Tag Archives: Ithaca

In Internetland, Headphones Listen To You

Headphones traditionally serve as a delivery device, a conduit that brings sound directly to your ears.

A college-student created company called Musical Minds wants to make headphones smarter, capable of reading your mind.

“At Musical Minds,” says their About page, “we use innovative brainwave technology to show how each song you listen to changes the landscape of your brain in real time. Our unique algorithm then interprets these changes to create playlists that affect mood, focus, and motivation.”

The headphones, called “Trills,” are implanted with EEG sensors to track the listener’s brain waves as they listen to music. The requisite smartphone app will show the listener how  their brain reacts to what’s playing. The playlists, hooked up to Spotify, will be tweaked then to give you more of whatever music heightens your focus, your motivation, or whatever mood you might like to get into that day.

Or as the promotional copy puts it, the “mood app curates a playlist that helps you reach the emotional state you need, whether that’s carefree bliss or a good shower cry.”

“We’re actually redefining the end goal of listening to music,” Musical Moods co-founder and Ithaca College junior Jessica Voutsinas told The Ithacan. “You’re not reading a research paper on the theory behind music therapy. It’s actually working in real time, and we show you how it increases your focus, motivation, and mood. It’s not something you read about – it’s something you yourself are experiencing.”

Voutsinas told The Ithacan her “company’s goal is first and foremost to promote mental health wellness.”

That sounds all well and good, but the Musical Minds team still needs to answer some questions before Trills start helping music fans get a thrill.

For one, the app is connected to Spotify: music fans who can only get motivated by listening to Taylor Swift trash an ex-boyfriend will find no stimulus whatsoever, along with fans of Prince, Bob Seger, and King Crimson – though The Beatles are now an option on that service. Innumerable underground, independent, and unsigned artists will also be left out of the mood-change-via-music data revolution.

More importantly for those worried about online privacy – and who isn’t! – Musical Minds will need to mind that their service’s findings remain secure.

Why should you be afraid of your musical preferences getting out? In part, because if you’re not afraid, news people don’t really have any other ideas about how to get you to pay attention. Even scarier, imagine that Tipper Gore or someone like her who’s afraid of rock ‘n roll got hold of how your brain looks on death metal.

Do your serotonin levels spike when chain-listening to Slayer albums? Do vintage Ice Cube rhymes get your endorphins flowing? Can you sing of drowning your lover all a-smile? Well, then, the Surveillance State has got a cell for you.

Image courtesy of the Musical Minds website.

YIMBYs Say Yes, Build In My Backyard

Anyone who wants to pitch a tent in my backyard, pictured above, is welcome to stay for a while.

Whether extending this open invitation to live in the only backyard I’ve got qualifies me as a genuine YIMBYite, I don’t know. Perhaps, to be sure, we should have a Tiny House raising to create a more permanent living situation.

A YIMBYite, for those not hip to the Neo-Urban lingo, is the new, positive type of downtown-living cat who says “Yes, I most definitely want some more buildings in my city!” The YIMBYite – as in, “Yes, in my backyard” –  is into more people living in less space, walking to the grocery store, rolling with the changes. As opposed to the well-known “NIMBYite,” who shows up to meetings when new development is proposed and says “Not in my backyard!”

Second Ward alderperson Duc Nguyen informed me of the YIMBY, through this Ithaca Voice article summing up a new “housing development toolkit” put out by the White House earlier in September. Nguyen referenced a “YIMBYTown” conference, the first, held in Boulder, Colorado, this past June to talk about encouraging “abundant housing and sustainable infill in growing cities.”

The recommendations made in the White House “toolkit” line up with the YIMBY line. If you’ve been paying attention to Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick’s pro-development talk over the last few years, the recommendations are kind of a bore.

“Local and neighborhood leaders have said yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the White House document reports. Those rules include too-slow or too-stringent zoning approval processes, and land use laws which favor single-family homes over denser development.

The toolkit has 10 ideas for how localities can “modernize their housing strategies and expand options and opportunities for hardworking families.” Ithaca has already pushed toward some of the suggestions, in pieces, like scrapping parking requirements and allowing for higher builds in Collegetown and downtown. The city’s tax abatement program is seemingly constantly in flux, and an inclusionary zoning program is in the long, slow grind of legislative tweaking. (My last check-in with that process was in March, at this link.)

The main reason YIMBY groups exist, it seems, is to mobilize behind these neo-urbanist ideals. The problem of mobilization is one that Myrick lamented many a time during the approval process for the 210 Hancock affordable housing project. Few who don’t live somewhere yet are going to show up in support of their potential future home, or so his musings go. And while affordable housing was approved at 210 Hancock and at Stone Quarry in recent years, it seems less certain that many people in Ithaca are crazy about Really Big Buildings like that proposed at State and Aurora in the Triangle. Every unit matters, but It’s those big projects that are, in theory, supposed to give a big increase to supply and lessen the housing crunch for people who can’t swing this area’s high rents right now.

