All posts by

Sidewalks: Necessity or Amenity?

How can City Hall say that it’s preserving municipal services that “impact public health and safety” at the same time that it’s cutting the sidewalk plowing program? On the face of it, this makes absolutely no sense. Leaving snow on the sidewalks pushes pedestrians into the way of oversized vehicles that predictably kill and maim unprotected human bodies. Clearly, clearing the sidewalks has a positive impact on public health and safety.

And it makes even less sense when you know that City Hall has left its car-lane plowing program intact. So even my tiny redundant street will get plowed before the sidewalks on Geddes, even though way more people walk on those sidewalks than drive on my street.

The only way this can make sense is if City Hall doesn’t think people really need to use the sidewalks as much as they need to drive cars. If sidewalks are for recreation, maybe, a good way to ‘get your steps in,’ but not for the real business of transportation. If that’s true, then the people walking with cars on slick streets in winter are taking an unnecessary risk, and City Hall can’t take responsibility for that.

That’s probably a pretty good description of how City Hall’s leaders use sidewalks, but it doesn’t apply to the City at large. More than a quarter or all Syracuse households do not own even one single motor vehicle. Syracuse ranks 12th nationally for highest pedestrian commute share. The Syracuse urban ranks 55th nationally for per capita transit use. People use the sidewalks because they have to, and in the winter people walk in the street because City Hall pushes them there.

And so—like libraries, pools, and bike lanes—sidewalk maintenance gets treated like an ‘amenity’ because the people who control it have insulated themselves from the conditions that make that service a necessity for tens of thousands of people living in the City. That’s how City Hall can cut its plowing program and still pretend that it’s preserved all of the services that people ‘really need.’

Frequency and Speed

In public transportation, service frequency depends on bus speed. The faster buses go, the more times one operator can make a run in a single shift. Since the vast majority of operating cost is taken up by operator salary, that means higher service frequencies for little to no extra money. And since higher frequencies are the best way to make public transportation more useful to more people, Syracuse should be doing everything it can to make Centro’s buses go faster.

Nationwide, transit buses travel an average of 12 mph. Buses go so slow because they spend so much of their time not going at all—between sitting at red lights and pickup up/dropping off riders, buses in NYC only spend half their time actually moving. Reduce time spent stuck at reds and time spent letting people on and off the bus, and Syracuse can have faster—more frequent, better—public transportation.

Transit Signal Priority lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching

There are a few ways to do this. The most obvious is bus lanes. Give buses their own space on the street, and cars won’t get in their way. That means no waiting for traffic to pass before pulling away from the bus stop, no getting stuck behind somebody illegally parked at the curb. All this requires is some paint, and it will speed buses up immediately.

Transit signal priority is another way to speed up buses. That technology lets traffic lights know when a bus is approaching, and it adjusts the light cycle to speed up bus travel times—either turning green a little faster or staying green a little longer to let the bus through. City Hall has talked about implementing this technology with its newly acquired streetlight grid, and it would be a perfect smart city technology to deploy as part of the Syracuse Surge.

New payment technologies can also speed the bus up. Paying the fare on the bus takes a couple seconds, and that time really adds up when a lot of people get on the bus all at the same time. Riders have to look for exact change, they have to request a transfer, they have to wait for the fare box to spit their pass back out. While they’re doing all that, the operator has to monitor them, and the bus isn’t moving. Other cities have much faster payment methods—like touchless RFID cards, mobile pay, and offboard fare collection—that let people board much faster so that the bus can spend less time hanging out at the curb.

All of these infrastructure and policy improvements complement network redesign strategies that will also increase service frequency with little to no added operating cost. Take the lineup: it confines service to infrequent bunches throughout the day. That’s bad for frequency from a scheduling standpoint (spreading the service out evenly over the course of the day would yield better frequencies), and it causes traffic that slows buses down (putting 20 buses on the street all at one time creates way more traffic congestion than Downtown normally sees, and those buses get in each other’s way and slow each other down). Getting rid of the lineup would improve frequency in both cases.

