Crime in Ithaca: Police union, mayor weigh in on what’s going on | Ithaca | #College. | #Students

ITHACA, NY — Whether you prefer to get your news from newspaper, television, radio or Facebook, there’s been no avoiding the violent crime that’s been inundating Ithaca this fall. Since the end of September, it seems like there’s been a shooting or stabbing at least once a week, often more, and sometimes more than once in a day. On Nov. 9, Cayuga Heights Elementary School, Boynton Middle School, Ithaca High School and Cornell University were instructed to shelter in place while police pursued an armed suspect and a helicopter flew over Cayuga Heights searching for the man. 

The arrests of Reuben Alexander and Ethan Cornelius on Nov. 4 are purportedly linked to two incidents of public gunfire on Oct. 18 and 19, but there were a series of stabbings during the past month as well. Mayor Svante Myrick and Sgt. Tom Condzella, president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, have different ideas as to how to combat the recent upsurge in violent crimes on the west side of the city. 

While both parties wish to switch from the current reactive stance to a proactive one, the representative of the police union believes more police officers are needed to do this, while the mayor has advanced a four-part strategy on Oct. 21 that includes support for community nonprofits and investment in infrastructure. One part of the mayor’s plan is “combat misinformation,” which is aimed squarely at the public relations campaign by the police union that has labeled him an “anti-police activist.” However, both the mayor and the union agree that targeted enforcement is necessary to address the west side violence. 

Condzella arrived in Ithaca as an officer in 2015 and was promoted to sergeant in 2019 and became president of the union earlier this year. The union’s Nov. 4 statement emphasizes the sharp upsurge in crime between 2019 and 2020. Myrick moved to Ithaca in fall 2005 to attend Cornell, was elected to Common Council in 2007 and became mayor in 2011. He takes a much longer view of the problem of crime in Ithaca

A Series of Violent Incidents

Between Oct. 8 and 19 there were eight incidents of stabbing or shooting in Ithaca. Several people were injured, some of them badly enough that they needed to be transported to a regional trauma center. On Oct. 21, Myrick, in a public statement, characterized the cause as “a couple of extremely irresponsible people engaged in a personal dispute.”

These crimes occurred in what could loosely be described as the southwestern quadrant of the city, from West Hill through the commercial district around South Meadow Street and north through the neighborhoods west of downtown, many of them in broad daylight. Much of this area is actually one of the least densely populated and least urban parts of the city.

On Oct. 5 someone was shot on West Hill. The next night there was a lot of gunfire nearby. On Oct. 7 two people were stabbed on West State Street, by someone the police said they knew. On Oct. 11 a man was stabbed in Walmart and was then aided by his fellow shoppers. The assailant was identified as a white male, aged around 30, height 5-foot-6 or 7 inches, wearing the very generic uniform of a black hoodie, blue jeans and black sneakers. On the same day someone was stabbed in the leg by two assailants outside the Southern Tier AIDS program office on West State Street.

On Oct. 18, two weeks after the first incident, the police announced they would be increasing patrols in the West End and would create a special detail — in cooperation with the New York State Police — to investigate. 

Later that night there was actually an exchange of gunfire between two vehicles as they were driving through the Washington Park area. The incident ended when the pick-up truck smashed into the BMW, causing the occupants of the car to flee on foot and the truck to careen off into the night. 

On Oct. 19, the night after the car chase with shots exchanged, there was gunfire at the Kwik Fill on Elmira Road. The only victim in this case was an empty coach bus parked at the pump, which received several bullet holes. Condzella noted that it was luck that prevented the bus driver, who was pumping gas, from being struck. Two people fled the scene on foot and one in a vehicle. 

The violence has continued into this month. On Nov. 4 around 10 p.m. shots were fired in the 500 block of West State Street. It was reported to be part of an argument, again carried out in public. This time no one was hurt and there was no property damage.

Why Is All This Happening? 

In a July 14 article about the local increase in violent crime, Ithaca Times quoted Richard Rivera, who works with Opportunities, Alternatives and Resources (OAR) and the Re-Entry Program. Rivera said, “The uptick in crime is just a few bad actors. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of anger, a lot of conflict, and new individuals are moving in who are making it bad. That’s the cause of it.” 

