An “Arranged Marriage” on the Rocks
The Reimagining Report’s Failures
Posted March 30, 2021
[See update on Tuesday’s County Legislature and Wednesday’s Ithaca Common Council votes following this post.]
To my Readers and Constituents:
What follows is the full written text of my comments to the Tompkins County Legislature on March 30, 2021 regarding the Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report, a document outlining a proposed Tompkins County-City of Ithaca Collaborative approach to redefining and reforming law enforcement in our county and its central city. My comments were circulated to legislators prior to their March 30th meeting at which the Legislature scheduled acceptance of the Reimagining Report’s recommendations. Pending subsequent action by the City of Ithaca’s Common Council on March 31st, the Legislature would then forward its list of intended actions to the State in answer to a gubernatorial executive order. Many of you know the background to this procedural necessity.
The County-City Reimagining Public Safety Report was released February 22nd. It has generated much controversy since. Many people, including many in Enfield with whom I’ve spoken, don’t like it. I’ve followed the Report’s progression through meetings of the County Legislature and its legislative committees. I’ve reported some of those meetings on these pages. I’ve attempted to keep an open mind. But I also have opinions, and I feel obligated to share them with both the County Legislature and with you, especially since I have petitioned to join the Legislature in the upcoming election cycle.
For the past month, I have withheld public comment on the Reimagining Report, but I have thought much about it. I’ve talked with many of you about it. My thoughts here often incorporate your opinions.
This is a tough one; a controversial call. Like so many other issues I confront, I find value in each side of the argument. We need and deserve effective law enforcement, all the while protecting the lives and dignity of every one of our residents and demanding equal justice for all. But most important, while protecting everyone’s freedoms, we deserve self-determination and majoritarian democracy. We need to decide our own fate.
Comments before the Tompkins County Legislature’s meeting of March 30, 2021
George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis; Breonna Taylor in Louisville; Shawn Greenwood a decade earlier in Ithaca’s West End. I mention this for a reason. I say it because each of these communities is its own place. Each faces distinct problems with persons of color dying at the hands of police. And each distinct problem demands a particularized solution. Governor Cuomo’s orders notwithstanding, what’s broken in one place is not necessarily broken everyplace. We must think for ourselves. We must act for ourselves, independently and in our community’s own best interests.
Those are the words that should have begun your Collaborative’s Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report. They did not. The Collaborative’s 98-page narrative took a different turn. It struck a different tone. I’m sorry it did.
Based on the same principle I’ve now stated, what serves best the residents of the City of Ithaca does not necessarily address the policing concerns in Tompkins County’s rural communities. Nor does our County’s larger population necessarily endorse our central city’s preferred prescription. In my opinion and in the opinion of many, the City-County “Collaborative” is an arranged marriage that should never have occurred. At every stress-point, the relationship strains. The general public did not create it. Voters did not endorse it. Many people in many parts of our county now feel they’ve been forced to accept it. They’d prefer a divorce.
It’s petitioning time. I’ve talked with scores of Enfield and Newfield residents at their doorsteps, in their kitchens and on their front porches these recent weeks, often discussing policing policy while the Reimagining Report stood percolating before this Legislature. Many are scared. They believe their safety has been sold out only to placate a politically-privileged constituency. They feel City politicians and interest groups have driven this debate. They sense the tail is wagging the dog. Many want no part of the Reimagining Plan. What plays so well so far away to the writers and readers of GQ Magazine fails so miserably in the minds of those living in the shadow of Connecticut Hill.
Scripted always in the most turgid prose of the detached academic, the Reimagining Report’s monster of a manuscript trades in aspirational abstraction, preferring process over performance; admirable intentions over predictable results. It seeks systemic change first and foremost, but true punishment hardly at all. Better to rid the community of an allegedly traumatizing SWAT Truck than the poorly-disciplined, racially-biased officers who might spill from it. Easier to “repurpose” some inanimate object than to fire a wayward sergeant who might turn around and sue.
The Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report lards its pages with wandering words and lofty pronouncements; grandiloquent sentences of sponge. When its authors do assign blame, they do so with the bite of bitterness, asserting that they know best and you do not. The report’s incessant tone of societal condemnation does not help heal the wounds than divide us. I wish only that the many anonymous authors who constructed this report had stepped forward more boldly to identify themselves and accept responsibility for their opinions. We need to speak their names.
All too often, maybe by design, the Report’s construction defies comprehension by the common person. Take this gem from the Executive Summary (page 14):
“This report recommends that both the County and the City reallocate resources to newly-established priority areas and alternative response models outlined in this report. Other agencies that are a part of the public safety ecosystem will be looked at through an equity-based lens, and funded appropriately relative to their work in public safety and implementing these recommendations.”
What did you just say? Before the Report’s release, someone should have visited the nearest high school, buttonholed the first English teacher one could find and asked her to edit this clunky contraption.
In laying the foundation for Reimagining’s conclusions, special populations were granted heightened access. Despite their utility, we should acknowledge that these privileged contributors do not provide this community its only valuable voices. While marginalized subsets of society deserve opportunities to animate the report’s narrative, even disproportionately so, they hold no license to control the final outcome. Democracy still dictates majorities prevail. Everyone decides.
