Kyle Friend contributed reporting to this story.
Ithaca, N.Y. — Mayor Svante Myrick has promised an investigation into an Ithaca police sergeant's decision to pull out his gun while pursuing four unarmed 15-year-olds in the city last weekend.
The incident has drawn the condemnation of a group of Ithaca residents, who say police were not justified in a display of force they have decried as excessive.
Their anger comes at a tense moment nationally for neighborhood-police relations over race. Last Saturday afternoon, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, MO, a place slightly smaller than Ithaca.
Myrick confirmed that the four kids are all of color.
At least two of the teens are black, according to someone familiar with the incident.
Police account of the incident
Here's what police say happened:
Saturday night saw an "unusual wave of serious criminal activity," including two vehicle arsons and a violent home burglary within a 40 minute period.
A police shift commander during this period saw a group of people riding their bicycles near the site of the arsons.
The commander called for officers "to stop these people for the purpose of ascertaining their identity, and to inquire if they had any information related to the recent criminal activity," according to police.
A sergeant was in the area in his personal vehicle because he had been called from his home to investigate the vehicle fires. The sergeant, whose name has not been released, spotted the group and followed them. He called for backup.
As marked police cars began arriving, authorities say, the teenagers got off their bicycles and began to run toward the intersection of South Plain Street and Cleveland Avenue.
The sergeant shouted at them to stop.
"The group initially failed to stop when the sergeant repeatedly gave clear orders to stop and continued running away," police said.
The sergeant got out of his car. Then, according to police, the teenagers began approaching the sergeant.
"Not knowing the intent or the identity of the group of people who had initially ignored his lawful commands to stop, the sergeant removed his firearm," police said.
He "kept it pointed in a safe direction as he gave verbal commands to the subjects to lie on the ground," police said.
Other officers arrived. The teens were turned over to their parents, who had gone at the scene.
Family raises concerns about possible racial prejudice
Since the incident, Myrick and Ithaca Police Chief John Barber have met with the families of the teenagers.
Myrick said among the concerns expressed by the family are:
1 — that the officer drew his weapon.
2 — that the first police officer was not clearly identifiable because he was out of uniform and in an unmarked car.
3 — that the officer was white and the teens were of color. "The families have expressed a concern that racial bias may have been a motivating factor in their detention."
Also at the meeting were Alderperson JR Clairborne, GIAC Director Marcia Fort, and GIAC employee Travis Brooks.
"We had a positive and productive meeting and the parents laid out a number of concerns," Myrick said.
"They also posed some good questions. Questions that need answers."
"And in important ways their version of events differed from the version the officers have shared."
A mayor's response
Mayor Myrick said in a statement on Friday that it's too early to tell if the police were at fault.
"The Ithaca Police Department routinely provides excellent and equitable service to the entire community - and I won't jump to conclusions or presuppose that any officer acted improperly," he said.
But Myrick also emphasized that he takes "the concerns of the affected extremely seriously."
More generally, Myrick expressed the difficulty of balancing the need for public safety with the history of violence between African-Americans and police.
"As a mayor I'm motivated to ensure that every citizen of Ithaca feels that the Police Department is there to protect and serve them," Myrick said.
"As a black man, I'm well aware of the history of violence between the police and young men of color — see most recently the tragedy in Ferguson, MO — and motivated to ensure that this pattern does not play out in our City."
Myrick said Friday that the city would be launching two investigations into what happened.
"We've immediately launched an internal investigation to be conducted by Deputy Chief of Professional Standards Christopher Townsend," Myrick said.
"We are also opening a second, parallel independent public investigation with the Community Police Board."
There's no outlined timetable for either investigation. Myrick said the city will take "every appropriate measure" based on what those investigations find.
"Once we have a more complete picture of the incident we will take every appropriate measure," Myrick said.
"Until the completion of the investigations I'd like to thank the Community for their concerns and urge patience."
Earlier this week, Ithaca resident Lynne Jackier wrote in a Facebook group United Against Hate under a post titled "ITHACA POLICE OFFICERS TERRORIZE YOUNG BLACK TEENS."
Jackier posted an explanation of the incident that diverged from that of police. She later removed the post.
"Since this is a serious situation involving minors I have been asked not to share details of the events of last Saturday night publicly until further notice," Jackier wrote.
Jackier said she had talked to one of the boy's mothers and that "they had been advised to wait until Monday to speak publicly." In an in-person interview with an Ithaca Voice reporter Friday, she asked the media to respect the privacy of the teens' parents.
Jackier's posts detailing the incident appeared in "United Against Hate," which before the current firestorm had featured articles from the unrest in Ferguson.
Members of the United Against Hate group have begun organizing a protest for the Ithaca Common Council meeting scheduled for Sept. 3 at 5 p.m. The protest's title is, "What if it happened to your child?"
Protesters have also begun calling city officials to demand that Common Council move the meeting to a space "large enough to hold the expected turnout of community members."
More than 100 guests had already RSVP'ed as planning to attend by Friday afternoon.
A busy night for police
The reported vehicle fires Saturday night began with one around 10:15 p.m. A fire engulfed a sedan on the 400 block of Ithaca’s North Albany Street, near the GIAC swimming pool, according to police. The vehicle was a total loss.
Around 10:44 p.m., police were again called to assist the Ithaca Fire Department. They found the inside of a 1992 GMC Sierra pick-up truck on fire on the 400 block of North Geneva Street.
In the third incident, around 10:55 p.m., several Ithaca police officers were diverted from the arson investigation for a home burglary report on the 400 block of North Cayuga Street.
Officers were told that someone had tried to steal property from the home. When the burglar was confronted by the homeowner, "the unknown male threw a glass bottle," police said.
That suspect was found later after breaking into a parked car on Sears Street.
The police press release says: "If you witnessed the interactions between the police officers and the group of people please contact the Ithaca Police Department.
The investigation into the arson is also continuing.