A police sergeant investigating a car fire in August 2014, shown above, pulled his weapon on two unarmed minority teens. That decision is now at the heart of a $2 million civil lawsuit against the city and IPD. (Provided photo)

ITHACA, N.Y. — A new lawsuit says Ithaca police racially profiled two innocent black teenagers, threatened them with lethal force without probable cause and then tried covering up the incident by pretending the teens were suspects in an unrelated arson.

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City officials say they will fight the “entirely meritless” lawsuit in court. Mayor Svante Myrick and Chief John Barber said in a joint statement on Tuesday that the teens fled from marked police cars and that race played no role in the decision to stop them.

That’s a very different account than the one given by the families of the teens. One night in August 2014, the lawsuit says, two Ithaca teens returning home from a basketball game on Cornell’s campus were followed by an unidentified man in an unmarked vehicle.

The man — later identified as Ithaca police Sgt. John Norman — drew a gun on the unarmed teens, yelled at them to drop to the ground and then handcuffed the two 15-year-olds, according to the lawsuit.

The incident was widely-publicized at the time, setting off a wave of protests at City Hall and leading Mayor Myrick to propose multiple reforms for the Ithaca Police Department.

Police and city officials say the boys were stopped because of an active investigation related to two vehicle fires that had occurred nearby the same night. An internal police review later found that Sgt. Norman’s actions were “wholly consistent” with Ithaca police policy.

A police sergeant pulled his weapon on two unarmed minority teens one night in August 2014, the same night of a car fire shown above. That decision is now at the heart of a $2 million civil lawsuit against the city and IPD. (Provided photo)

The lawsuit strongly disputes this finding, arguing that Sgt. Norman 1) knew or should have known that the boys were not connected to the arson; and 2) that law enforcement tried to “cover up their actions by falsely and publicly claiming or implying” that the boys were somehow linked to the arson in the incident’s aftermath.

The lawsuit was filed in Tompkins County Court on Friday on behalf of the two boys and their mothers. Seeking $2 million — $1 million for each family — the complaint names the city of Ithaca, Ithaca Police Department and Sgt. Norman as defendants.

See related: Mothers say Ithaca police sergeant should not have pulled gun on their teenage sons

See related: 5 key points made by Ithaca police chief in department’s defense

See related: Community Police Board says review of incident with teens is complete, results not public

The lawsuit accuses Sgt. Norman not only of racially profiling but also of violating the boys’ Fourth Amendment right to avoid unreasonable searches and seizures and of violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process. The complaint was written by Ray Schlather, a prominent Ithaca attorney.

“Defendants had a duty to refrain from a search and seizure of (the boys) absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause,” the lawsuit says. “By their aforesaid extreme and outrageous conduct, defendants breached duties that they owed to (the boys).”

“The defendants, individually and/or in concert, acted knowingly, intentionally, recklessly and with wanton disregard for the rights, privileges and immunities of (the boys) … and took such action against (the boys) because they were African American youth instead of white youth.”

City: Stop was ‘legal, justified and entirely race-neutral’

In the joint statement, Mayor Myrick and Chief Barber first acknowledged that they “undoubtedly wish that this incident had proceeded differently.”

“That is why we have met with the involved families, and the broader community, in an effort to address their concerns,” the statement says. “We have also taken bold new steps to deliver excellence in policing, from body cameras to a forthcoming Community Action Team, from a Community Outreach Worker to increased staffing.”

See related: Mayor Myrick proposes 7 major reforms for Ithaca Police Department

Still, the chief and mayor insist that the lawsuit itself is “entirely meritless.”

“The stop was legal, justified, and entirely race-neutral, as indicated by the City’s internal review of this incident,” Myrick and Barber said in the statement.

The internal review cleared Norman of at least two major accusations leveled against him — 1) that he had no reason to pull his weapon on the teens, and 2) that his actions were racially biased.

City officials have refused to say if Norman was cleared of a third allegation: That the sergeant was improperly investigating an incident, and chasing the teens, without being properly identified.

In their statement on Tuesday, Myrick and Barber say that young men fled from “uniformed officers” — not just a plainclothes cop in an unmarked car.