Though there might be a teensy bit less demand for housing now than in recent years, not everyone’s getting into somewhere nice this fall. Get at me about my backyard vacancy: don’t bring rats, please, though a ferret is OK. Better yet, if you’ve got an RV, I’ve got some gas money. Let’s go South. Winter is coming soon.

 

Voices For Freedom Speak In Ithaca

Writers, like most people, like to be noticed once in a while. Sit or stand at a keyboard all day in a quiet room, and even a misspelled email in ALL CAPS informing one of gross incompetence and grammar mistakes can be a comfort: “Well, at least somebody is reading,” the writer thinks.

Those writers who have come to Ithaca over the past 15 years through the City of Asylum program experienced a heavier sort of critical attention in their home countries. Your average letter-writer or tweeter might have some nasty things to say; the City of Asylum writers have had action taken against their lives.

Present at the Kitchen Theater on Sunday, September 25, were Yi Ping, the first Ithaca City of Asylum writer, who fled China along with his wife, poet/translator Lin Zhou after the Chinese government increased repression after the Tiananmen Square protests. Here was Sarah Mkhonza, who had her University of Swaziland office ransacked after criticizing the monarchy’s repressive regime. Journalist/activist Sonali Samarasinghe left Sri Lanka for the United States with her family after her husband, editor of a weekly paper openly critical of the government, was assassinated in 2009. And Raza Rumi, the current ICOA writer-in-residence, left his home in Lahore, Pakistan, after an attempt made on his life by Islamic militants in 2014 that left his driver dead.

In exile, the internet has allowed these writers to continue publishing for outlets in their homelands. Given their apparent distance from danger, one might think that they would grow more outspoken in their critiques. Yet the effect of exile has been somewhat the opposite for some.

Mkhonza said at the Voices of Freedom celebration on Sunday that she feels her words don’t have quite the same impact spoken from afar.

“I can be out here and speak, but it doesn’t get to Swaziland the same way as when I was there,” Mkhonza said.

In Pakistan, Rumi was a defender of liberal values, of human rights, and a critic of the military’s use of jihadist militias. He’s more careful in what he says since coming to the United States.

“I’ve been put in the position of telling people not all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists,” Rumi said, adding drily “It gets rather exhausting.”

In Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe said she was a “lot more strident.” In the U.S., she has found her style to be more “tempered and circumspect.”

“You have to be strident, or you’re not going to be heard with all that noise and fearmongering going on,” Samarasinghe said of her writing in Sri Lanka.

Despite the distance, their duty is still to write. As Yi Ping put it, though he’s a poet, essayist, and dramatist, he feels because in the U.S. he has “the freedom to write and speak, I should focus on political writing and help my friends.”

With her voice rising, Mkhonza said her work was to tell Swazis, especially women, “the freedom is theirs, the voice is theirs, and their stories can be told by them as well as by anyone.”

Though writers and journalists are by and large freer from the threat of physical violence in the United States, there are areas where critics here don’t dare to tread: Rumi reiterated a point he made in a March interview with me for the Ithaca Times that when it comes to coverage of national security policy, most outlets toe the government policy line.

Ithaca City of Asylum co-founder Anne Emmanuelle Berger said in a video introduction sent from Paris that Ithaca’s “marginality” and “diminutive size” is why this town is a good place for writers who question power. Far from the center of decision-making, writers in humble burgs like this one have more room to breathe, free of influence and fear. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s a slower-acting force that needs space and time to have its effect.

The American writer is often guilty of not using freedom to its fullest ends; we pat ourselves on the back for living somewhere oppression isn’t so blatant, and congratulate ourselves on our wit and charm while ignoring that “shabby backstreet” of our own country where most people live, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Algren.

Writers worldwide would do well to heed Samarasinghe’s words every time they crack open the laptop or set pen to paper:

“I’m very, very critical of my country not because I hate my country, but because I love my country and want it to be a better place.”

Featured photograph of Yi Ping and Lin Zhou from YouTube.

On the ‘Jon Stewart Rescues a Bull’ Story

I wrote a feature on Farm Sanctuary’s 30th anniversary for the June 1 Ithaca Times. This portion on the ‘Jon Stewart rescues a bull’ story and the Stewarts’ and other celebrities’ relationship to the organization was cut for space. 