The mayor’s more recent remark — suggesting just a few people are responsible — echoes this perspective, although he does not call them “actors.” In a Nov. 6 phone interview with Condzella, he expressed irritation with this view and said it was not accurate to suggest all of the October incidents were related and said that this is an effort by the mayor to minimize the problem, which is not fair to the victims of these crimes. To his point, on Nov. 1 54-year-old Duane Magee was arrested for the Oct. 11 stabbing outside the Southern Tier AIDS office. He had used a machete, while Alexander and Cornelius were both carrying handguns when they were arrested on Nov. 4.

In a Nov. 4 press release, the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (IPBA) called Myrick a “anti-police activist” and blamed the current violence on “a decade of police cuts.” 

Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello, Sgt. Tom Condzella and former chief Dennis Nayor.

While both the police and the mayor agree that targeted enforcement is necessary, in an interview Condzella stated that it simply wasn’t possible with current staffing at the department. In 2011, when Myrick took office, he said the department had 40 officers in the field. Now it has 22. 

There are currently 67 officers funded on the Ithaca Police Department. Of those, 18 positions are currently vacant or on leave, leaving 49 filled and active officers in total. Furthermore, Condzella said, the promised help from the New York State Police has not materialized.

A look at the budget line for the police department on more than a decade of city budgets posted online shows that in 2010 the amount was $10,526,934. It rose to $11,729,833 in 2014, declined for a couple of years but after that rose steadily to $12,836,610 in the proposed 2022 budget. In all years but one, the amount in the budget recommended by the mayor was always higher than the amount submitted by the department — 2021 was the lone exception; that year the numbers were the same. 

In a Nov. 7 phone interview, Myrick addressed the apparent discrepancy between Condzella’s assertion of cuts and the police budget. He noted that each officer has become more expensive. They make, he said, an average of $90,000 per year plus about $55,000 in benefits. However, by the mayor’s count, the highest staffing level in the police department since he has been in office has been 69 and the lowest 62.

When Condzella was informed of the budget figures, he suggested that the higher numbers were going toward overtime. He regarded it as bad practice to try to provide the “same service with fewer officers.” It was, he said, leading to burn out.

Condzella believes that Myrick is part of the “defund the police” movement. People further left on the political spectrum, said Myrick, tell him that he should cut the police budget, but he disagrees. 

“We need policing,” he said, “but we need better policing. They need to be out of their cars and walking beats.” 

Although the police budget has been growing during his administrations, Myrick admitted it has been growing much more slowly than that of other departments. For example, the Department of Public Works funding, he said, has grown by 33%, while the police has increased by only 5 or 6% over the same period.

Myrick  does not think a new direction for law enforcement is simply a choice between “touchy-feely and crimestoppers.” The reforms that the mayor has in mind for the police include adding two officers but also bringing in a civilian head of the department and making changes to the training regimen. 

Condzella, it should be noted, is the spokesperson for the police union, not the police department. His emphasis is therefore on restoring positions to his department. While he believes the idea of a special detail to address the recent upsurge in violence is fine, he does not believe it is possible. 

“The IPBA supports [the special detail], but not at the expense of immediate public safety,” he said in an interview. “There is no place to shift them from.” 

He claimed that patrol shifts were going unfilled, a claim that Myrick disputed.

As IPBA president, Condzella said he sees several roles for the union. He wants to improve relations between the department and the community, to advocate for the officers publicly, to keep them safe and to keep the community safe. He suggested that morale was low in the department, not least because of a February 2021 proposal from the Reimagining Police task force that they all reapply for their jobs, which, he said, “fell apart when Common Council did not approve of it.”

Condzella noted that the police have been working without a new contract and without a pay raise since 2011. This situation is, he said, not just demoralizing to the force, but also makes it difficult to recruit and retain officers. 

“People leave in the middle of their careers,” he said. “They find other jobs and leave the area.”

