Ithaca, N.Y. — Four friends were riding their bicycles to Short Stop Deli on a recent summer’s night when they noticed they were being followed.

One of the teens called his mom for advice. The mom told her son to seek safety at his grandmother’s house. The teens obliged.

What happened next is in dispute. Police have acknowledged that a sergeant in an unmarked car got out of his vehicle and pulled his gun out on the unarmed teens. The teens have not been charged with a crime.

In an interview with The Ithaca Voice on Sunday, two of the teens’ mothers said the sergeant’s display of force was excessive and unnecessary. They criticized the cop for following their children and called authorities’ public statements misleading.

Both parents, who The Voice agreed not to name to protect the identities of their sons, also said the incident was revealing of a number of broader issues — including what they called the deterioration of police-community relations in Ithaca.

Police have said that the teenagers were pursued during an unusually high period of criminal activity after two arsons. The full police account of the incident can be read here.

The mothers, however, question the partiality of the investigation, and wonder why police released an account of the incident before interviewing the teens.

The mothers had a litany of questions they say have been far from answered by police. So did a grandmother of one of the teens who also attended the interview.

“Everywhere else it is so normal for kids to ride bikes on the summer and hang out together in the summer,” she said. “How that is suspicious is beyond comprehension for me.”

(We’re breaking up this story into distinct parts. Click on the line you are most interested in learning more about, or read it sequentially:

1 — Teens are life-long Ithacans and respected community members, family says.
2 — Is the teens’ side of the story being heard?
3 — Contradicting authorities, mothers say they did not raise racial bias concern.
4 — A family affected, a younger brother changed)


1 — Teens are life-long Ithacans and respected community members, according to family.

One mother’s son has spent the summer as a camp counselor. The other has worked at a local bank. Both have spent time working at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.

The mothers said that their children have no criminal records.

The teens spent the day fundraising for the Ithaca High School football team. They had gotten up early to go to the Eagles’ Club and Wegmans and Tops to prepare chicken dinners for the event.

“For them to do good stuff for this community, and to have to end their night in tragedy — it’s wrong,” one mother said.

They’re both athletes. One made the honor roll last year.

“… I hate that they have to live with this, because that’s not something we would have ever thought our boys — these boys — would have ever had to go through,” one mother said. “That’s not the type of children they are.”

Marcia Fort, director of GIAC, also vouched for the boys’ character.

The grandmother of one of the boys added that teenage boys should be able to bike around their neighborhood without fear.

“This is their neighborhood … Short Stop is where you go when you’re done playing basketball,” the grandmother said, “it’s normal for them to be bopping around the neighborhood, and now all of a sudden it’s, ‘No, you can’t.’”

2 — Is the teens’ side of the story being heard?

None of the teens involved has been interviewed by police for his account of what happened that night, according to the two mothers.

The mothers say police statements on the incident suggest that there are clear, undisputed facts. But much of what has been presented in fact is, in actuality, sharply contested by their sons, they said.

“Our boys deserve a fair hearing. They have not been heard. Their voices have not been heard,” one mother said.

The mothers said they wouldn’t identify the discrepancies in the accounts because, they said, the teens should be able to give their account directly to police first as part of the investigation.

The mothers did say that the discrepancies in the accounts are substantial. Alderperson JR Clairborne, who attended the interview, agreed.

“For those who know what the boys have said, you have to pick” who is right, Clairborne said.

“There are things I can see as being explained away … but there are points of divergence that are just so (great) that either the boys are telling the truth, or the police are telling the truth.”

The mothers say it’s unfair for only one side of the story to have been heard.

3 — Contradicting authorities, mothers say they did not raise racial bias concern.

Authorities’ statement about the incident included the following line: “The families of the teens are concerned that racial bias played a motivating factor in their detention.”

But the mothers say that they did not raise concerns of racial bias.

“My first feeling was that they’re going to make it seem like it’s a race thing, and it’s not that at all,” one mother said, “my son’s safety — that’s what’s important. That they were treated like animals.”

Both Fort, the GIAC director, and Alderperson JR Clairborne agreed that the mothers’ concerns had been misconstrued in the statement. Fort and Clairborne were at the meeting where their quote is drawn from.

Fort said that race had been a topic of conversation at a meeting that she attended with Mayor Svante Myrick, Police Chief John Barber, the mothers and others. But race had not been raised by the mothers as their reason for seeking an investigation, she said.

During the interview with The Voice, Fort printed out a copy of the authorities’ statement and set it in front of one of the mothers. The mother held it up and shook her head.

“This whole thing is a crock,” she said.

4 — A family affected, a younger brother changed

The incident shattered the teens’ sense of security and boyish optimism, according to one mother.

“They say they’re okay, but when I look at them I don’t feel they’re okay. That spark in their eyes is gone,” she said.

“That innocence of them being teenage boys in the summertime, of being able to play, is gone.”

Since that weekend, the mother said, the families are much more cautious about letting their boys out at night. Both women are single, working mothers. One is a nurse.

“Instead of saying to the kids, ‘Okay, go ahead, this is where we’ll meet…’ It’s, ‘Where are you? Are you okay? Who are you with?,’” said the grandmother.

One of the teens’ younger brothers, who was not there that night, has followed what happened to his older brother.

That younger kid, his mother said, has long wanted to be a police officer.

Recent events, though, have him asking another question.

“Is it alright for me to still want to be a cop?,” he asked his mom recently.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.