Stories featuring public figures as beloved as Jon Stewart, animals, and crazy happenings in New York City are destined for internet attention. All three of those came together on April 1, when a one-year-old white-faced bull on his way to a livestock market in Queens escaped and took a ramble through the campus of York College.
The bull, later named Frank Lee after the Alcatraz escapee, was tied up and tranquilized by NYPD officers, then sent to the Animal Care Center of Brooklyn. Numerous videos from onlookers of that “arrest” are online, with incredulous, incisive commentary like “It take the whole NYPD for some damn cow?” and “He about to buck the shit out of them.”
That story in itself would be enough to garner some pageviews, but it gained real notoriety when outlets found out that former Daily Show host Jon Stewart came to New York in a van with trailer, along with his wife Tracey to feed Frank some hay and drive him to Cornell’s veterinary hospital for a check-up before relocating to the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary.
A short video shot by Tracey of her husband, in ball cap and retirement beard, feeding Frank hay made the rounds, and the “Holy Cow!” and “No Bull” headlines proliferated across the web.
“Everyone Wants Jon Stewart to Return, But He’s Just Saving Escaped Cows,” was the Esquire headline. At New York magazine, “Queens Bull Escapes to College, Gets Rescued by Jon Stewart,” and the New York Times, always nuanced, led with the more accurate “Bull in Queens Is Captured, and Jon Stewart Chauffeurs It to Freedom.”
After Farm Sanctuary national shelter director Susie Coston got the call from New York a bull needed a home, calling Tracey Stewart, the nonprofit’s newest board member, to pick up Frank was a practical decision.
“I called the Stewarts because they’re an hour away, with a truck and trailer,” Coston said. “By the time I get there, he’d be all stressed out. Of course, it turned into ‘Jon Stewart rescues a bull.’”
Taking in a large farm animal who made a break for it in New York City isn’t a new happening for Coston. At any one time, somewhere between 50 to 100 of the approximately 500 animals at Watkins Glen are rescues from the city’s live markets. Queenie, another resident cow, also made her escape in Queens.
“Most people don’t realize there are thousands of farm animals in New York City,” Coston said. “They’re herd and flock animals that don’t do well alone, and they go crazy.I know people who go into a coma when they get there, saying ‘Oh my god, why am I here?’”
As a practical matter, when Frank first arrived at Farm Sanctuary, “no one was hanging out with him,” Coston said – a bull can inseminate a cow for up to four weeks after castration. Now, Frank the steer is integrating himself into the herd; he’s easily recognizable in the pasture, with his white face and bantamweight stature compared to most of the other bovines.
The Stewarts will be opening a fourth Farm Sanctuary location in 2017 on their 12-acre farm in Monmouth County, N.J. Animals will be provided from Watkins Glen, according to Coston, with the property housing about a half-dozen cows, a few pigs, sheep, goats, a couple horses, and up to 50 chickens.
Tracey was already an animal advocate and discovered Farm Sanctuary president Gene Baur’s first book at a beach house in New Jersey, which led to their association. Stewart has written a book, Do Unto Animals, and has related merchandise like notebook sets, fine art prints, and tote bags.
“Everyone has transformative moments,” Tracey said in an interview reprinted in Sanctuary magazine. “For some, it’s discovering CrossFit; for others, it’s finding religion. For me, it was cows.”
Help from celebrities is nothing new for Farm Sanctuary. Tom Scholz, of the band Boston, has his name on the sheep barn in Watkins Glen; comedian Kevin Nealon sponsored the visitor’s center; and celebrities as varied as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, and Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage have supported the sanctuary over its 30 years.

Photo by Lyndsey Hewitt. Frank the Bull is at left, with Farm Sanctuary shelter director Susie Coston at right.

Inpatient Detox Not So Much In The Ithaca Drug Plan

Another story on the Ithaca drug policy. This was all reported in two days after the plan rolled out, but the story ran another week later. The not-for-profit heads quoted below were a bit offput by the plan’s rollout: the short of their complaint was “We’re working on more solutions … but we don’t go around announcing projects until the funding is worked out.” Photo is of the Dick Van Dyke Center in Seneca County, which, from what I hear, has no connection to the actor Dick Van Dyke. 

A lack of places to go for people to get off addictive substances is a common complaint around Ithaca. Tompkins County has neither an inpatient detox facility nor a crisis walk-in detox. The perception, at least, is that one must be court-mandated or fail out of an outpatient program like those at the Alcohol & Drug Council (ADC) or Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) to get a spot in an inpatient detox – the closest of which are in Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira, and the state-run Dick Van Dyke facility in Seneca County.

Take this quote from someone in the “business” focus group convened to give input to the new Ithaca drug policy for an example of this frustration: “Most people addicted to heroin are going to be on Medicaid. In order to get into in-patient, you have to fail out of outpatient … They need to have three or four dirty drugs screens before they can qualify to get into inpatient, which is where they needed to be initially, which can take 3-4 months.” Or read our June 2014 feature on the heroin epidemic “No Question It’s Gotten Worse” on ithaca.com, which features the frustrations of several people in recovery.

“Insurance is probably our biggest struggle with the inpatient (facility),” said Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency services at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, which hosts a 40-bed unit. “There’s supposed to be parity with behavioral health and primary health, but I don’t know if that’s fully happening quite yet.”

Once a patient does get into treatment, sometimes the insurance company might only end up covering a few days of treatment, Taylor said.

“You hardly ever see 28 days (of treatment) anymore,” said Rich Bennett, director of the Ithaca Rescue Mission. “You have to ask if it’s worth it to go into treatment for a week, and then whatever jobs and relationships are there might go away.”

Nevertheless, when someone walks into the Rescue Mission and says “I can’t take it anymore, get me into treatment,” Bennett said they do their best to get someone help because their attitude might “drastically change in three days.”