Tackling every one of the Report’s 19 often-indecisive policing prescriptions can leave one lost. So let’s focus. Let’s take this one first; an important one: The IPD SWAT Truck’s future:
Much is made of Professor Belisa Gonzalez’s comments, aired at the Legislature’s recent Public Safety Committee meeting, that “targeted focus groups” have found the SWAT-Mobile’s mere presence to be traumatizing. “Physical monuments can produce trauma,” the professor said, reasoning that, “What’s real in our minds is real in its consequences.” But context matters. Those in search of a desired result can steer a crowd to their preferred conclusion. Leading questions will answer themselves and corrupt the research. The focus groups Dr. Gonzalez facilitated were never recorded, never transcribed. “Scribes” took notes. Then academics and researchers analyzed those notes and drew inferences. The final product became third-hand hearsay. Judge accordingly. Bias remains poised to infect the process at every turn.
And when we’re told one participant advised his or her focus group to convert the City’s upper Six Figure, high-tech command vehicle into a “food truck,” I shake my head. With such illogic, this report’s findings quickly shed their credibility and tumble into silliness. They cause me to question the facilitators’ guidance as well as the practical world view of focus group members.
I, by contrast, look at trauma differently. I think most others do as well. You know what traumatizes me? Dead bodies, needlessly lost lives, whether black, brown, white or Asian. Come on, Collaborative contributors; get a grip. Don’t let feelings grab hold of your better judgment. Evanescent imagination counts far less than does real-world, palpable fear.
What if Boulder someday visits Ithaca? What if there’s a live shooter inside Wegmans? Who do you think knows what’s best at that moment to protect this community, the Sheriff or the social scientist?
I trust our Sheriff. I believe he enforces the law effectively; equitably. When Derek Osborne says he needs the high-tech mobile command center the City may gleefully cast off, that he needs it to keep us safe, I trust his word. He needs its keys in his hand; its guns at the ready, firmly strapped on board, not stuffed in some trailer to be separately dragged to the scene, dragged there by somebody.
And by the way, what does Ithaca’s Asian community, our moment’s most vulnerable population, think of local policing? Asians were among the baker’s dozen of “targeted focus groups” the Collaborative surveyed. I’d like to know their opinions.
Please, if possible, send the offloaded SWAT-Mobile to the Sheriff, not the Department of Emergency Response. “I care about who maintains control over that vehicle,” Sheriff Osborne told your Public Safety Committee March 23rd. “When we need it, we need it,” he added. To rephrase my point: Who knows more about local law enforcement, the Sheriff, or the Ithaca Mayor or County Administrator?
Wisely, this County Legislature has steered clear of the Reimagining Report’s most hot-button recommendation; that of replacing the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) with a partially-unarmed “Community Relations and Public Safety Department.” Fair enough. In my opinion, the City of Ithaca remains free to go its own way, providing, of course, that I do not choose to live there, and that I remember always to walk down the Commons with one hand firmly gripping my back pocket. But please, just remember this all-important fact: When persons of color find their lives most in danger is during those chance encounters when “unarmed Community Solution Workers” just won’t cut it.
Early in my radio career, I had to fire a newsman. Through carelessness, not malice, he let slip onto air that common four-letter bathroom obscenity. But our station had a zero-tolerance policy for those kinds of words. That other “Bob” had to go. No excuses. No apologies. He learned from it. Perhaps I did as well. We need that zero-tolerance policy here today, but in a different context, with that of our police.
Please, legislators, listen—listen carefully— to the critical pushback our marginalized populations are giving this report. Their critiques underscore Reimaging’s core weakness, one that they see, one that I see, but maybe you do not. It’s the absence of true accountability, the courage to impose tough, tough rules upon those who wear the badge. Cast aside the arbitrators, the union contracts, and all the other options for excuse than can encourage timidity. Learn to say two little words in the face of police violence or racial bias in blue: You’re fired!
When a tattle-tale body cam, left on by accident, captures a sergeant boasting about roughing up a black defendant—even if he didn’t really do it—no, don’t stop with just a bust in rank and an order to get lost for 30 days, only for the demoted cop to come back on patrol. No, show spine: “You’re fired!” Or maybe he suggested to a subordinate wouldn’t it be fun to plant some evidence against this guy? Again, tough love: “You’re fired!” Let the only “law” this ex-cop can enforce be the masking rule at the door of Walmart (assuming, that is, that they’d hire him; Sam’s kids have standards, too).
Might he then sue? Perhaps. Then let our discharged braggart eat the words that cost him his profession and do it before a judge. I, for one, think it would be worth City Hall’s legal bill. And if the court lets him off, then hold the judge accountable too.
The lack of true toughness: That’s what’s most wrong with the Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report. And that’s why what you’re considering tonight so pitifully falls short. No sane dispatcher would have ever sent a car of unarmed Community Solution Workers to Pete’s Grocery that February night eleven years ago to serve a potentially violent drug suspect his search warrant. Just as happened, armed officers would have been there; guns drawn. Irrespective of anything you’ll consider tonight, Shawn Greenwood would still have died.
And by that standard, the Reimagining Public Safety Draft Report fails in its mission despite all the bloated verbiage, all the working group “deliverables,” and all those admirable intentions by everyone, your members included. Too bad. Best we know sooner rather than later.
The Street knows it. My rural constituents know it. But do you? I hope. Please, act wisely.
Robert A. Lynch; Councilperson, Town of Enfield (submitted here as a private citizen)
[The subsequent actions by the Tompkins County Legislature and the Ithaca Common Council may now be viewed under the Latest News tab.]