always been a politics junkie and a policy nerd, so on June 2nd when Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick put out a Facebook post highlighting the Ithaca Police Department’s Use of Force policy, referring to it as “good as any police department’s in the country”, my interest was peaked.

I read the policy, and you should, too. Why? Because it dictates, theoretically, what police in Ithaca can and cannot do, physically, to enforce control over people.

The current policy was reportedly updated in 2019, and incorporated seven of the 8Can’tWait police reforms, endorsed by former President Barack Obama. That update, however, came on the heels of community outcry around use of force by the IPD against two young POC, Rose DeGroat and Cadji Malone.

Count me in as officially skeptical that this “good” policy is good enough to protect the most vulnerable in Ithaca.

Then just two days later, despite what Myrick referred to as the “progressive” nature of this newly-minted, “good as any in the country” policy, he publicly committed to reviewing and reforming the policy in another Facebook post.

Now the mayor really had my attention. He committed himself to engaging with the community in this latest review process, opened the door for real change to happen, but didn’t say anything specific about how that community engagement was going to work. Who were they going to talk to? How would folks in the community know how to participate? Where could people track the process?

I’ve never seen a door ajar that I wasn’t willing to stick my foot in and kick open wider in order to get my questions answered. I reached out to the mayor and asked if I could interview him about this upcoming process so that I could provide the community with information they could use to make the best of this moment. He, very graciously, invited me down to City Hall, with my mask on, for a chat.

Here’s what I found out.

How the 2019 Review Worked

Did you know there is no national standard for policing? I sure didn’t. As Myrick pointed out, “There are standards for many other municipal functions. Building code standards, child safety standards, but nothing for police.” New York State, however, through its Division of Criminal Justice Services, does offer accreditation for police departments around the state. The four goals of the program are to “increase the effectiveness and efficiency of law enforcement agencies”, “increase cooperation” between law enforcement agencies, “ensure the appropriate training of law enforcement personnel”, and “promote public confidence in law enforcement agencies.”

It is worth noting that, according to Myrick, only 10 percent of NYS police departments pursue this accreditation. Still, the City of Ithaca decided it was important to support standardization as a means of reform, so they hired Daigle Law Group, a Connecticut law firm, to review the IPD’s policies, draft updates, and shepherd the city through the accreditation process.

Myrick said the review of the Use of Force policy began in the spring of 2019, and a new policy was issued in July 2019.

When I asked him why he was committing to another review of the policy so soon on the heels of this last review he replied, “People don’t believe it’s progressive and you have to show your work.”

How was the community involved in the last review, I asked him. “There was no wider community engagement in [Daigle’s] review…that lack of community engagement is why we have to do it over.”

Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order

It would be fair, to my mind, to question how a policy that is so essential to the community’s relationship to the police department could be reviewed and approved by Common Council without any community engagement, but at least the mayor acknowledged before he got mandated to that community engagement has to happen. Government is so rarely pro-active. Credit where credit is due.

Now, however, what Mayor Myrick has committed to for Ithaca is mandated statewide. Four days after Myrick made his public commitment to review the IPD policy with the community, reform that policy as needed, and then report on the reforms to the public, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order #203, mandating all police departments in the state to do the same.

By April 1, 2021 all police departments across the state must create and present, with community input, plans to:

adopt and implement the recommendations resulting from its review and consultation, including any modifications, modernizations, and innovations to its policing deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, tailored to the specific needs of the community and general promotion of improved police agency and community relationships based on trust, fairness, accountability, and transparency, and which seek to reduce any racial disparities in policing.

If any community doesn’t complete the process and submit the plan to the state budget office by the deadline, the governor is threatening to withhold funding:

The Director of the Division of the Budget shall be authorized to condition receipt of future appropriated state or federal funds upon filing of such certification for which such local government would otherwise be eligible.

I’m no real fan of Cuomo, but he does understand that you hit them where it hurts, namely in their pocket book, if you want to make folks do something.

What Happens Now

When asked what the timing and process would be for this new review, Myrick had this to say:

I will be creating a small working group that will review each order. I’ll have them pursue the usual vehicles for community engagement- town halls, small groups, surveys. They’ll draft a new policy that would then be voted on by Common Council and submitted to New York State by the April deadline. The task force would be part of a county-wide revisioning of policing, called Reinvisioning Public Safety. Jason Malino is the county administrator who will lead this effort.

At the time of our interview, Myrick was planning to ask Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, an assistant professor of Education at Ithaca College and Ithaca City School District Board Member, to chair the working group. Invitations to other community members, which Myrick noted would be predominately Black, should be going out by mid-July.

Mayor Myrick further outlined the work before the city and the wider community in a Facebook Live post on June 18th. It won’t just be a review of the Use of Force policy. It will also involve an assessment of the future of the IPD’s S.W.A.T. team, and the allocation of funding (potentially) away from the IPD and towards public safety alternatives around homelessness, addiction, and mental illness.

This picture of our city S.W.A.T vehicle, used as children’s entertainment, is courtesy of the IPD Facebook page.

The city has established a microsite to collect contact information for community members interested in participating in this conversation. Get yourselves to the table, my friends.

Will it Work?

Like I said at the beginning of this post, there are folks who believe that reform, defunding, and demilitarization are related. Mayor Myrick is definitely in that camp. When I asked Myrick about this relationship he had this to say:

Reform is one leg of the tripod. Currently those two efforts are opposed- abolitionists vs. reformers. They need to realize they’re on the same side. Defunding the police will take several years of budget. But the Use of Force policy can and will be finished by next spring. To solve demilitarization permanently you have to put bounds on Council, which is illegal. Today’s Council can’t legally bind further Councils. But Council can say any tactical team (SWAT) can be renamed, some gear taken away, and the truck returned.

For myself, I want to believe that abolishing the police as we know them is possible. I’ve also been involved in Leftist politics long enough to know that work both inside and outside the system can, and should be, mutually enhancing. We need the radical work outside of the present system to pull the whole conversation to the left in the long run, and we need those people who are willing to do the often mind-numbingly detailed work inside the system to make things better for people, if even in incremental ways, today.

Where we get into trouble is thinking that the incremental work, mostly done by people who have the time and privilege to participate, is enough. It is never, ever enough. It will never, ever be enough. It is only a band-aid. It is not the real healing. Real healing requires justice. Real healing requires the utter dismantling of white supremancy and all the systems that uphold it. Reform, by definition, will not offer real healing.

I hope both reform and abolitionist folks will come to the table, to keep the city and community accountable for making things actually happen, and making sure what actually happens serves a wider vision of justice. I’ll be at the table. Will you join me?

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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