ADC has been in talks “for a while” with New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to bring an inpatient detox to Ithaca, according to executive director Angela Sullivan. For now, ADC offers what they call “intensive outpatient” programming, which includes three three-hour meetings a week along with medically-assisted treatment for most of its clients trying to get off opiates – a number which has increased from about 5 percent of people calling them their primary drug in 2011 to about a third of the approximately 500 people ADC served last year.

As a state-certified provider of addiction services, ADC does have to reveal a positive drug test to probation or social services, whoever the referring partner might be.

“We do not automatically discharge someone for a positive test,” Russell said. “That is an old school myth that I don’t even think was true 10 years ago. When someone tests positive there’s always a conversation.”

Bill Rusen, CEO of CARS, found the lack of detox options in the Ithaca Plan to be its most objectionable omission.

“Imagine (Cayuga Medical Center) without an ER,” Rusen said. “When CMC was being built, they might have said we’re going to have shamans in there, it’s going to be fantastic. We’re going to have aromatherapy, an ICU, cancer care, cardiac care, but we’re not putting an emergency room in. If you’re having a heart attack you’re really not too interested if the shaman shows up. In this unfair, fallen universe we live in where there’s not enough time, energy, or resources for everything I think the first choice has to be a detox.”

CMC did host a detox until 2009, but “it’s a loser” financially, Rusen said. “You have to have a nurse and a medical person on duty all the time, even if they never saw a patient that day. Even insurance which pays better than Medicaid doesn’t pay enough to cover the costs.”

Rusen said he’s had a proposal “sitting around for about two years” to cover a walk-in outpatient detox, which would cost about $150,000 a year to cover staffing.

Though there’s no inpatient detox for Ithaca in the new plan, one of the recommendations is a 24-hour crisis center, which would serve as a place for law enforcement to bring intoxicated people without going to the CMC ER, a place with short-term temporary beds for people waiting an inpatient bed, and a safe “chill out” spot for people to go rather than being inebriated in public.

At the moment of crisis, the idea for the 24-hour center is to replace trips to the CMC ER, which cost the hospital, Bangs Ambulance, and Ithaca police $413,526.91 in 2015, according to the plan – one of the very few hard numbers included in the report, and one that CMC has made clear is not sustainable.

There is money available for this kind of diversion right now, according to Rusen and Russell, in the form of the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP). The idea of DSRIP is to reduce avoidable hospital trips by people on Medicaid 25 percent in the next five years, with up to $6.42 billion available statewide.

“I assume this center is going to piggyback on (DSRIP) a little bit,” Rusen said.

The Medical Treatment Options for Opiate Addicts

Here’s the original story I wrote on medically-assisted treatment recommendations in Ithaca’s much-written-about drug policy; it was cut down a bit on the end for print, since Vivitrol wasn’t mentioned in the mundanely-named “Ithaca Plan.”  I thought it worth fleshing out what exactly the issues with these treatments are right now, since no one else was doing it, and especially since in a lot of places recommending something like a methadone clinic would raise hell all on its own (hello, Williamsport!). This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Photo is mine, of Nicole Pagano, who has an honest-to-goodness soda counter in her pharmacy. 

Beyond the potential “supervised injection facility” for heroin addicts not yet taking steps to recovery, there are many more recommendations in the new city drug policy for new and increased services to help those who want to get and stay off dope. A large part of building the comprehensive “recovery-oriented treatment continuum” the plan proposes is getting people access to what’s called “medically-assisted treatment” – that is, drug treatment that help dull cravings for the dangerous street stuff.

Mayor Svante Myrick said last week that one of the plan’s “low hanging fruit” could be convincing more physicians to prescribe Suboxone – the brand name for a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid, and naloxone, which deters use by injection. Under federal regulations, a doctor can only prescribe the drug to 100 patients at a time.

“If the mayor has a special relationship with the president and he would like to sign an executive order to lift the cap, that would help,” said Dr. John Bezirganian, one of four doctors in Tompkins County currently certified to prescribe Suboxone.

Bezirganian has a private psychiatry practice and is medical director for county mental health and the Alcohol and Drug Council (ADC). Since he started prescribing Suboxone about 15 years ago, he’s treated 520 people with the drug – about 20 of his initial patients are still with him today.

In earlier days, if someone came to him off the street and asked for Suboxone, he told them to go to the ADC, and then he could generally promise to get them onto the drug once they graduated from treatment. Because of the limit on prescriptions, now he has to make choices about his patients.

“To some extent I’m playing God a little bit, but I have to pick the best available people,” Bezirganian said. “If I have to make a choice of a single mother who’s sober and working against someone dabbling in other drugs. A young single guy might say that’s not fair. And it’s not fair. But that’s the way it goes.”

The original limit was 30 Suboxone patients per practice, “but they raised it to 100 because no one was signing up,” Bezirganian said.

A special Drug Enforcement Agency number must be issued for a Suboxone provider. There is a seven-hour course to get certified on the drug, some of which is mere “hoop-jumping training,” Bezirganian said. More so than the training itself, he thinks that more doctors don’t participate because of the effect they think prescribing Suboxone might have on their private practice.

