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Ithaca Mayor's Police Reform Plan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay on the topic of policing. As we have noted, changing the way policing is done is hard. So we've been trying to hear the experiences of people who are trying. That's why we called the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., Svante Myrick. This week, he announced plans to replace the city's police department with a civilian-led agency. If passed, it would be known as the Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety. The agency will include both armed and unarmed first responders who are trained to de-escalate a number of situations, all of whom will report to a civilian public safety director. This proposal has been called one of the most sweeping police overhauls in the country, so we've called the mayor to tell us more.

Mr. Mayor, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SVANTE MYRICK: Thank you for having me. I'm really thrilled to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, can you just tell me how you started to think about this in this way? How and when?

MYRICK: You know, starting in 2014 and culminating this summer, it was very clear that we were in a moment that was unlike any other, you know? The death of George Floyd triggered uprisings that were, in some cases, centuries in the making. So the governor issued an executive order that said every police agency should do a deep restructuring. They should talk to the community, gather data and figure out how best to move forward.

I kicked off a process and ended up collaborating with our partners in Tompkins County. We brought in the Center for Police Equity, which has been a wonderful partner as we analyze our data and do a landscape review of other communities and other tactics. And it really wasn't until the end, the last couple of weeks of this process, where we looked at all of our data and it became clear as day. The police officers themselves are saying, look, we're too stretched. You're asking us to do too much. You need more tools in the toolkit 'cause you can't just call us for every problem and then get mad when every problem isn't solved the way you want it to be.

And the community was saying, we don't want public safety to go away. We all want to feel safe. But we, too, want to see a different kind of public safety. We want to see people walking the beat again, you know? We want to see people engaging with the community. And there are a lot of problems we want a response for. But the presence of guns, the presence of a militarized force triggers people who are carrying past traumas. So it was in the last couple weeks of the processes. As we were synthesizing all the data, it became clear to me and ended up in the report the thing to do is to start over.

MARTIN: But - and help me see it. So what happens every day? Like, if you - I wake up in Ithaca. Like, if you've had a chance to implement this, I wake up in Ithaca. What do I see? Is it - do I see armed individuals and unarmed individuals walking together? Do I see - how - what does it look like?

MYRICK: Yeah, all of the above. I - so what you would see is, sometimes, you'd see the armed public safety workers, which is what we're calling them, by themselves. Sometimes, you'd see the unarmed community solutions workers by themselves on foot, walking around, engaging the community, solving things that we know will never lead to an arrest and have extremely low chances of leading to violence. And, sometimes, you'll see them dispatched together, right? Somebody's barricaded in their house. They're in mental distress. Their neighbor's worried, so they called. Maybe for that, we send the community solutions officers. If they start to feel uneasy, they think they may need some armed backup, we can dispatch both together. So what you're seeing is more tools in your toolkit.

MARTIN: The proposal has its critics. I mean, the Ithaca police chief called the draft radical. The president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, the PBA, the union said he was deeply concerned by the proposal. The Ithaca police chief's statement said that he agrees that police shouldn't respond to every crisis. But he, I think, is concerned about, you know, losing resources. So what do you say? And I'm guessing some of the public might be, too. So what do you say to that?

MYRICK: I understand, I truly do, where our officers are coming from because this is not just a career for many of them. And it's not just a job; it's an identity. And any deep structural change like this might threaten their identity. And that's why you'll hear inside the same statements. They say, no, we understand that things aren't going well. Morale inside the department is low. Trust from the community is as low as it's ever been. We've watched the uprisings. We understand that we need real change. And then when real change is presented, they go, well, do we really have to have real change?

It is a truism in local government that the only thing people hate more than the status quo is change and that managing that change is just got to be necessary. And I think, you know, the governor's executive order and what we put at the center of our efforts is that we have to have a collaborative process. The police were invited to provide a ton of input, and a ton of their input did make it into the report in the 19 recommendations that are in that report.

MARTIN: There are those who consider this whole concept kind of politically toxic. And as you sort of start this process of really trying to implement this, how does it feel to you? And I assume that you will say that that's not your primary concern. And I appreciate that. But what does it feel like?

MYRICK: Extremely fraught, you know? I really am trusting - this process was so thorough. And we worked with these great data analysts and sociologists and social service workers and law enforcement people to put together that - the data that inform the recommendations. So I feel comfortable about that. About the politics now, like, the actual electoral politics, it's been my experience that when it comes to law enforcement, you just have no idea. So when the politics are unclear, just do the best idea you've got governmentally and trust that in the long run, good government is good politics.

MARTIN: Svante Myrick is the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y. We're talking about his police reform plan, which is being presented to the city council shortly. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for talking to us.

MYRICK: Thank you. Really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANITEK'S "DISTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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