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Ithaca Common Council passes police reform plan, calls for new department but no 'abolition'

Apr 2, 2021
Originally published on April 1, 2021 9:35 am

ITHACA (WSKG) — Following weeks of speculation that its police reform plans would lead to “abolishing” the police department, the Ithaca Common Council voted to approve its recommendations Wednesday.

Amid a few hours of deliberating over particularities in the wording of the proposals, it was clear that Council members supported a continued role of police in the city, albeit as part of a new overarching department.

Councilor Donna Flemming offered an amendment to the resolution to eliminate a specific line dealing with what had been originally coined as the Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety. Flemming’s amendment would remove the term “create a department” from the recommendation.

“The reason I’d like to delete that is because I think the phrase ‘to create a department’ implies that we would eliminate the current department, and I don’t think that’s the implication we want to make,” Flemming said.

Though discourse remained tempered, other Council members disagreed with Flemming, asserting that “create a department” means a much deeper change to the existing Ithaca Police Department.

“They’re looking for something that very obviously is a new department, is a departure, is a rebuild, is something that’s built for our community,” Councilor Stephen Smith said, paraphrasing what he’s heard from constituents. “That’s what the hope is, is that we’re taking this moment to really hit the reset and build something, a new something, again, built for our community and not enhancing a system that frankly there isn’t much trust in.”

Flemming’s amendment failed in a 6-4 vote, the most contentious of the evening.

The Council was, however, more in favor of two moves by Councilor George McGonigal on changing wording in the same recommendation. The first changed the tentative name of the new overarching agency to the “Department of Public Safety.” The second specified that armed officers under that agency would be called police officers, a departure from previous wording that had left that up for the task force designing the new department to decide.

“I’d soon rather call a duck a duck,” McGonigal said.

According to the resolution, a task force will now take over the work for designing how the new overarching Department of Public Safety would work, with a full report due Sept. 1. The Common Council would have to vote on additional legislation at that time, and the measure could ultimately have to go to a citywide referendum before approval.

Aside from recommendation one, the Council also modified a recommendation to transfer the Ithaca Police SWAT Truck or Mobile Command Unit to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. The county had dropped that recommendation from its reform measure, but the city plans to continue considering transferring ownership as part of another recommendation in the plan that more broadly considers how SWAT is deployed.

The measures approved Wednesday were the result of several months of public input and study spurred by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 instructing all municipalities in New York to review their police departments’ practices and submit a plan to the state by April 1.

The order was in response to the death of George Floyd and the resulting calls for racial justice.

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