“I think many primary care doctors would be fine if they have five people they like and can do it for them, but they don’t want 30, 50, 100 people coming in the door saying ‘Hi, I want Suboxone,’” Bezirganian said. He gets four or five calls a week, and keeps a few spots open in case someone in special circumstances, like pregnancy, needs the drug.

“If I had the spigot open it’d be limitless,” Bezirganian said. “If all doctors could prescribe it, I don’t know how big it would be.”

Nicole Pagano of the Green Street Pharmacy said she has developed a “good working relationship” with ADC and Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) since she opened her shop in 2010.

“I can spend hours and hours and hours on the phone to figure out insurance,” Pagano said. “We try to work out insurance ahead of time. Sometimes we can use coupons for the medication to help someone cover the cost for the first few days … If we can’t treat someone today, they might be lost tomorrow.”

Pagano strives to foster a “judgment-free zone” at GSP; she said many people going on Suboxone are in a situation where they’re afraid of losing their children.

“With no other disease do you have the pharmacist look at you like, ‘Oh, another one of those,’” Pagano said. “Everyone who comes in here is dealing with something … One day of heroin use is more dangerous than a lifetime of Suboxone.”

People in recovery dealing with the aide of methadone right now have to leave Tompkins County to get their treatment. The Ithaca Plan recommends adding a methadone clinic here or even, as Myrick has floated, a mobile unit to distribute the drug.

Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, said that there are currently seven patients commuting from Tompkins County on a daily basis to the Crouse methadone clinic. Her clinic can serve up to 650 people at any one time under state regulations, with a waitlist about nine to 12 months long and about 350 people deep right now. The program admitted 265 people in 2015, its most in a year since opening in 1975, and is serving about 550 people at the moment.

The only issues that can move someone up the wait list are either pregnancy or being HIV positive.

“It’s challenging for people to understand we can have a wait list with capacity,” Taylor said. “The problem is when you admit someone into treatment a lot goes into that – methadone is a controlled substance and it requires pretty close monitoring. For the first three weeks or so there’s daily assessment of somebody in that induction phase to get to that therapeutic dose where they’re neither sedated nor going through withdrawal.”

Most people in treatment of opioid addiction do receive some kind of medically-assisted treatment, according to Angela Sullivan, executive director, of ADC. About 33 percent of ADC’s approximately 500 patients last year were admitted for opiates as their primary drug – up from about 5 percent in her first year, 2011. Of that 33 percent, about 27 percent of their total patients received some form of medical assistance.

Heroin-assisted treatment is also mentioned in the plan as something to be explored – providing addicts who don’t respond to Suboxone or methadone with synthetic heroin is a “last resort,” though, according to Peter Schafer of the New York Academy of Health.

One medical treatment unmentioned in the plan is Vivitrol, the brand-name for naltrexone, an opiate blocker that also treats alcohol dependency, which can be prescribed by any doctor and requires a monthly injection.

Alkermes, Vivitrol’s parent company, is “going to every county and pushing it in jails,” Bezirganian said. Because of serious interactions with opiate use, “they tell you only to prescribe it to people who are highly motivated, like an anesthesiologist with a drug problem or people on state parole,” the doctor said.

In an ideal world, Bezirganian said that Suboxone would be widely available for people no matter what other recovery steps they’re taking.

“Some people aren’t that interested in the whole recovery thing, going to groups, which is part and parcel of coming to an agency,” Bezirganian said. “For people coming in using lots of heroin, you could start them on a good dose and lower it over time. You can let people detox themselves.”

Police Not So Pleased With Shooting Heroin, Legally

Here’s the law enforcement angle story about the “Ithaca Plan,” the drug policy rolled out by Mayor Svante Myrick in late February 2016. This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Image is that week’s cover illustration, representing the “four-pillar” plan, by Marshall Hopkins. The sheriff’s quotes were contributed by my colleague Jaime Cone, who also did a fantastic interview for the issue with the fantastically named Herebeorht Howland-Bolton.  My portion, with IPD Chief Barber, was completed in-person at Island Fitness, a gleaming palace of ellipticals and weights on the Ithaca waterfront; the chief saw me walking outside along the Inlet while working out and he gave me a call. We’d been playing phone tag, and he was leaving for vacation the next day. Score one more in favor of aimless walks. 

The supervised injection facility for heroin users proposed as part of Ithaca’s new municipal drug policy garnered lots of media attention, but not much in the way of praise from local law enforcement leaders.

Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing said his department was not consulted in the development of the drug plan.

“We all know that people that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing are paranoid, and I’m just not sure how safe they’re going to feel going to a facility that’s going to allow them to do this,” Lansing said about the injection facility. “There are hurdles with the legality to look at. Nothing against the mayor; I think he’s doing a hell of a job, no doubt about it, and the plan has some great ideas. I just can’t accept [the injection facility], and I can’t support it.”

