ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca, the Ithaca Police Department and an Ithaca police sergeant have submitted a response to the lawsuit filed by the mothers of two teenagers who say their sons were racially profiled in a controversial incident on the night of August 9, 2014.

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“The incident and damages alleged in the complaint were caused by the the plaintiffs’ culpable conduct,” states the defense filing, submitted earlier this month in federal court, by the city and police department, “and the defendants’ acts were privileged, justified, reasonable, without malice, and were done in good faith, with reasonable suspicion, with probable cause, and/or under exigent circumstances.”

“The incident and damages alleged in the complaint were caused by the culpable conduct of a third person or third persons over whom these defendants had no control and for whose acts these defendants are not responsible.”

The mothers’ $2 million lawsuit says that, on that day, the two teenagers went to play basketball at Helen Newman Hall on the Cornell Campus. At 10:15 pm, they left the gym with some friends and rode their bicycles back towards Collegetown, down Buffalo Street, and then biked to the house of one of the teens’ mothers on Third Street.

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)
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)

According to the lawsuit, during this biking trip Ithaca police Sgt. John Norman “racially profiled” the boys and “proceeded to treat them as suspects” in two arsons they had not committed. The children tried to get away from the officer – who appeared to them an unidentified man in an unmarked Volvo — but Norman exited his vehicle and pulled his gun on them, telling them to lay down on the ground, according to the lawsuit.

While the boys complied, at least four other Ithaca police officers arrived on the scene and handcuffed them. When the boys’ mothers arrived, they found their children “on the ground, crying, with their hands handcuffed behind their backs,” the complaint states.

The incident set off a wave of protests at City Hall and led Mayor Svante Myrick to propose a series of police reforms.

City’s defense

The city and police department, however, deny that they are to blame for any harm incurred by the boys.

“The incident and damages alleged in the complaint were caused by plaintiffs’ culpable conduct,” reads one line of the defense. “Plaintiffs assumed the risk of injury, which risks were open, obvious, and known.”

The City of Ithaca’s answer also denies many of the allegations of the initial complaint; for instance, that the city police force treated “innocent African American youth who would not comply with a white, unidentified officer’s directives” or that they covered up their actions “by falsely and publicly connecting the boys to a criminal investigation.”

The complaint also claimed that as a result of Sgt. Norman drawing a weapon against them, the boys had experienced “pain, suffering and mental anguish; fear of law enforcement; loss of enjoyment in life; loss of dignity; loss of constitutional rights; damage to reputation and good name; stress, anxiety and fear.”

The city’s response denies that Norman should be a defendant in the lawsuit. “To the extent there are claims against defendant John Norman in his official capacity, they are barred because they are duplicative of the claims against defendants City of Ithaca and the Ithaca Police Department,” the defense states.

When news of the lawsuit emerged in August, city officials then said they would fight the claims they called “entirely meritless.”

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

The city is being defended in the lawsuit by Molly M. Ryan of Goldberg Segalla LLP. The teens’ mothers are being represented by Ray Schlather, a prominent Ithaca attorney.

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