Or take spines: the idea of running multiple bus lines on a single street near the center of the network. That multiplies the service frequency on the spine, and it makes all of that speed-boosting infrastructure more effective because improvements to a single street benefit multiple bus lines. Running all of the northbound lines as a spine up North Salina would give that street frequent service and it would make it easier to build this kind of speed-boosting infrastructure.

If Centro is going to improve its service, it’s going to have to find ways to make the buses go faster. That will mean working with City Hall to build infrastructure like bus lanes and transit signal priority, and it will mean adopting innovative technology like mobile fare payment. Combine improvements like those with a redesigned network and schedule, and Syracuse will have more frequent service that gives more people more access to more opportunity.

Frequency and Spines

Frequent service frees transit agencies to run better, more efficient networks. Centro’s current network is designed around the lineup—a tool that facilitates transfers in when the buses don’t run very often. But there are other design tools—like the spine—that can turn that infrequent service into the high-frequency, high-quality transit system that Syracuse needs.

Riders on Munich’s spine-based network can catch any one of 7 different trains to get through the middle of town. Because so many trains serve the same stations, the next one is never more than 4 minutes away.

A spine is a string of stops all served by multiple bus lines. Anyone travelling along the spine can catch any of the different buses that serve it even though all of those buses might have different final destinations. So someone riding from Downtown to James and Lodi, for instance, can catch either the 23 or the 80 bus because both bus lines are identical as far as that person is riding.

Spines multiply service frequency. If a spine is served by four different bus lines, each of which run every 40 minutes, then the spine sees a bus every 10 minutes—that’s the difference between the kind of lackluster service that Syracuse has now and the quality service that it needs.


Centro doesn’t make much use of spines because its network is designed around the lineup. Buses from multiple lines all get to, and leave from the Hub at the same time. This facilitates transfers, but it makes spines impossible—if all of the buses serving a spine left the Hub together, they’d just show up in bunches of four every 40 minutes instead of spreading their service out to arrive every 10 minutes.

Get rid of the lineup, and a spine-based network could redefine public transportation in Syracuse. Take the service between Downtown and the Mall. The STSA identified that corridor as a good candidate for high-frequency service, and SMTC planned a BRT line for it. Buses should run up and down North Salina Street every 10 minutes all day.

Centro could offer that service with the buses it’s running now. The 16, 46, 48, 50, 84, 86, and 88 bus lines all run from Downtown up past the Mall and the RTC, but they spread their service out over multiple parallel routes. If Centro operated all of those bus lines as a spine running up North Salina, it could provide service every 10 minutes from 5 am to 1 am every single weekday.

In fact, the six ‘transit improvement corridors’ from the STSA lend themselves well to a spine-based network, with spines providing extremely frequent service up N Salina, University Hill, and Gifford St. Run these BRT lines in spines, and the city center would see service running as frequently as every five minutes.

Spines are a great way to get high-quality, high-frequency bus service. They are service multipliers, doubling or tripling service frequencies without any added cost. They could turn Centro’s existing barely adequate service into the kind of transformational public transportation that Syracuse needs.

Frequency and the Lineup

Frequent bus service makes more of the City more accessible, but it also saves money. Citywide transit systems only work when people can easily switch between different buses to reach any point in the network, but low-frequency service—like what Centro currently offers—requires enormous inefficiency in order to facilitate transfers. More frequent service can pay for itself—at least in part—by eliminating that waste.


Transit networks benefit from transfers. All alone, a bus line only connects a small part of the City, but as part of a full network, that one bus line can help anyone get anywhere they need to go.

Transfers, though, take time. A rider can show up at their stop right on time to catch the first bus, but they have a lot less control over how long they’ll have to wait for their connecting bus at the transfer point. When the buses don’t show up all that often, a rider can end up waiting an hour or more for their second bus. That’s enough to put a lot of people off of riding the bus at all.

Centro facilitates transfers by running every single bus through the Hub. A person riding any bus can transfer directly to any other bus at that one single point, so it never requires more than one transfer to reach any bus stop in Centro’s entire network.

This ‘hub-and-spoke’ system also allows Centro to minimize the amount of time a rider spends waiting for their connecting bus. Centro times its different bus lines to meet at the Hub all at once roughly every 40 minutes throughout the day. It’s called a lineup, and it makes transferring quick and easy—anybody can transfer between any of the dozen or so buses at a lineup with just a few minutes wait.