“Unidentified young men fled uniformed officers in marked IPD vehicles — lights flashing — in the vicinity of two burning cars; arsons that remain unsolved a year later,” Myrick and Barber said.

“IPD was on the lookout for anyone who returned to the scene because arsonists tend to return to the scenes of fires they have set. As these young men fled the police—first on bike and then on foot—they evaded marked IPD vehicles, but not the vehicle of IPD Sergeant Norman, who had been called in from off-duty, out of uniform in his personal vehicle. ”

That narrative does not match the one provided by the teens’ families, which can be read in full below. Reached for comment on Tuesday, the families’ attorney Ray Schlather said that this was the first time he had heard the city claim that the teens evaded marked police cars and uniformed officers.

“I’m not aware of that claim ever having been made previously,” Schlather said in a phone call.

“They’ve never said that … what they’ve always admitted was that Norman was in a Volvo; he was off-duty in his private car, and he was not in uniform, and the only time he identified himself as being from the police was when he was pulling his gun on (the boys).”

A photo of one of the protests at City Hall that followed the controversial stop of the teens in August 2014

Schlather added it was “absolutely untrue” that the teens were possibly suspected in the arsons.

Meanwhile, Myrick and Barber say in their statement that they believe the courts will side with the city and its police department.

“The City will vigorously defend this lawsuit, and is confident that the courts will award no damages against the City for doing its job: investigating, through its officers, serious car arsons on the night of August 9, 2014,” the statement from Myrick and Barber says.

Myrick and Barber’s statement did not address several other questions posed to them by the Ithaca Voice, including: Was Sgt. Norman disciplined for the stop? What has the city done to compensate the families of the boys? If the same circumstances leading to the arrest in August 2014 transpired tonight, would the outcome have been different?

Lawsuit’s account of the incident

The lawsuit contains a detailed timeline accounting for what happened the night of Aug. 9, 2014. One of its principal claims is that the boys could not have been stopped because they were suspected of the arsons.

Here’s the chain of events it gives:

1) That night, the two boys whose families are suing the city were at Helen Newman Hall on Cornell’s North Campus playing basketball.

2) At about 10:15 p.m., the two boys left with a group of a few other boys on their bicycles. They biked through the Cornell campus, then through Collegetown, down Buffalo Street — where one child split off from the group — and then to the house of the mother of one of the boys, on Third Street.

3) As the boys were biking, a city of Ithaca police officer radioed that the children were biking near Cornell University.

4) The boys left a house on Third Street at about 11:30 p.m. to go back to their homes. While biking near the Greater Ithaca Activities Center on West Court Street, while about a block from the suspected arsons, the boys were spotted by an Ithaca police officer.

5) At the same time, the four children still together at this point “became aware of an unidentified man in an unmarked Volvo tracking them in his vehicle. The children tried to get away from this man,” and continued biking south, the lawsuit says.

The teens tried to get away from the man by hiding in bushes and by ShortStop Deli to avoid the unidentified man, later revealed to be Sgt. Norman, according to the lawsuit.

6) One child split off from the group after hearing a siren on State Street. This boy, who is not named in the lawsuit,  “was then stopped by an IPD officer, searched without consent, arrested without probable cause, and taken to the IPD station,” the lawsuit states.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Sgt. pulls gun on unarmed teens.”

7) The group was now down to three. As they tried evading the man, the boys sought shelter in the home of one of the child’s grandmothers on Cleveland Avenue.

They ditched their bikes on Green Street — another one of the remaining boys then left the group, leaving just the two boys in the lawsuit — and began running on foot. The two boys “were visibly unarmed,” the lawsuit says.

8) The unidentified man exited the Volvo and pulled his gun on the two boys, “telling them to lay down on the ground. (The boys) complied,” the lawsuit says, adding: “The man shouted at the children while pointing his gun toward them and threatening them. (The boys) both began crying, in fear of their lives.”

9) Four other Ithaca police officers arrived on the scene. The boys were handcuffed.

10) The boys’ mothers arrived on scene to find their children crying on the ground. The boys were freed of their handcuffs and released.

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Jeff Stein

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