ITHACA, N.Y. — An Ithaca police officer has filed a federal lawsuit against the Ithaca Police Department, alleging she has been discriminated against based on her gender non-conformity and sexual orientation. The officer is seeking millions in damages, as well as policy changes.

Sarah Crews, the officer who filed the lawsuit, has been an officer for more than 15 years and has worked at the Ithaca Police Department since 2007. Crews is openly gay and gender non-conforming, which means Crews does not conform to society’s expectations of gender expression.

Because the Ithaca Police Department identifies Crews as female, Crews has had to transport and physically search female prisoners. Doing this, Crews said in the lawsuit, has put her job at risk because female prisoners recognize that Crews is openly gay and female prisoners have allegedly threatened false sexual abuse allegations against Crews.

The Ithaca Police Department’s policies require Crews to transport, search and monitor female prisoners. The policy states that a female prisoner will be searched by an on-duty female police officer, or other qualified female person when possible. If there is not a qualified female available, the shift commander will be notified to make arrangements and provide one.

The IPD’s policies rely on hetero-normative ideology, the complaint states, in which Crews does not fit because Crews is gender non-conforming. Despite Crews’ objections, the IPD has continued to force Crews to transport, jail and physically search female prisoners more than her heterosexual male peers who are also on duty because of what the lawsuit calls “outdated, stereotypical and inherently discriminatory” polices at the IPD.

“This case is just another step up the ladder to bringing the light to the LGBTQ community that they deserve under our Constitution,” Ed Kopko, who is representing Crews said. “In recent years, the New York Courts and United States Supreme Court have been recognizing the rights of our friends and neighbors in the LGBTQ community. The most recent nationwide example was gay marriage, which was a significant step forward. I’m attempting by this lawsuit to bring those same rights into the workplace. You can tell by the individual facts that I allege in the complaint that police officer Crews is experiencing significant discrimination, not because of the performance of her job but because of who she is and that sort of discrimination is intolerable in our community.”

Crews also claims she has been retaliated against for complaining about the city’s policies. The lawsuit says Crews’ beat assignments were changed and notices of discipline were issued against Crews for conduct the IPD normally doesn’t penalize, like using the f-word in a private conversation.

Ithaca Police Chief John Barber said in an emailed statement that the city generally declines to comment on litigation concerning employees.

“IPD values diversity amongst its Officers and works to foster a welcoming environment for all. IPD’s detainee search policies conform to state and federal laws, which limit same sex searches,” Barber said.

Barber is retiring from the Ithaca Police Department in March after nearly 30 years in law enforcement. Throughout his career at the IPD, Barber has focused on better community-police relations.

The lawsuit, Crews v. The City of Ithaca et al, was filed Feb. 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. It alleges sexual discrimination under Title VII and New York State Human Rights Law. The lawsuit also alleges the city violated Crews’ Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.

As a result of the lawsuit, Kopko said they are seeking millions of dollars as well as an injunction asking the federal courts to prohibit the City of Ithaca permanently from engaging in discriminatory conduct.

“That form of alternative relief helps the LGBTQ community. If there is an injunction issued by the federal court, it would be city-wide,” Kopko said. “The city would be bound by that. It could be a much greater good done for the community if we’re able to get an injunction.”

The lawsuit says Crews’ workplace was a hostile environment for her because it was “permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult.”

In one example, the lawsuit states that Crews regularly chooses to wear a tie with her uniform, and says fellow officers have referenced Crews as looking like a “bus driver.” Whenever Crews has brought concerns of discrimination to her supervisors, the lawsuit says, “they have ignored the concerns, inappropriately and ineffectively disciplined the offending officers or engaged in victim-blaming.”

In March 2011, Crews was assigned to supervise a female prisoner. The prisoner allegedly harassed Crews, saying her prisoner checks were sexually motivated. The prisoner also allegedly threatened to fabricate sexual harassment allegations against Crews.

The prisoner allegedly said, “Hey big gay woman, you want some of this? I’m gonna make it up that you did something to me.”

It was after this encounter that Crews began voicing her concerns to supervisors, saying “these sex-to-sex, stereotypical policies were close-minded and failed to recognize and protect LGBTQ officers and citizens.” In the following years, Crews continued to make verbal complaints about these policies, the complaint says.

In May 2015, Crews submitted a written complaint to Sgt. Barry Banfield formally objecting to the policies.

“Sgt Banfield

I am giving you formal notice of my objection to my functioning as jailer to female prisoners, as required under GO-3020, City Jail Regulations. Male officers are prohibited from jailing female prisoners, for reasons you claim not to know. This regulation presumably protects male officers from allegations of improper contact (implicitly sexual contact) with female prisoners. This policy is discriminatory because it provides protections to my heterosexual male coworkers that it fails to provide to me as an openly, and obviously, gay female.

On more than one occasion I have been directly threatened by female prisoners who have told me they would fabricate claims against me. I have tolerated this for years, and have verbally brought my concerns to supervisors. I have been ridiculed and treated with hostility because I expressed my concerns. I have reached the point where I can no longer tolerate this situation.

As IPD is reworking the General Orders during the accreditation process, it would be an ideal time to review the policy and find a workable solution to this issue. I expect that if the administration sees fit, reasonable accommodations can be made to protect my rights. Please bear this in mind when assigning jail duties to me in the future.

Ofc Crews”

In July 2015, Crews was on patrol and called in to take a female prisoner to the restroom, the lawsuit states, but when Crews arrived, a male officer had already taken the female prisoner to the restroom.

Crews vented her frustration to her sergeant and said the jail and search policies were discriminatory because “she was, from a sexual orientation standpoint, in the exact same position as the heterosexual male officers,” the lawsuit states.

Crews says the sergeant accused her of trying to get out of work by barring herself from searching and jailing men and women. Crews said she always searches and jails women when necessary and has expressed no objection to searching and jailing men.

By the end of Crews’ encounter with the sergeant, he had accused her of insubordination, the lawsuit states.

Crews was issued another notice of discipline in June 2016. Crews was called into IPD headquarters to search a female prisoner. When Crews arrived, she saw a number of male officers available to search the prisoner.

“There and then, Crews realized that the IPD was using the stereotypical policies to highlight her gender-nonconformity, ostracize her from her peer group, make her uncomfortable, and discriminate against her. Crews started crying,” the lawsuit states.

Kopko highlighted the New York Police Department as being “light years away” from the Ithaca Police Department in understanding and addressing issues highlighted in the lawsuit. In 2012, the NYPD announced changes to its patrol guidelines to respect transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, including that people in NYPD custody will be searched by an officer of the gender they request.

The lawsuit demands a jury trial and seeks monetary damages for pain and suffering and loss of income; punitive damages against John Barber; an award of attorney fees and costs; and injunctive relief against the city prohibiting further illegal and discriminatory conduct.

The lawsuit states that the City of Ithaca recently hired a consultant to updated the IPD policy manual for New York State accreditation. Crews’ union attorney, proposed to the city’s legal counsel that as a way to resolve the discipline charges, that the city create a committee to create policies that protect against the sexual orientation and gender and sex discrimination of arrestees and police officers.

However, the lawsuit says the city ignored the attorney’s proposal of adding LGBTQ protections to its policies.

The City Attorney’s office did not respond to an immediate request for comment Tuesday.

Read the full complaint of the lawsuit here.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.