Violent Crime Here and Elsewhere

The Nov. 4 IPBA release notes that the mayor only recently admitted to a “year-to-year rise in violent crime in Ithaca, but now he is simply ignoring the problem.” The IPBA statement cites the difference between the number of crimes in 2019 versus 2020. The numbers are drawn from the department’s own annual report. The statement strongly implies that the cause for the increase of crime in Ithaca is the mayor’s wish to abolish “traditional, proven law enforcement.” 

What does this situation look like if you pull back from it and compare that year-to-year difference in Ithaca versus other cities?

The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, an online database (, shows that since 2010 (Myrick became mayor in 2011) violent crime in Ithaca has oscillated from lows between 45 and 55 incidents per year to highs of 60 to 70 per year. There is no trend. 

The FBI includes all violent crimes in its number, which leaps from 41 in 2019 to 98 in 2020, a 140% increase, which is higher than the 97% increase in aggravated assaults alone cited by the IPBA release. In fact, nationwide violent crime increased sharply from 2019 to 2020. 

But what about other specific cities? Jamestown, New York (population 29,000) is slightly smaller than Ithaca, but has no colleges or county government to bolster its economy. Violent crime there declined slightly between 2019 and 2020, but from 199 to 187. Ithaca has 3,000 more people than Jamestown, but only half the violent crime.

Elmira (population 29,200) has held on to some of its industry and has a small (850 students) college. Although it is the same size as Jamestown, its violent crime rate is lower, but not as low as Ithaca’s. Numbers in Elmira declined from 83 in 2019 to 59 in 2020.

Ithaca is often compared to Burlington, Vermont (population 42,545). Violent crime declined in Vermont between 2019 and 2020, and also did so in the state’s largest city, from 173 to 151. But while Burlington has 30% more people, it had 54% more violent crime in 2020, a year when Ithaca’s numbers were the worst they had been since 1993, when there were 103 violent crimes. 

Green Street Shooting 3

Mayor of Ithaca Svante Myrick, former police chief Dennis Nayor, current Acting Police Chief John Joly and current Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello in 2019.

What about another college town? Charlottesville, Virginia (population 47,000) is even larger than Burlington, but it has a comparable amount of crime. However, unlike Burlington and like Ithaca, Charlottesville saw a rise in violent crime between 2019 and 2020, from 159 to 189. 

Myrick maintained that in small cities like Ithaca, a few people or even one person can cause statistics to swing widely. He recalled the case of a cat burglar several years ago who robbed a large number of houses and caused Ithaca to be rated as one of the most unsafe places in the country. The burglar was caught and the next year Ithaca was rated among one of the safer places to live.

In light of this, it is useful to look at a longer record of crime statistics. According to the FBI Uniform Reporting database, Ithaca’s violent crime numbers were generally higher between 1987 and 1997, a period that corresponds to the advent of crack cocaine, than they have been since. After 1997 the numbers rapidly declined to a mere 10 violent crimes in Ithaca during 2003, before rising again. 

Burlington did not experience the 1987-1997 peak that Ithaca did. Instead, its violent crime jumped after 1997 and stayed high, except for a multi-year low centered at 2014. 

Charlottesville experienced a huge increase in violent crime after 1997, exceeding 450 per year in 1998 and 2001, but it has declined significantly since then.

Each of these cities has its own history; they do not necessarily conform to the national trends. Ithaca’s 1987-1997 peak did correspond to a national high in violent crime associated with crack, which Burlington and Charlotteville avoided. On a national scale violent crime has declined significantly since the late 1990s. In 1991 it crested at 758 per 100,000 people. Between 2019 and 2020 it increased from 361 to 364 per 100,000 and has been below 400 since 2012.

In contrast to the college towns and the national trend, the violent crime numbers in Binghamton, New York (population 48,000) have been rising steadily since 1985 (the earliest records available at the FBI Explorer interface). Jamestown shows a similar trend, but it begins with a sharp rise after 1997. Violent crime in Elmira, on the other hand, rose sharply in the mid 1980s and there were generally between 100 and 120 violent crimes each year until 2009. Numbers have generally declined since 2009.

