ITHACA, N.Y. — Officer Sarah Crews is one day closer to having a day in court after a judge ruled primarily in favor of discrimination claims the officer made while working as an openly gay and gender non-conforming officer at the Ithaca Police Department. Crews is suing the City of Ithaca and former police chief John Barber, demanding $5 million in damages and policy changes.
Recent developments from the Northern District of New York Court say that, for the most part, Crews’ discrimination concerns will not be dismissed.
The allegations of discrimination start in March 2011, when Crews told her superior officers that the new Search and Jail Policies failed to protect LGBTQ officers, records state. In sum, the policy states that transporting people in custody, searching, and arresting people should “generally” and “whenever possible” be done by a person of the same gender. The policy does not outright ban searches by people of different genders but clearly states that accommodations should try to be made.
Crews presents as a gender non-conforming person, meaning the officer does not conform to society’s expectations of gender expression. Crews is also openly gay.
Court documents state, “…Plaintiff was required to transport, supervise, and monitor female prisoners more frequently than male officers. According to the complaint, these interactions placed Plaintiff into compromising situations where she was often forced to physically interact with female prisoners.”
Crews specifically states an instance in March 2011 when “The (female) prisoner harassed Plaintiff, saying that Plaintiff’s searches were sexually motivated. The prisoner threatened to fabricate sexual harassment allegations, stating “[h]ey big gay woman, you want some of this? I’m gonna make it up that you did something to me.’”
The officer then began “regularly” making verbal complaints about the the policy and its failure to protect LGBTQ+ officers in the same manner it protects male officers. Crews officially made a complaint about the policy in writing on May 29, 2015. It’s then, Crews says, that “retaliatory actions in response to the complaint” began.
Some of the actions Crews called retaliatory are as follows:
- Crews’ “beat” assignment was changed after the complaint. IPD allows officers to select their own preferred beats, or assignment areas. In the 40 days prior to filing the complaint, Crews was assigned to a preferred beat 14 times. In the 40 days afterward, Crews was assigned to preferred beats four times.
- On July 29, 2015, Crews was called to take a female inmate to the bathroom and, upon arrival, found that a male employee had taken the inmate to the bathroom. When Crews again vented that the Search and Jail Policy was discriminatory and that IPD seemed to be retaliating based on the complaint, Crews was reprimanded and called insubordinate. As a result, Crews had to forfeit 16 vacation hours and a letter of reprimand was place in the officer’s personnel file.
- On June 6, 2016, Crews was called to IPD headquarters to search a female prisoner and found that there were several male officers at the station who could have searched the prisoner. Court records state, “Plaintiff felt that the IPD was using the Search and Jail Policies to ostracize her from her peers by highlighting her gender-nonconformity in front of her colleagues, which caused her to break down in tears.” A lieutenant called Crews into an office and never told the officer to first search the female inmmate. On July 27 2016, Crews was reprimanded for being discourteous and insubordination. The officer was also reprimanded for previously using the word “f—” during casual conversation with a superior officer. Crews was reprimanded thirty two hours of vacation time and received an additional permanent letter of reprimand.
- On June 12 2016, Crews was asked by officers that Crews could propose and draft new Search and Jail Policies for the department, something court documents state Crews was not qualified to do. “Plaintiff’s union counsel proposed that Ithaca form a committee to create LGBTQ protective policies for the IPD. The attorney noted that the Albany Police Department had taken this approach and were updating their policies to include LGBTQ protections. However, Ithaca ignored this proposal,” court documents state.
On Feb. 23, 2017, Crew officially sued the city after having filed a complaint of sex discrimination with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August.
In the recent court decision, most of Crews’ eight claims of discrimination and retaliation were not dismissed, as city attorneys requested.
The dismissed accusations were as follows:
- The court deemed that there was not enough evidence to prove that IPD had created a hostile work environment, “Given that Plaintiff has been working at the IPD for over a decade, the Court cannot conclude that this conduct alone is sufficient to establish a hostile work environment.” Claim 4 was dismissed on behalf of the city and former police chief John Barber.
- Claims 1, 2, and 3 against Barber were also dismissed due to the fact that the court decided he does not have “individual liability” for them. This means that, as police chief, he was not personally responsible for some of Crews’ grievances.
Former chief Barber said about the decision, “I have plenty to say, but will reserve comment and remain professional until the litigation has run its course.”
He previously said in a written statement, “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.”
The City of Ithaca Attorney’s Office has repeatedly not responded to request for comment about this lawsuit.
Attorney Ed Kopko, who is representing Crews, said the points will be appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan. He called Crews one of the best officers at IPD.
“The City said Sarah had no case, and the federal Court disagreed. You can always fight City Hall!,” Kopko said.
Editor’s note: Additional comments have been made to this story since publication.