Ithaca police Chief John Barber said that as “an officer of the law, I have to uphold the law.”

“I applaud Mayor Myrick for coming up with a plan that’s not business as usual,” Barber said. “I don’t agree with all aspects, but [the plan] could do a lot of good and ultimately save lives.”

Even if the injection facility comes to be at all, it’s certainly not happening immediately. The facility does have the backing of Gwen Wilkinson, the Tompkins County district attorney, but as Myrick said at the Feb. 24 press conference the city has “no interest putting time and resources into something that will be shut down a couple days later.” Getting the power to open such a facility will likely take a legal change or at least the governor’s support, the mayor said.

One major recommendation in the “Ithaca Plan” does not face any legal hurdles: starting a“law enforcement assisted diversion” (LEAD) program. The LEAD concept was pioneered in Seattle in 2011.

The “diversion” in LEAD means that police can use their discretion to “reroute people into the intake process, rather than court,” Barber said. One of the findings in the Ithaca Plan is that drug courts “are not a sufficient solution” because of the strict requirements like total abstinence from substances.

The gist of the LEAD idea is to get people struggling with addiction some help, rather than adding to their complications by further entangling them in the criminal justice system or taking them back to the emergency room for one more night that doesn’t solve any of their underlying problems.

“We can’t, and neither can the hospitals, take these frequent fliers—the people who are constantly taking up the professional facilities,” Lansing said. “The hospital doesn’t have the time or the staff to deal with that, and other than putting them in a cell by themselves there’s not much that we at the jail can do. It’s a very difficult thing, withdrawal.”

In July 2015 Albany became the first New York city to approve the concept, and it has since received at least one grant of $70,000 from a private foundation to hire a staffer.

The memorandum of understanding passed by Albany’s Common Council to start their LEAD program calls for a protocol-making committee made up of representatives from law enforcement and relevant county and city departments, like mental health. Non-profit service providers and the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City nonprofit that played a large role in writing the Ithaca Plan, serve at will on the committee in an advisory role.

In July 2015 Barber attended meetings on the LEAD concept hosted by the White House. He said at the Feb. 24 press conference that he came back “renewed” after seeing how a plan could be “put together for a specific person, and then it’s working.”

Barber couldn’t provide numbers offhand, but said that people with drug problems are responsible for well over half of property crimes in Ithaca.

“People who are addicted are stealing to support their habit,” Barber said. “There are a small number of people in the community who are in and out on a regular basis, and the way we approach it now is not working.”

“Police officers are in the field every day building a rapport with people,” Barber continued. “[LEAD] is really another form of community policing.” •

What’s Wrong With The Silent Pro-Dog Minority

An opinion piece, originally published in the March 11 Ithaca Times

If the Internet is to be believed, a large majority of Ithacans would love to take their dogs for a walk on the Commons whenever the downtown pedestrian mall gets to looking fresh again.

Mayor Svante Myrick asked his Facebook followers their opinion both last September and in late February: should the 40-year-old ban on Commons canines should be lifted? Over the course of a couple hundred comments between the two strings, the Yays outnumbered the Nays about three to one.
“Why not Fido?” asked the online dog lovers. “S/he goes with me everywhere,” they said. “Dogs are everywhere in Europe, and Paris/Rome/Berlin is beautiful.” “Whenever we visit City X (Burlington, Asheville, Portland, any weird little city, really), no one there has any problem with dogs downtown.” Mostly, the affirmatives said “yes,” “yeah,” or “YES YESS YES.”

If one asked a selection of Commons merchants their opinion, several said they welcome in four-legged patrons. If not they seemed unconcerned, even blasé about the issue. One found it “very interesting” that a ban existed, then complained about smoking on the Commons. Some thought allowing dogs might help business, as tourists tend to bring along their pets – especially that yearly tourists-and-their-greyhounds bus. One merchant of 26 years said that dogs have been on the Commons “since Day One” and there’s no way to keep them off, “legally or illegally.”

Economic impact and certainty in enforcement were the two driving reasons why the Commons Advisory Board recommended dogs be legalized. Economic, because merchants have been hard-hit by reconstruction and will take all the business they can get, drool or no. Enforcement is difficult for police because it’s very easy for someone who’s caught with a poodle on the Commons to say “Oh, no, my Fifi is a service dog.” Those papers are easier to acquire than your Wednesday Ithaca Times.

Sniff those winds of prevailing opinion. Stop into a Lake Street tavern where a pit bull has claimed a stool. Watch passing strangers, man or woman, young or old, having an oh-you’re-soooo-cute squeal over one another’s poodle or pit bull. It seemed concluded that Ithaca and its Commons was gone to the dogs.

The only obstacle was a vote of Common Council at their March 4 meeting, where they were to consider a whole package of Commons law rewrites on everything from outdoor dining boundaries to a move-along rule for buskers. This was when Fido’s foes showed up in force. A force of a half-dozen or so, but they were there.

