Ivy League town weighs revamping police; critics see flaws

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In this Oct. 24, 2020 photo, Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter groups hold simultaneous rallies on the Ithaca Commons in Ithaca, N.Y. The nationwide reexamination of policing after the killing of George Floyd has led the Ivy League town in New York to consider an ambitious and contentious plan to remake its force. A proposal would replace the 63-officer Ithaca Police Department with a new Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety. (AP Photo/John Munson)

The nationwide reexamination of policing after the killing of George Floyd has led an Ivy League college town in upstate New York to consider an ambitious — and contentious — plan to remake its force “from the ground up.”

The proposal would replace the 63-officer Ithaca Police Department with a new Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety comprising both armed officers and unarmed “community solution officers” to handle nonviolent calls like petty thefts.

As city council members consider the plan, the cross-current of impassioned reactions illustrates the challenges of overhauling traditional police forces.

Police officers have denounced the plan in Ithaca — a picturesque city of about 30,000 residents that is home to Cornell University and in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country — as a radical idea that could threaten public safety.

Some social justice activists dismiss it as a diluted version of what they call “defunding the police," one that will do little to help Black communities. But supporters say the dramatic change is needed to heal a damaged relationship between city police and communities of color.

“You start with a new department; it’s a chance to build a culture from the ground up that rewards our employees for their community engagement effort,” Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick said in an interview this week. “That sets a very clear expectation, not just for conduct ... but also for community interaction.”

Ithaca is among more than 500 localities across New York state told to adopt a plan to reform police policies by April 1 or risk a loss of state funding.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, ordered the plans last year during the wave of demonstrations nationwide after Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. From New York City to small upstate towns, localities came up with proposals on training, recruitment and community engagement.