By Kira Maddox and Kelsey McKim
About eight kids sat in a room in the Ithaca Police Department at seven o’clock in the evening, spread out at long tables, looking forward at a lone officer. But Richard Niemi wasn’t dressed for duty, and the kids weren’t in trouble. He was sitting back in a chair in a gray fleece jacket, hands folded casually over his ribs, and they were talking about softball.
“Come on, at least let me be a pinch hitter or something,” said one of the kids. Apparently Explorers aren’t allowed to play in the upcoming match against the Ithaca Fire Department. Niemi smiled at him.
“We need people with skills,” he replied.
The room exploded in jeers and “oooooh’s” as the short-haired boy took the light-hearted insult. Jabs and jokes were thrown around like this for most of the night, and the atmosphere at the Explorers Post meeting felt more like a family gathering than an educational opportunity — the officers even brought in a birthday cake for two of the Explorers’ birthdays.
The IPD’s Explorers Post program, which began in 1997, was revitalized in the spring of this year following Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick’s release of proposed police reforms in August 2014, which came about after an off-duty IPD officer followed and drew a gun on two unarmed teenagers. Along with suggesting implementation of police body cameras and a staffing increase, one of Myrick’s seven goals was to increase the IPD’s community outreach.
During the Explorers Post meetings, Explorers learn different police tactics and strategies, like how to properly handcuff someone and what the practice is for administering tests to people pulled over for DWI suspicion. The two coordinating officers for the program organize curricula for young people between the ages of 14 and 21, with meetings twice a month.
“It’s a way to get out in the community and learn what officers do on a day-to-day basis, and that, you know, they’re not as bad as everyone thinks they are,” said Aaron Simmons, Explorer Post team leader. “They’re just trying to do their job.”
Officer Jamie Williamson, public information officer for the IPD, said the department has not been working alone on community outreach efforts. Community organizations like the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and Southside Community Center have collaborated with the IPD to improve the relationship between community members and the department.
“I would say that the relationship is getting better,” said Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, interim director of GIAC. “Like everything else, there have been ebbs and flows … A lot of it is also attributed to the culture nationally of what’s happening with police-community relations.”
Davi Mozie, executive director of the SSCC, said though she’s only been in the Ithaca area for about two years, she would describe the relationship between the community and the IPD as apprehensive.
“There’s others that say, ‘At least they’re trying,’” Mozie said. “So I hear a little of both. It’s going to be some time, and it may never happen. There’s so much going on around the country, and we’re in our little bubble, but not. Things still happen here.”
The SSCC is hosting a community-police barbeque Oct. 17, where people can interact with officers in a relaxed space. She said the environment and location of police department community outreach is important, and said she hopes this can give people a more positive police experience.
Not every one of Myrick’s police reforms have been implemented to the same extent, McBean-Clairborne said. For example, in regards to the increased staffing reform, the department is holding a police exam on Nov. 14. However, she said the city is still working on the police body cameras and are still doing training on using the body cameras.
“I can say that I know things are moving along,” McBean-Clairborne said. “They’re not there yet.”
However, both McBean-Clairborne and Mozie said continued community outreach efforts could have positive effects.
“I see them more out of cars and more walking around and engaged with communities,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I see them trying to be more involved in activities within the community and present, not just as law enforcement.”
The community leaders and the Explorers Post all emphasized the importance of officers and community members interacting in fun, positive ways. Explorers Post team leader Janelle Bailey gave an example of how the Explorers Post program combines fun and instruction.
“We do different drills,” Bailey said. “Our first day here, the officers had set up two people down there and two people up here, and it was kind of like a speed-cuffing round to see who could do the correct methods of cuffing and to see who could do it faster. The girls won, too, I was proud of that.”
Speaking about why she is interested in law enforcement, Bailey connected the role of the police to the community environment.
“I’ve seen what communities go through, and some of them suffer because people don’t care or aren’t there for them, and I want to be the one to help get the community back and help people not judge cops as if they’re bad people,” Bailey said. “Because they’re not, they’re here to help.”