The no-dogs minority had stated their opposition on the Internet strings. They said they were either allergic, or afraid – of doggie disputes, of scaring the kids, of the few ruining it for the many, of poop smeared upon the shiny new Commons pavers. Besides one Ithacan arguing for a statue of Odysseus’ hound, these were the people Council heard talk. And Council said, “Well, dogs can wait,” because councils give more weight to people who show up than those who do not.

Council is not required to read Facebook comments – though 50 or so old-fashioned emails to one alderperson or another, which do go on record, might have changed the debate’s tone. There wasn’t one. And a lively Facebook presence might make national reporters drool, but it doesn’t give Mayor Myrick the power to tell Council to roll over.

Perhaps it’s true that all this means is that “people in Ithaca know the law is soft,” as the one, dog-opposed, Commons merchant who showed up March 4 said. Maybe Ithacans do “laugh at the signs.”
Until Ithacans start telling their government what to put on the signs, though, no one should be whining when on a trip with Toto to the pretty new Commons, an officer says “Get off there! I said, GET OFF!”

Cornell Protesters Don’t Like Getting Investigated

Originally published in the Ithaca Times on May 6. This is my original draft.

In the week before Cornell’s big Charter Day celebration the weekend of April 24-27, several students active in “#FightTheFee” protests were called in to speak with administrators, or, in two cases, with Cornell police investigator Justin Baum. The student organizers, who had staged two protests during spring 2015 against the university’s proposed $350 health care fee for those not enrolled in Cornell insurance, say the irony of these conversations is that they had nothing scheduled for Charter Day events at all.

“We’re not nearly as cool as they think we are,” said Alex Brown, a Ph.D student in German studies, before Charter Day weekend.

“We anticipate that you will use (Charter Day) as an opportunity to continue your protests,” vice president Susan Murphy wrote students Wyatt Nelson and Michael Ferrer on April 19 in an email requesting a meeting, “and want to discuss with you what we expect to happen over the course of the weekend.”

What did end up happening over Charter Day weekend was an April 26 demonstration announcing the formation of the “Cornell Independent Students’ Union” – an entity organizers say is unrelated to #FightTheFee, though several people are involved in both. That gathering of about 60 students was held outdoors, where protests do not need approval under campus rules.

Where students and faculty say the administration and police crossed a line in the run-up to Charter Day was during Baum’s interview with Daniel Marshall, a class of 2015 undergraduate. It’s the recording of that interview that has students and faculty crying intimidation – some faculty have said it’s the most nervous they have seen the administration since the fight over chopping down Redbud Woods in 2005.

The Interview

In a recording of the approximately 15-minute interview provided to media, Baum first tells Marshall he’s “just in the information finding stage” and that he doesn’t “suspect there will be any charges forthcoming, at least from what I’ve been told.”

Baum was trying to gather information about an image posted on the “Save the Pass” Facebook page in the early morning hours of March 26 that shows an image that says “Welcome the Trustees” projected in the Statler Hall auditorium. (Later that day, protesters welcoming Cornell’s trustees followed them inside Statler Hall, where they made a ruckus outside the closed door meeting).

After Marshall declined to answer questions about what he knew of the picture and some butcher paper that was allegedly hung on the walls, Baum changed his tone. He told Marshall he had “subpoenaed” information from Facebook about page organizers, and had the “ability to charge you with a D-felony and two misdemeanors right now.”

“I don’t want to charge you with burglary, I don’t want to ruin your life,” Baum said. “Your cooperation is going to produce that. If you cooperate with me you will not be charged with a burglary. If you don’t cooperate with me I’m going to charge you with a burglary and probably come into one of your classes the next few days and walk you out in handcuffs.”

Once students posted an online “communique” about the incident, faculty got wind and over 100 had signed their names to a brief letter written by associate professor of history Ray Craib that reads in part: “Flat-footed, heavy-handed, offensive: that sums up the actions of the administration and its police force. Is the central administration that insecure?”

Organizing from the top down

“The administration is our best organizer, and now maybe the CUPD is there,” Marshall said. “Over last two years I’d say our numbers have quadrupled or quintupled.”

Many of those active in the #FightTheFee protests this spring got their start in efforts to save freshman bus passes in spring 2014. While the administration says that protests should not be disruptive, and some students critique actions like the sit-in at Day Hall on Feb. 10, Marshall says that was how the bus pass effort was won.

“They kept saying ‘We don’t have the money – and then suddenly one day the money appeared,” Marshall said. “We had about 50 people outside of Day Hall ready to do a sit-in when Skorton came out with Joe Malina and an entire media crew and said the passes were staying.”

Marshall doesn’t think his job as an activist, though, is “to get people riled up.”
“Our role is to connect the dots on how their policies are affecting people,” Marshall said. “There’s this kind of insistence that ‘You’re here to study, we’re here to administrate’ – this isn’t your role. That might be what a lot of students want to do, but policies they’ve been enacting like budget cuts in the arts college, tuition increases that equal about $4,000 over past 2 years … there’s a growing list of things that are threatening students’ abilities to be here.”