Screenshot 2020-08-24 at 9.36.53 AM

But although the lineup is the best way to facilitate transfers in a low-frequency bus network, it is enormously inefficient. If a dozen buses are all going to meet at a single point at a single time, then bus stops near the center of the network will see bunching (when two or more buses reach a stop at exactly the same time) before and after lineups. This is most obvious at stops right next to the Hub (like Salina and Jefferson), but it’s a problem as far away as James and Oak. 76 buses run from that stop to the Hub between 5:30 am and 12:21 pm every weekday (or 1 bus every ~15 minutes), but 9 times a day Centro intentionally sends 2 bunched buses from that stop all 1.75 miles to the Hub. That doubles the cost of serving lower James Street nine times a day without adding any benefit for riders.

Relatedly, the hub-and-spoke network requires all bus lines to start at the Hub even when that makes no sense. Centro runs buses along Grant Blvd, Teall Ave, Geddes St, Colvin St, and Rt 31. These corridors don’t fit easily into the hub-and-spoke network because they don’t point towards Downtown—Centro has to shoehorn them in by combining them with other lines that do go Downtown. So the Rt 31 bus is really just a detour on the route to Oswego, the Grant Blvd bus zigs and zags across the Northside to make its way to the Hub, and Teall doesn’t get the service it really needs along its full length. All of these fudges add extra miles and extra expense to each bus run, and none of it would be necessary if not for the lineup.

Run buses more frequently, and none of this waste is necessary. When buses run every 10 minutes, riders never have to wait more than 10 minutes for their connecting bus. That makes the lineup unnecessary because transfers are quick and easy no matter when a rider reaches the transfer point. And it makes the hub-and-spoke network unnecessary because quick transfers are possible wherever two bus lines intersect.

Screenshot 2020-08-24 at 9.12.42 AM

The lineup is necessary and useful in a system where the buses only run once an hour, but it limits the kind of service that Centro can offer, and it makes that service more expensive than it needs to be.

Frequent service will free Centro from the logic of the lineup. It will make new kinds of bus routes possible (a line running from Lyncourt to South Campus along Teall and Westcott, a line running from Corcoran to the train station along Geddes, a line running from Liverpool to Hancock Airpark along Taft), and it will make the entire network cheaper to run.

Frequency and Access

When the people in power think about making opportunity accessible by bus, they focus too much on where the buses run and not enough on when the buses run. Centro runs bus lines to every urbanized part of the County, so just about any factory, school, or home is within walking distance of a bus stop and technically accessible by bus. But almost none of the County is within walking distance of a bus stop where a bus actually shows up frequently enough to be useful to anybody, and so most of the County is not really accessible by bus in any practical way.

The one big change that Centro can make to bring more places and more opportunities within reach of the bus is to run its buses more often.

People who don’t ride the bus—who have never had to wait at a bus stop for over an hour in the hot sun without a bench to sit on—look at the bus map and think that Centro does a pretty good job of serving the whole County. They look at how the 48 runs up Morgan Road and think that paying Amazon to build a new warehouse on the old Liverpool County Club will create ‘transit-accessible’ jobs.

But the 48 only runs by that site 13 times a day between 5 am and 10 pm—that’s less than once an hour! Sure, it’s going to be possible to get to that new Amazon warehouse on a bus, but it’s not going to be practically feasible. With more than an hour between each run, if a worker is running a couple minutes late and misses their bus, all of a sudden they’re more than an hour late to work and in danger of losing their job. Or if they need to leave early unexpectedly for whatever reason, they can expect to have to wait outside the warehouse for more than an hour just to catch the bus home. Such infrequent service makes for fragile transportation, where a single small change in plans makes the system unusable, and so practically useless.

For bus service to really be useful, it has to run so frequently that you can go to the bus stop at any time and know that another bus will show up soon. That means buses every 10 minutes—maybe every 15 minutes at the most. The red areas on the map above are within a half mile walk of bus stops where the buses run about every 15 minutes. A person living in that red area can get to work anywhere else in that red area without having memorize the bus schedule or stressing about catching the one single bus that can make their commute work. A person moving within that zone can rely on the bus to get them where they’re going.

