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Ithaca police reform report proposes 5 new unarmed responders, but little change to current force

ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — After months of discussion, the City of Ithaca released some concrete proposals for its Reimagining Public Safety effort in a new 120-page report. 

The report calls for a new civilian led agency called the “Department of Community Safety," which would oversee the current police force as well as a new "Division of Community Solutions" that would consist of five unarmed responders. 

Armed police would continue to respond to some calls, such as assaults, robberies, intoxication and criminal mischief. The five unarmed responders would handle situations like animal bites, child abuse and traffic collisions. 

There were also a number of situations that the working group wasn’t able to categorize, like psychiatric emergencies or domestic violence.  Former Alderperson Eric Rosario, who lead the Reimagining Public Safety working group, said these types of calls would require further analysis.

"You look at a domestic dispute, it could be happening, or it could already have happened," Rosario said. "Does it make sense to send a police officer to take a report?"

Rosario said in those cases, it might be up to a dispatcher to make the final call on whether to send responders who are armed, unarmed or a combination of the two.

Roughly one-third of all emergency calls in Ithaca could be handled by unarmed first responders, according to an earlier study.

Alderperson Jorge Defendini said he’s concerned that the new unarmed division wouldn’t be large enough to handle a third of the city's emergency calls.

"The report’s recommendation was to hire five unarmed responders," Defendini said. "Meanwhile, the division of police will, from my understanding, maintain its about around 60, 60-plus membership."

Defendini pointed out the report doesn’t include many changes for the city’s existing police force. He said that could be a problem if the goal is to reform public safety.

Ithaca’s current police budget is about eight times larger than the proposed budget for the new unarmed division. Funds for the five new unarmed responders would come out of a separate budget and would not affect IPD.

The city hasn’t yet adopted the suggestions in the report. Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis said the Common Council would discuss the report again at its meeting in April. She said it could take years to implement the plan fully.