It was announced earlier this month that Ithaca City Mayor Laura Lewis named former Cornell University Police Chief Kathy Zoner as a consultant to oversee the implementation of the city’s Unarmed Response Unit and design of the new role of Deputy City Manager for Public Safety. Community organizations working within the local law enforcement community are weighing in with praise for the new hire, as well as questions and concerns regarding the Reimaging Public Safety initiative moving forward.
Zoner’s professional background includes extensive experience as a law enforcement officer and public safety advocate, which city officials say will help the city further advance its mission of a holistic public safety response approach as it begins to implement the recommendations of the Special Committee on Public Safety that were adopted by the Common Council in April of 2023.
“A well-trained unarmed response unit is an integral part of the delivery of balanced, fair, and impartial safety services,” Zoner stated in the city’s press release. “I look forward to working with those invested in the successful implementation of this project which will both complement and expand the public safety services already in place.”
Since Zoner’s appointment, she has had a meeting with the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association (PBA), an organization founded in 2006 with the goal of representing the city’s police officers so they can focus on keeping the public safe while “continuing to forge the bond our members have with the community,” according to the PBA website. Tom Condzella, PBA president, said it was a positive interaction.
“I’m looking forward to learning more about what the city hopes to accomplish by implementing an unarmed response, or co-response, with our police officers,” Condzella said.
“That meeting will not be our only meeting with Kathy Zoner,” Condzella added. “We anticipate having actual input into what this actual model will look like — what the role of these responders will be — and we feel valued to be a part of that discussion.”
Though the PBA did not have input into Zoner’s selection for the role, Condzella believes that the PBA will be actively involved in her efforts.
“Overall, Kathy Zoner presented this as a project between the PBA, the community and the police department,” he said, “and she displayed a lot of willingness to have conversations about it, to make sure our voice was heard and our concerns were heard.”
When the Reimagining Public Safety initiative was first rolled out, that wasn’t necessarily the case, Condzella said.
“We were more of an afterthought. So this was positive. We’re hopeful that this will not be the last meeting,” he said.
Zoner served as chief of Cornell University police from 2009 through 2019, after serving in various other law enforcement roles at the university since 1991. Upon her retirement from Cornell in 2019, she joined Margolis Healy and Associates full time as a public safety consultant specializing in organizational development and assessment services.
Monalita Smiley, project director at the Community Justice Center, said she was not involved in the selection of Zoner to fill the position, as her role is to oversee and implement the collaborative Reimagining Public Safety plans that involve both the county and the city.
Smiley said she did meet Zoner after she was hired, and she believes Zoner’s longevity within the law-enforcement community and the relationships that resulted will likely work to her advantage.
“I think the connections she has will help her build trusting relationships,” Smiley said, “and with that higher level of trust, people might have more of a willingness to be open to suggestions.”
Condzella also said he believes Zoner’s experience within the community will prove to be an asset.
“Any time someone has an established relationship with the community, it’s definitely a strength that will bring some buy-in with the people who are affected by these decisions, and I think her experience at the Cornell police will be helpful, as well,” Condzella said.
“Obviously, municipal policing is much different than policing on campus,” he added, “but there are certain perspectives and skill sets she brings to the table to help get this done.”
Condzella said that when the efforts to start an unarmed force began several years ago, it seemed to the PBA that the city was attempting to replace the traditional police force. “It seems to be trending away from that, with more of a co-response model,” he said.
“I think our job has been evolving and progressing,” he added.
“There’s not a fear of doing things differently or considering different techniques or models. When this all started, we were entirely blindsided and left out of the conversation, and that was not collaborative,” Condzella said. “That was less than productive.”
This past April, Common Council voted unanimously to pass a report put forward by the city’s Special Committee on Reimagining Public Safety.
The resolution stated that the city would establish a team of peer support specialists who can co-respond with law enforcement as appropriate to nonviolent calls for assistance, but not be under the purview of law enforcement.
This team’s role would be to provide peer support specialists to co-respond with law enforcement as appropriate and to serve as an alternative to a law enforcement-only response to address behavioral health and other related crises.
This unarmed team’s responsibilities would include conducting assessments of the needs of affected individuals and their families, managing and overseeing an immediate support plan for each impacted individual, organizing and coordinating all information on applicable and available services and partner agencies to respond to the needs for the impacted individuals and their families, connecting individuals with appropriate services and follow-through until a hand-off to a fixed support system can be confirmed, and managing the information on responses, personal information of individuals and relevant data for reporting.
The team would also “provide aid to reduce dependence on, and divert away from, law enforcement response systems” and work with the city’s LEAD [Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion] team, the resolution states.
Condzella still has plenty of unanswered questions.
“The biggest questions are: what are we trying to accomplish? What will the role of these unarmed folks be? What kind of training will they have? What is their job description? Who do they report to?” he said.
Shirley Kane, chair of the City of Ithaca Community Police Board, said she is unclear about the oversight of the new unarmed unit.
The Community Police Board acts as a liaison to the police department, providing a way for members of the public to express appreciation of the police department or to file a complaint against members of the police department for work and actions performed in the line of duty. Complaints typically ask for an investigation with the aim of fostering resolution between the parties.
“I can say that based on the current charter, the police department would not have any oversight for any wrongdoing by this [unarmed unit] personnel. If there is a complaint filed against their behavior, it would be outside what the charter requires the Community Police Board to handle,” Kane said. “It’s not in our bailiwick.”
“I can tell you that we brought it to the folks working on the reimagining repeatedly,” she added. “The board as a whole has brought this to multiple mayors and Common Council over the two, three years that this has been in the loop. We’ve documented things.”
Condzella said his main concern is that the new, unarmed unit work in conjunction to aid the police, and vice versa.
“We want to make sure whatever services police officers are providing support these armed responders, whatever they are tasked with, and together I hope we can accomplish the overall goal of making the community safer,” Condzella said.
“My perspective also comes from a place of workers’ rights,” he added. “The police officers have performed the traditional law enforcement functions in the City of Ithaca for decades, so we want to make sure that whatever the new, unarmed folks are doing is not infringing on the work of the regular police officers. I’m encouraged that we can get this done while taking into consideration everyone and the overall goal.”
The PBA just settled a contract with the city for 2024 to 2026.
“That was just settled a couple weeks ago, and it’s the first time, probably in two decades, that essentially all the labor unions in the city have had current contracts, and the first time in many years — probably over a decade — that the police contract was settled prior to its expiration,” Condzella said, adding, “we’re heading in the right direction.”
Ithaca Police Chief Ted Schwartz did not respond to a request for comment in time for the publication of this article.
The City of Ithaca Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for interviews from Mayor Lewis and Kathy Zoner.