That’s what it really means for a job or a home or a school to be accessible by bus. So if you really want to know what opportunities are ‘transit-accessible,’ this is the kind of map you need to be looking at. If people in power were really interested in making more opportunity accessible by bus, they’d focus on running more frequent service more places.

Neighborhood-Scale Retail

When you’ve already started cooking dinner and realize that you’re out of eggs and that you absolutely have to have eggs for this meal to work, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to just run down the block to buy a dozen without even turning the stove off.

When you don’t own a car and normally have to rely on a bus that only runs every 40 minutes whenever you want to leave the neighborhood, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to just wheel a cart around the corner to make the weekly grocery run.

Living near retail is convenient—especially for people who live car-free—and a lot of city neighborhoods would be a lot better off if they had more of it. More grocery stores, post offices, pharmacies, laundromats, hardware stores, libraries, barbers, and daycares within easy walking distance of more people’s homes.

But it’s a real challenge to make those kinds of businesses ‘fit’ into the neighborhoods that need them. Erie Boulevard has a hardware store, a post office, a pharmacy, a bank, multiple restaurants, three (!) grocery stores, and specialized retail like a local guitar store and bike shop all within a mile’s walk, but most of those businesses are huge, set back behind mammoth parking lots, flanked by and dependent on 690. People in Eastwood might want to be able to walk to the grocery store, but they sure as hell don’t want Price Chopper’s 3.75 acre parking lot with all of that car traffic and those glaring floodlights anywhere near their houses. On the flipside, Erie Boulevard is so choked with asphalt that there isn’t any room for anybody to live nearby all those businesses.

Car dependence and excessive bigness go together. No one is supposed to walk to Price Chopper (although plenty of people do out of necessity)—everyone is supposed to drive there. So the parking lot has to be big enough to store every customer’s car, and the streets leading to it have to be wide enough for all of that traffic. The result is a single store that sits on a property larger than the entire Westcott business district. A business entirely out of scale with the neighborhoods that should benefit from its proximity.

So to get more businesses that people can walk to, Syracuse needs more small stores designed for customers who arrive on foot. Dominick’s market in Hawley-Green is a perfect example. It’s small enough to focus on the immediate neighborhood, so it doesn’t need a big parking lot to get enough customers to support itself. It’s a store that fits into Hawley-Green and makes the neighborhood better for the people who live there.

This kind of neighborhood-scale retail is in short supply in Syracuse, but it’s starting to make a comeback. New small stores are opening up on old neighborhood main streets like North Salina, South Salina, and James Street. New zoning laws will make it easier for businesses to better serve their immediate neighbors. New people are moving into these neighborhoods because they want the convenience the comes from living near businesses. It’s all going to make for a better City.

Who Lives Downtown?

The dominant narrative of Downtown’s resurgence goes something like this: after years of neglect, a huge change in popular attitudes towards ‘the city’ have drawn people back to Downtown and supported millions of dollars in investment in new businesses, building renovations, and housing. No longer is Downtown just a place to go for work—a central business district—now it’s a real neighborhood where people actually live, a place where you can feel “the hum of city life.”

Which is why the people pushing this narrative cite Downtown’s rising residential population. 1,019 more people lived Downtown in 2018 than did in 2010. What better proof of the area’s resurgence than that more people are moving there?

But when you dig into the census data, that statistic doesn’t fit so neatly with the resurgence narrative. Focusing on the 1,019 increase in total population means ignoring the 2,146 people who already lived Downtown in 2010. Only talking about total population obscures the different reasons that people actually live within the 311 acre district, and it erases the people who live in public housing, the shelters, and the jail in Syracuse’s premier urban playground.

This 2010 map represents each resident of Syracuse as a single colored dot. The dots correspond to each person’s race—blue dots are White people, orange dots are Latinx, red dots are Asian, and green dots are Black people.