Brown also sees the role of campus organizers as connecting the dots.
“We’ve been careful from the beginning to not make (the health care fee) an issue in isolation from everything else,” Brown said. “It’s connected to low-income students who get promised no-loan financial aid, then are forced to take out loans, when their work-study and summer job won’t cut it as part of their expected student contribution.”

Faculty response

“Overkill is the first word that comes to mind,” Craib said of his feeling when he first learned of the investigation. “The students are asking good questions, the same ones faculty have been asking about the deficits. Maybe the jumpiness is coming from the willingness of the students to do their homework on the trustees.”

Eric Cheyfitz, a professor in English, thinks the investigation “violates both the spirit and the letter of what it means to be a part of the community at Cornell.”
“I think it’s a bad mistake, the administration isn’t getting good advice,” Cheyfitz said. “They’re upping the ante in a battle where they can only become more and more alienated from their constituencies.”

There has been speculation that recent budget cuts have something to do with overbuilding, Cheyfitz said, though no one knows for sure. Arts college faculty sent a letter to the administration on April 23 protesting cuts.

“This whole budget crisis has suddenly materialized out of nowhere,” Cheyfitz said. “That means belt tightening across the board. There’s supposed to be consultation with the faculty senate on these matters and that has not been the case.”

Whatever the motivations behind the investigation, there have been calls for a fuller explanation from the administration than the statement released by Cornell police head Kathy Zoner that stated CUPD “was asked to conduct a criminal investigation into alleged felonious behavior” that was not related to the protests on Feb. 10 or March 26.

“The whole community deserves a full explanation from the Cornell police and Cornell administration of what they did and why they did it,” said Risa Lieberwitz, a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations school. “If it turns out when we hear all the information that it was an overly aggressive action then there should be consequences.”

Hanging With The Mayor & Chief

Originally published in the Ithaca Times on May 20.

Now that tobacco use is nearly as unhip as one-party machine politics, smoke-filled back rooms are a thing of American political history. Back room consultations over coffee, however, are still alive and well, if the “Coffee with the Mayor & Chief” meetings going on in Ithaca are any indication.

The difference between these meetings with Chief John Barber and Mayor Svante Myrick and the typical back room summit is that no one is summoned to attend. Anyone can come into the public space of the coffee shop, sit down, and have a chat with the leaders of their city and police department.
Two more of these sessions are scheduled this spring for the mornings of May 20 and 27 at the Gimme! Coffee on West State Street. Four have been held this spring, three at local Dunkin’ Donuts.

Citizens attending these sessions might want to have a question or two prepared, since the meetings are not an entirely open affair. There is a sign-up system in place with a place to put one’s questions, so the mayor and chief can have one-on-one conversations with their constituents.
Though taking people in by ones or twos doesn’t quite capture the free-ranging marketplace aesthetic of Athenian democracy to which some idealists might aspire, the measure of privacy does allow people to speak a bit more freely about their issues.

For example, on the morning of May 13 a mother speaking with Barber and Myrick wondered how the city could provide more programs for teenagers. She wasn’t excusing some “punk ass shit” her youngster pulled that brought down trouble, but had looked around for mentorship programs to keep older youth, high school-aged, out of trouble and found little. Barber suggested some places she might go, and then Myrick answered her second question – “What are the city’s quality of life goals?”
“Security,” he said first, “so that people can walk down the street without fear.”
The second, Myrick said, was economic security/affordable housing – “I think we’re better than most cities on the first one, and we’re struggling with the second.”

Helen Kuveke, a West Ender, said that she was concerned with people she sees struggling to walk down the street on their own, under the influence of heroin or other substances.
“I can look out my kitchen window and buy any drug I want,” Kuveke said. Treatment and enforcement are the city’s two avenues of action, she was told, – there are no easy answers to an epidemic that’s gripped rural America for the past 20-plus years.

On the topic of affordable housing, Sean Gannon suggested the city look into guaranteeing loans for housing sales, so “Grandma can get the money from a home, and the grandson can get a house he can afford.” The University of Pennsylvania operates a program in Philadelphia that works to get employees into homes in the city they can afford, Gannon told Barber and Myrick.

Arron Bound, a South Sider, came in to pay the IPD a compliment. He’d seen a street fight broken up by officers a few years ago, in a peaceful manner, and said that in his native Cleveland “they would’ve been thrown to the ground and everybody would have been arrested.”
Bound did have a question for the chief: Why does the department buy so many SUVs, compared to sedans? Isn’t gas mileage an issue?
“Really, the mileage is comparable (with sedan cruisers),” Barber said. “They allow us to carry equipment, put a full cage in it, and they’ve got four-wheel-drive which is really helpful.”

The long, morning lines at Gimme! had both the mayor and chief wondering whether that was just the line for java or if they had far more folks waiting to talk. On this morning, over two hours, they had about 15 conversations. Some heavy issues were raised, and some were more of a hello and a chat. Betsy Herrington came by to say hello and give a hug to Myrick, and met Barber for the first time.
“About 1 out of 10 are coming to see me,” Barber said. “Well, no, for the record, let’s say two out of three.”