ITHACA, N.Y. (WETM) – Law enforcement officials in Ithaca are blaming the city’s police reform initiative for staffing shortages. Now, a local news reporter says she was fired after she wrote an article shedding light on the issue.

The Ithaca Police Department (IPD) is desperate to recruit new officers, and it’s even throwing in some pretty tempting hiring incentives.

“For one year, that [hiring] incentive was at $15,000. We did not have one applicant. That incentive has now just been upped to $20,000, and we have still had no one apply here,” said Sergeant Thomas Condzella, the president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association.

Staffing shortages plaguing the Ithaca Police Department

Condzella says, the reason Ithaca hasn’t been able to hire police officers, and why he says many officers have left, is because of the negative narrative surrounding Ithaca’s police reform initiative, Reimagining Public Safety.

The Reimagining initiative was introduced in 2021 by former Mayor Svante Myrick. The initiative gained national attention as one of the most ambitious police reform efforts, following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Its main goal is to rethink public safety by using funds to address social problems in a more humane way instead of relying on policing, which can sometimes lead to the use of force or arrests.

“To replace the City of Ithaca Police Department with a new department. A department of community solutions and public safety,” said Myrick back in February of 2021, when the Reimagining initiative was being introduced.

While the proposal has never intended to eliminate traditional law enforcement, statements like “replacing the police department,” left officers wondering if their jobs would even exist over the next few years.

“People are looking for job stability… because of all the politics surrounding the Ithaca Reimagining initiative, they feel the climate here is too unstable,” said Condzella.

He added that he is aware that police shortages are a national issue plaguing many departments, but, “In the last year, we’ve hired one person, but in that same amount of time the Tompkins County Sheriff’s office has hired 12 people, with no [hiring] incentives,” stated Condzella, enforcing the fact that this is an issue that the City of Ithaca is dealing with at a heightened level.

The effect Ithaca’s police shortage is having on the rest of the county

Tompkins County officials say the shortages that the Ithaca Police Department is currently facing are now having a ripple effect on other first responders in other municipalities in the county.

“The reality on the ground, if you talk to, not just Trumansburg EMS, it’s Dryden ambulance, it’s Grotton ambulance, it’s Bangs Ambulance…they are seeing…increased stress on their staffing and their ability to respond to certain types of calls, with the [Ithaca police] staffing issues that currently exist,” said Mayor of Trumansburg, Rordan Hart.

“You have a new strain on the system, and it highlighted how these systems are intertwined, and cannot have a viable EMS strategy for the county, without a viable policing strategy and police force to support them,” said Jeff Barken, Ithaca Common Council, 3rd Ward Alderperson.

The Mayor of Trumansburg and others, want to have a discussion on this issue, but they say that officials supporting the Reimagining initiative seemed to have turned a blind eye to these recent hardships.

“Nobody has reached out… to Bangs Ambulance to…learn more about, what’s really facing their workforce right now,” said Barken.

“I can’t say why someone wouldn’t want to at least take a look at the issue,” said Hart.

The article that linked Ithaca’s police reform initiative to its police shortages

Rather than having a conversation, City of Ithaca officials seem to have focused their efforts on making sure the initiative is free of any blame. It was clear, after a recent article, written by Deidra Cross in the Tompkins Weekly, highlighted Mayor Hart’s concerns about the initiative.

“Dominic Reckkio wrote to my editor and said, once again, I have to talk to you about this reporting and mentioning the Reimagining initiative,” said Cross, now former, Tompkins Weekly reporter.

Dominick Recckio is the communications director for the Tompkins County Administration, and a spokesperson for the Reimagining initiative.

In an email exchange with the Tompkins Weekly editor, Jessica Wickham, Reckkio asked for changes to the article, claiming that, “there are no limitations on IPD due to Reimagining,” and that this assertion is “undermining” the work of the initiative.

“It just seems that anyone who offers an opinion that is critical of this specific process…You’re not welcome at the table,” said Condzella.

After a back-and-forth exchange, Wickham assured Recckio that the article was changed.
The newspaper removed the part that said, the Ithaca police shortages are caused by the Reimagining initiative, and changed it to just say the shortage exists.

Although it seems like a small change, this helped city officials protect the reputation of the initiative and conceal some of its negative impacts.

Reporter Deidra Cross was terminated from the Tompkins Weekly for unknown reasons, but she presumes that it is related to this incident. Cross is now in the process of filing a civil liberties suit against the county because she feels her civil rights were violated.

Following allegations that Recckio had exercised improper influence on the Tompkins Weekly by asking for changes to the article, Shawna Black, a City of Ithaca official and advocate of the initiative, made a statement at a Tompkins County Legislature meeting on Sept. 6, denying these accusations.

“Correcting the record of what is and isn’t under Reimagining initiative is the work of this county…Our county attorney Bill Troy, issued a report that found no base to the accusations after his review,” said Black.

City of Ithaca officials supports law enforcement! But don’t associate your challenges with our police reform efforts.

In that statement, Black, who was just recently voted into the position of chairwoman of the Tompkins County Legislature, also detailed various aspects of investments the city has put toward law enforcement. Including, the addition of new positions and an additional $500,000 to the sheriff’s department’s budget. She declared multiple times that city officials support law enforcement and called out groups who don’t agree with Reimagining Public Safety for pinning it as an “anti-police” or “defund the police” measure.

Officials and law enforcement agents within the county say they are not against police reform, nor do they want to “undermine” the initiative. Rather, they want their issues to be heard, and the initiative’s full impact to be taken into consideration.

“My members are open to police reform…We are entirely open to change and embracing different ways of doing things…This process should be bringing people together and it’s not,” said Condzella.

“It’s not my intent to say that the Reimagining process doesn’t have some merits and that the city shouldn’t engage in it. It’s rather an acknowledgment that the Reimagining process in the City of Ithaca is having an effect on other services,” said Hart.

Acknowledging these impacts is exactly what City of Ithaca officials say they will not do.

Black asserted that associating difficult challenges facing the community with the Reimagining initiative is unproductive and that energy should rather be focused on “real” issues.

“Associating other difficult challenges facing our communities with Reimagining isn’t helping us solve problems… Instead, it’s making challenges more political and harder to address…We have real, complex, and difficult issues facing our county. It is important to face these issues collaboratively and with respect shown to differences of opinion,” said Black.

18 News reached out to City of Ithaca officials, including Dominick Reckkio, as well as the Tompkins Weekly editor, Jessica Wickham, and the publisher, who all referred to a statement made by the county attorney who investigated the allegations.