Here is that same map zoomed in on Downtown. The thick gray line that curves across the top and right side of the image is I81. The thick gray line on the left side of the image is the West Street Arterial. The thin horizontal line through the middle of the image is Fayette Street, and the thin vertical lines are, from left to right, Clinton, Salina, State, and Townsend Streets. The bottom of the image is Adams Street. Got your bearings?

One remarkable thing about this image is just how much of Downtown’s population is concentrated in just a few blocks. Nobody lives in the white space that dominates the map. People only lived on 21 of the 131 city blocks that make up the neighborhood. 

Old buildings with new lofts at Hanover Square

It’s not hard to break those 21 populated blocks up into four categories according to housing type and demographic profiles of their populations.

The biggest group is a single block that contains the urban renewal high rises at Presidential Plaza. In 2010 it was home to 668 people or about 31% of Downtown’s total population. 51% of the people living there were white, 38% were Asian, and about 8% were Black. This single block accounted for 85% of Downtown’s total Asian population in 2010. These towers are “popular with medical school students and staff,” and are much more likely to house people who commute to University Hill than the rest of Downtown. 

The next largest group was low-income housing—Clinton Plaza, the YMCA Senior Apartments and Mens’ Residence, and Catholic Charities. These three census blocks contained 27% (574 people) of Downtown’s total population, and they were 43% White and 47% Black.

The third most populous group was the County Jail. The 2010 census listed it as the “primary residence” of 548 people—a full quarter of all the people living in Downtown. The inmate population was 38% White and 61% Black. Those 332 incarcerated Black people accounted for 50% of all Black people living Downtown during the 2010 census (those living in low income housing were another 40%).

And finally, sixteen Downtown blocks containing 17% of Downtown’s total 2010 population made up what you might call the “resurgence” areas. This is Armory Square, Hanover Square, and the area around Dinosaur Barbecue where developers turned old commercial buildings into apartments marketed to white-collar professionals. These areas are not very densely populated—usually between 20 and 40 people living on each block—and they’re overwhelmingly white—85%.

The most recent population data for Downtown isn’t broken down all the way to the block-level—the Census Bureau only does that every 10 years—but by looking at block groups, we can make some educated guesses about the composition of Downtown’s population change. The census breaks Downtown into two block groups divided by Montgomery Street. Block Group 1—west of Montgomery, blue on the map—contains all of Downtown’s low-income housing and almost all of its resurgence blocks, but not Presidential Plaza and not the Jail. Block Group 2—east of Montgomery, red on the map—contains the Jail and Presidential Plaza, no low-income housing, and only two resurgence blocks which contain a total of just 18 people.

Between 2010 and 2018, Block Group 1 grew by 36% (326 people, or 32% of Downtown’s total population increase). The Block Group’s population became slightly whiter (from 58% to 60%), and it’s Asian population more than tripled (from 41 to 129 people, or from 4% to 10% of the total population). These changes are partly due to the growth of resurgence housing (like the Pike Block, a 2013 project that converted several 19th century commercial buildings into 67 apartments), but also new apartments (like Creekwalk Commons, a 2014 146-bed apartment building) that differed from older loft renovations in that they were marketed to students rather than professionals. In this way, the demographic profile of Presidential Plaza moved east as students moved further into Downtown. 

At the same time, the Black population in Block Group 1 actually decreased (from 279 to 261) even as the overall population of the area grew by more than a third. Consequently, the Black portion of Block Group 1’s population dropped from 31% to 21%. This is probably due to a decrease in low-income housing Downtown.

Over this same period of time, Block Group 2 grew by 56% (693 people, or 68% of Downtown’s total population increase). The vast majority of this increase came from growth in the White population (451 people, an 80% increase), so that Block Group 2’s total population went from 46% White to 53%. The Black and Asian portions of the population also increased (by 121 and 29 people, respectively), but their share of the Block Group’s total population fell (from 31% to 26%, and from 21% to 15%, respectively). This growth is partly the result of new housing in renovated high rises—like the new SUNY Upstate dorm that houses 272 students and opened in 2012—and partly the result of rising prison population at the chronically overcrowded Justice Center.

