By Sydney O’Shaughnessy, Christie Citranglo and Sarah Chaneles
Minorities make up about 25 percent of the members of police forces across the United States. Only 27.5 percent of officers employed by the Ithaca Police Department belong to a minority group. Looking specifically at race, the population of Ithaca is 30 percent people of color; within the IPD, only 16 percent of officers are minorities. This means the gap of representation in the IPD sits at 14 percent.
While the numbers are not exactly reflective of Ithaca’s population, Ithaca comes far closer to a diverse force than the national average. On a national scale, white people in the police force is about 30 percent higher than in the cities and towns they serve in. In cities such as Dellwood, Missouri, and Stone Park, Illinois, where populations are primarily people of color, white police officers still outnumber minority groups by over 75 percent.
Schelley Michell-Nunn, director of Human Resources in the City of Ithaca, said recognizing implicit bias keeps the workforce diverse and reflective of the community.
“During the interview training … we talk about different ways to combat implicit bias or where biases can come into play … We have standardized our process for selection and interviewing of candidates,” Michell-Nunn said.
Implicit bias refers to the deep-laden ideas in one’s perception, Michell-Nunn said. These ideas likely come from media consumption, and they cloud one’s ability to judge something neutrally. These biases are often reflected in hiring processes, which explains the lack of diversity and representation of minorities in most police forces across America.
Jamie Williamson, the public information officer for the IPD, said the hiring process reflects diversity through those who will better the community as a whole — regardless of race, gender or background.
“[The process] is based solely on the merits of that person’s character,” Williamson said. “We also understand and appreciate that a person’s background helps to shape who he or she is. We take race and gender and religion all into consideration, we don’t simply ignore them and dismiss them.”
But the awareness of implicit bias does not stop once an officer is hired. Once new officers can officially join the force, they must undergo anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training in the six-month training process.
“There is an on-boarding program that includes training regarding our anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies,” Michell-Nunn said. “There’s sexual-harassment prevention training that they go through, so there’s a series of trainings they have to go through once they have been hired.”
In addition to the hiring and training process for officers, the IPD hosts events for the community to engage with police. Monthly meetings are held for minority groups to speak with the police about any recent concerns, and community get-togethers are held during the summer months for Ithacans to interact with their police officers.
Derek Maguire, lifetime resident of the City of Ithaca, has attended National Night Out in his neighborhood each year. Living in Northside, one of Ithaca’s four housing projects, Maguire has grown up in a development with neighbors who are primarily people of color, like himself.
“[Where I live] it’s mostly black people and there are immigrants from a country in Asia,” Maguire said. “But it’s mostly us and them, but we all get along.”
The police force maintains its transparency with the public by hosting other events and showing the residents the types of equipment used by the force. Maguire said that when police build relationships with the community, tensions stay down.
“They do an OK job, I think. They don’t really harass anyone around here — at least, that I know of,” Maguire said.
However, Maguire wishes more police officers in Ithaca wore body cameras. He supported Mayor Svante Myrick’s decision to put body cameras on police patrolling The Commons in 2014.
“It not only keeps us as citizens safe, but it also keeps people that want to kind of claim things that didn’t actually happen,” Maguire said. “So it’s a thing of safety for the police officers; I can’t think of a situation where you don’t want your police to be body cammed.”
Maguire believes the Ithaca police officers actually care about the residents because of the time the officers put in working with the public. He thinks that Ithaca is a much better place to live when compared to surrounding areas like Syracuse and Binghamton for people of color.
“I think the police have had to be way more careful in Ithaca,” Maguire said. “We’re way more conscious about what goes on in our town. People in Ithaca aren’t quick to accept when they’re being stepped on; it just doesn’t fly here.”
Both citizens and police agree that a diverse police force is the key to maintaining beneficial relationships between the community and the IPD.
“What I think you find in terms of an inclusive environment is that you have to have open lines of communication,” Michell-Nunn said. “You have to be clear about what the goals are and what the expectations are for the organization, and I see that’s what the current chief has done a good job at being clear about what his expectations are and what culture is that he desires to have.”