Update at 1:20 p.m. — Additional comments have been added to this story in response to Mayor Svante Myrick’s released statement.
ITHACA, N.Y. — A $2 million lawsuit claiming that the Ithaca Police Department racially profiled two black teens in 2014 has been dismissed.
The complaint — which named the city of Ithaca, Ithaca Police Department and Sgt. John Norman as defendants — was dismissed about a month ago at the request of the Ithaca teens who filed the suit.
It alleged that in August 2014, a group of teens were racially profiled by Norman, threatened with lethal force and implicated in an unrelated arson as part of a cover up for officer Norman’s behavior.
Chief John Barber, however, has said that the teens were suspects in an arson after a slew of crimes happened the same night of the incident, including two vehicle fires and a violent home burglary.
An internal police review cleared Officer Norman of at least two major accusations against him, stating that he was justified in pulling his gun on the teens and that his motives were not racially driven. An external review by the Community Police Board — comprised of members of the Ithaca community — was also conducted but the results of that review were kept confidential from the public, per board policy for all complaints.
Attorney for the teens, Ray Schlather, said Wednesday, “Although this event has profoundly impacted these teenagers, they have found other more constructive and less confrontational ways to correct the situation and, accordingly, have chosen to not go forward with litigation.”
The decision not to go on with the lawsuit, Schlather said, was 100 percent the choice of the teens.
He said both teens attend Ithaca High School where they are talented athletes and students, and have decided to put the incident behind them.
In a statement, per request, Mayor Svante Myrick said, “These were serious allegations, and we took them seriously. But after an internal investigation we believed in our officers and so spent thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the City. That decision proved to be the right one. No evidence ever came to light to suggest that IPD was unreasonable in its decision to stop and question these youths.”
The statement went on to say that evidence came to light during the lawsuit, seemingly implicating that the teens did in fact know that they were fleeing from a police officer the night they were stopped.
Norman had been called in to work because of several significant crimes that happened that evening, and was therefore not in a marked police vehicle when he stopped the teens. The teens have said since the incident happened that they were unaware they were fleeing from police.
But in a video recorded by one of the teens’ mother, Myrick said the complainant, “describes knowingly fleeing from IPD officers.”
Schlather declined to comment directly about the video, but he did say that there were several issues with evidence from both the defendants and complaints in the lawsuit.
He reiterated that the case was dismissed at the request of the teens.
“These young men made a decision and it’s a decision that was grounded in their desire to put this behind them,” he said.
In an email released Thursday afternoon, Schlather wrote:
Given the statements in the Mayor’s press release concerning this matter, two points must be emphasized:
1. The discovery proceedings in the lawsuit confirmed what these teenagers have been saying from the beginning, to wit: they had been playing basketball up at Cornell and had nothing to do with the arsons that the police were investigating; and
2. A recovered police dispatch established that the Ithaca Police Department knew that, but nevertheless erroneously persisted in calling these teenagers suspects in the arson.
In other words, the Ithaca Police Department made a mistake, and an after-the-fact video does not change that fundamental problem.
Nevertheless, although this event has profoundly impacted these teenagers, they have found other more constructive and less confrontational ways to correct the situation in their promising lives, and accordingly have chosen to not go forward with litigation.
Myrick’s statement can be read in its entirety below:
Chief Barber and I are pleased that the plaintiffs chose to completely drop their case against the City. This outcome is undoubtedly the right one given crucial new video evidence that recently came to light in the lawsuit.
That lawsuit alleged that IPD falsely arrested and violated the civil rights of two teens by racially profiling them. The suit alleged that the teens “became aware of an unidentified man in an unmarked Volvo tracking them in his vehicle [and] tried to get away from this man.” In short, the plaintiffs long maintained that they did not believe that they were fleeing the police.
A video recorded on the night of the encounter by the mother of one of the plaintiffs definitively proves otherwise. In this video, one of the teens who sued the City describes knowingly fleeing from IPD officers.
These were serious allegations, and we took them seriously. But after an internal investigation we believed in our officers and so spent thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the City.
That decision proved to be the right one. No evidence ever came to light to suggest that IPD was unreasonable in its decision to stop and question these youths.
IPD officers regularly do a hard job in difficult circumstances. While Chief Barber and I are disappointed for all involved that this lawsuit came to pass, it did bring into focus the difficult circumstances faced by our hardworking officers on the night in question and the need for ever-improving the IPD, particularly with an eye to improved community relations.
It was for this reason that—less than two weeks after the August 2014 incident—I launched the Mayor’s Plan for Excellence in Policing. As a result of that plan and Chief Barber’s unwavering commitment, the City and IPD have made major new strides in policing excellence, among them:
- Putting a body camera on every IPD officer, beginning last fall, with an extensive policy in place to govern their use.
- Creating the Community Outreach Worker Program, providing an on-street social-work-style outreach presence in downtown Ithaca.
- Opening IPD’s West End District Office last summer.
- Increasing IPD’s staffing levels.
- Undertaking IPD’s extensive community engagement efforts, of which a small sampling includes:
- Coffee with the Mayor and Chief – This program provides the public with numerous opportunities to engage, at coffee shops across the city.
- U.S. Department of Justice Training on Police & Community Relations – All sworn IPD officers attended, as did some community members.
- Funding a soon-to-be-staffed Community Action Team at IPD to more fully implement a community policing model that emphasizes outreach.
- Launch of the Officer-Next-Door Program, so far encouraging two officers to take up residence at West Village.
- A Monthly Meeting with the Chief – Members of the community meet every month to discuss current community issues.
- The Police Explorer Program.
- Citizen’s Police Academy – We have conducted two rounds of this 8-week class to great effect.
- A first-ever IPD Open House.