Geneva Towers, a high-rise SUNY Upstate dormitory in Presidential Plaza

So take this with a grain of salt, but here’s what it looks like the census data is saying:

New market rate apartments have accommodated modest growth in the resurgence population, and that population has spread over more of Downtown. Since 2010, developers have built new apartments marketed to professionals on Salina, Warren, and State Streets.

These same parts of Downtown have also seen an increase in the population that commutes to University Hill. Creekwalk Commons is explicitly marketed to students, and the terms of its leases (tenants rent bedrooms rather than full apartments) are similar to those of other new large apartment buildings on University Hill.

But these changes are dwarfed by the enormous increase of housing on Downtown’s west side, where a single renovated high rise accommodated more new residents than the dozens of tiny new projects around Armory Square, and where the system of mass incarceration has put even more people in prison.

And at the same time, all this growth has been counteracted by a decrease in the number of people living in low-income housing Downtown. That’s the definition of displacement, and it has probably led to a decrease in Downtown’s non-incarcerated Black population.

Some of those trends could definitely change in the near future. A redeveloped Clinton Plaza would bring back a lot of low-income housing, and Blueprint 15 could add new low-income housing if it expands its footprint as it should. New York State’s bail reform could significantly decrease the number of people living in the jail if it’s allowed to work right.

So when you hear people talk about Downtown coming back, about how so many more people are living there, remember that the numbers they’ll use to justify that narrative include the the high rises, include the shelters, and include the jail.

Multifamily Housing and Neighborhood Character

331 Winton St is a 2-story, 3-unit apartment building on the Northside. Jefferson Tower is a 23-story, 295 unit Downtown high rise. ReZone can’t tell them apart—as far as City Hall’s new zoning ordinance is concerned, both are ‘multifamily’ housing, and both will be banned from most of Syracuse.

That will cause 2 huge problems: it will make neighborhoods less able to adapt to change—both population gain and loss, changing family size, climate changeand it threatens neighborhood character because 331 Winton St is part of Lincoln Hill and contributes to its character, so banning that building from that neighborhood necessarily means changing the neighborhood’s character. Fixing the first problem is easy (just add housing), but fixing the second is harder because it means coming up with a definition of ‘multifamily housing’ that can differentiate between 331 Winton St and Jefferson Tower.

The question ReZone needs to answer is this: how many apartments can a building have and still fit in with the rest of the neighborhood? The best way to find out is to just look at which different kinds of housing already are in which neighborhood. This is the only way to describe neighborhood character as it actually exists without resorting to personal opinion.

2-family houses in blue

Here’s a map of all 2-family houses in Syracuse. They’re spread across most of the City and are common in almost every residential neighborhood. The only exceptions are the City’s sparsest neighborhoods—like Sedgwick and the Valley—and it’s most built up areas—like lower James and Downtown.

3- and 4-family houses in red

Here’s a map of the City’s 3- and 4-family houses. 3- and 4-family homes are common in almost every residential neighborhood in the City, and they are absent from Sedgwick, the Valley, lower James, and Downtown.

Here are maps of the geographic areas where you can find these two groups of housing in Syracuse. On the combined map, the blue areas show where you can find 2-family houses, the red areas show where you can find 3- and 4-family houses, and the purple areas show where 2-, 3-, and 4-family houses are all mixed in together. Every single neighborhood that 2-family houses also has 3- and 4-family houses. Every neighborhood that has 3- and 4- family houses also has 2-family houses.

That makes good sense since so many 3-family homes are just modified 2-flats, and it’d be hard for someone to tell exactly how many apartments are in one of these buildings just by looking. They couldn’t have existed anywhere but those neighborhoods that already have 2-family homes, and they fit into those neighborhoods’ character just fine. 

1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-family homes are all part of the character of this Syracuse street

ReZone could (and probably should) make even finer distinctions among multifamily housing—buildings with between 5 and 15 apartments are also common across the City, often look like big houses, and are worth distinguishing from larger apartment complexes—but this is the big one. In any Syracuse neighborhoods where you can find a 2-family house, you can also find 3- and 4-family houses. No neighborhood whose character accepts 2-family houses can reject 3- and 4- family houses. When ReZone acknowledges this, it will make Syracuse more adaptable, more equitable, and more resilient, and it will actually protect and preserve Syracuse’s neighborhood’s character.