What can we learn from looking at these statistics? First, for a city its size, Ithaca has relatively little violent crime. Second, the oscillating changes in the amount of violent crime over the last decade in Ithaca over the long-term bear no relation to the amount of funding to the police department, which has been rising steadily (at least since Myrick took office 10 years ago), or even the number of officers in the department. Finally, although Ithaca followed the national trend in violent crime from 2019 to 2020, over the last 45 years (for which data is available) it has not seen as big a reduction in violent crime as the nation, but it has a much less severe problem than other small provincial post-industrial cities.

                                                 • • •

Myrick’s life story is well known. His father struggled with drug addiction and after his mother moved her family from Florida to upstate New York, she struggled to keep a roof overhead. Consequently, the mayor has perhaps meditated on the connection between crime and poverty more than some elected officials. 

While he believes the current upsurge is caused by a few people causing a lot of problems, “I think with crime generally, it’s because people think if they do something, there won’t be any consequences,” he said. “But sometimes they also think that the consequences won’t be worse than what they are dealing with already. Then, of course, there is the access to guns and people whose thinking is impaired.”

Myrick is baffled by the IPBA’s assertion that anti-police sentiment covered by the media is drawing criminals to Ithaca, an idea repeated by Condzella in a Nov. 6 interview. 

“This isn’t a Batman comic,” Myrick said. “You don’t have a criminal reading the newspaper on Tuesday and saying ‘Aha, I can go ahead with that crime I planned for Friday!’” He was inclined to characterize the violence-prone criminals of Ithaca as “knuckleheads.”

Does the upswing in violent crime have anything to do with the drug trade? The Ithaca Police Department’s own numbers of reported incidents show a marked decline in Possession of a Controlled Substance, from a high of 89 in 2018 down to 19 in 2020. Condzella attributed a decline in drug busts to staff shortages, which has forced investigators to respond to incidents rather than build cases.

However, incidence of crimes often associated with drug use — because addicts need cash — are up sharply. Property crimes like Burglary went from 50 in 2019 to 143 arrests last year, and Larceny went from 758 to 1019. The crimes associated with people making bad decisions while high are up too: Disorderly Conduct, 105 to 132; Criminal Mischief, 229 to 343; Possession of Stolen Property, 13 to 28; and Criminal Possession of a Weapon, 5 to 21.

A Way Forward

Condzella said it was the position of the IPBA that the number of officers in the department be “restored” to 92. “There should be a minimum of 12 in a platoon, which would be 36 in the patrol division.” He said that at present there are 20 and in 2011, when Myrick took office, there were 30.

When asked to comment on the long-running arbitration over the police contract, the IPBA president said, “We’re hopeful we will reach a settlement with the city and put this dark chapter behind us.”

Myrick had hoped that the report from the Reimagining Police task force, which includes three members of the IPBA, would be ready by November. Now he hopes to have it in the first quarter of 2022. The city will put a hold on money in the coming year’s budget to allocate for reform. 

More officers might be among the recommendations.

“It might be ‘You have zero unarmed officers and you need 10,” he said.

Looking back over the 15 years he has lived in Ithaca, the mayor does not think that the attitude toward the police is as bad here as elsewhere. 

“Many of our officers do a very good job,” he said, “but it is a relationship that needs improving. We can’t keep doing things the same way.”

At present, the Center for Policing Equity, a Los Angeles-based law-enforcement research non-profit, is examining the IPD’s practices. Myrick noted that the beats in the city have not changed since the 1950s and the shift changes may no longer be efficient. Who is dispatched to what kind of call is also under scrutiny. 

“Officers are busy,” he said, “but not with crime” because protocol demands that they respond to all EMS calls, which are the majority of incidents.

While Condzella’s primary responsibility is to his fellow law enforcement officers, Myrick is the mayor for everyone in the city. He objects to the IPBA approach to the debate over violent crime. 

“They try to scare everyone [with public statements],” he said, “and they say ‘Leave us alone;’ they don’t want any civilian oversight. It’s not working. They are trying a ‘Texas strategy’ in Ithaca. They’re saying, ‘There’s a thin blue line separating you from them and the mayor is one of them.’”

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