What the State can do to reform policing in Syracuse

Despite all of the pressure that protesters have put on City Hall, it’s the New York State Legislature that’s really been pushing police reform in Syracuse. They acted fast to repeal 50-a and to actually ban chokeholds just days after mass protests demanded those actions in cities across the state. Now, State Senator Rachel May has written a bill that would prohibit the Syracuse PBA specifically from negotiating officer discipline as part of its contract contract with City Hall

These three actions show how the separation of powers between Cities and the State really aren’t all that separate. 50-a was a state law, so there was no way for City Hall to get around it without help from the State Legislature. Chokeholds though, are covered in individual departments’ use-of-force policies, so getting them banned had seemed like a local issue until a state law superseded all local use-of-force policies. But the State doesn’t have to confine itself to passing statewide laws—as Senator May’s bill shows, it’s entirely within the Legislature’s power to pass what are effectively local Syracuse laws from Albany.

So given that the State seems more willing than City Hall to act on police reform, it’s worth asking what else Syracuse should be demanding of its representatives in the State Legislature.

The State Legislature could make the Citizens Review Board more powerful by recreating it as a State entity (like a fiscal control board) with power over local decisions about police officer discipline.

They could pass legislation banning local police departments from using and/or owning military equipment.

They could decriminalize marijuana, seriously impeding local police departments’ ability to perpetuate the racist system of mass incarceration.

They could amend parole laws, making it possible for returning citizens to move back to their old neighborhoods and associate with their old friends without automatically breaking the law just because a broken criminal justice system has criminalized entire communities.

They could repeal the civil service law that forces Syracuse’s City Hall to hire police officers from the suburbs, ending a massive annual transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.

There’s all that and a whole lot more that the State Legislature could do to meaningfully reform the system of law enforcement in Syracuse. They can do things that City Hall can’t, and they will do things that City Hall won’t.

A $45 Million Jobs Program for City Residents

Jobs are the number one issue in Syracuse. Good jobs, ones that pay well, ones that don’t require unnecessary credentials, jobs that people can get to whether or not they own a car.

In a real way, the best thing that City Hall could do for the City of Syracuse would be to run a massive jobs program.

The bitter irony is that City Hall does run an enormous jobs program, but it doesn’t do a thing for people living in the City. Every year the Syracuse Police Department spends $45 million dollars to pay more than 400 police officers a generous salary, substantial overtime, and good benefits, and 95% of the people who receive that municipal largesse live in the suburbs.

That money—about a fifth of the municipal budget—should go to employing City residents instead.

That could mean hiring City residents to work in the SPD, but City Hall has been trying to do that for years, and they’ve got nothing to show for it. State law bans City Hall from requiring police officers to live in the City, and persuasion hasn’t worked either. On the one hand, the SPD built such an awful reputation that a lot of people don’t want to work for them. On the other, the sick culture at SPD rejects the City residents who do actually try to become cops.

Much easier would be to take a bunch of money away from the police, eliminate a bunch of police officer positions, and create new positions in other departments to do a lot of the same work—work that shouldn’t ever have been left up to armed officers in the first place. Police are City Hall’s highest paid employees—often making more than $100,000 with overtime—so for each officer fired, City Hall could hire multiple City residents at a salary of $56,000 (the County’s median household income). And since these wouldn’t be police officer positions, City Hall could restrict its hiring to City residents just as it does with civil engineers, paralegals, mechanics, and just about every other position on the municipal payroll. Call them Public Safety Officers, give them official uniforms, and have them report to the Parking Violations Bureau.

Instead of sending cops to stand around at street fairs, hire people from the neighborhood to keep an eye on things. Instead of paying out $750,000 in overtime to have police follow protesters around, pay City residents to do that same work. Instead of having cops sit in their cars looking for Black drivers to harass, hire people to watch the intersections in their own neighborhoods and ticket people for running the stop sign.

A third of the City is poor. People need work. City Hall has the money and the need to employ a lot of them, but instead it’s sending its money out to Camillus and Salina and Manlius. Enough. Fire those suburban police officers and hire City residents to do the same work.