ITHACA, N.Y.—Ithaca Police Department officer Christine Barksdale has filed a federal lawsuit as the City of Ithaca pursues her termination from the police force. In a confusing series of events last year, she was reported to have inadequately investigated dozens of cases over the last decade, and the city subsequently moved to fire her.

The suit argues that the City of Ithaca violated a “policy of confidentiality” when handling Barksdale’s termination by leaking to the press and in turn violating her due process rights. It also states that city officials made false statements to the press about Barksdale’s case, amounting to defamation, and that the statements were “stigmatizing and sufficiently derogatory.”

The suit is specifically seeking damages for “past and future pain and suffering,” damages for future loss of income, the payment of attorney fees, an injunction against the city “prohibiting further illegal and discriminatory conduct,” and punitive damages against IPD Chief Dennis Nayor, Mayor Svante Myrick and IPD Deputy Chief John Joly. Myrick did respond to the claims to The Ithaca Voice.

Barksdale’s firing was reported in January 2020, though her name has not been publicly acknowledged on the record by city officials until now, as the city responds to her lawsuit. In the city’s announcement, they called it a “deeply troubling failure” to investigate reported cases, and admitted that many of them were sex-based offenses. But, thanks to the Ithaca Police Department’s union contract, Barksdale has apparently remained employed still and has been paid full time since that date as her case proceeds through the arbitration process while she is on leave. Before her termination procedure, Barksdale was a celebrated IPD detective and one of the only Black women employed by the department.

The city’s statement at that time is actually part of the basis of Barksdale’s claim, in which she is being represented by Ithaca attorney Ed Kopko. The suit’s narrative begins in May 2019, when Barksdale was told by Deputy Chief John Joly that she was being reassigned after she “failed to complete assignments.” Subsequently, Barksdale’s cases were audited by Joly and Nayor, while she was on medical leave, which reinforced their theory that she wasn’t finishing cases.

There was not, according to the suit quoting an outside attorney hired by the city to review the audit, evidence of criminal activity by Barksdale in the situation. By mid-December 2019, Barksdale had received a letter notifying her that she was under “investigatory review” for the failure to investigate “numerous felony related crimes to which you were assigned, such as sex offenses, burglaries and robberies over a period beginning in 2010.” After that review, the department decided to seek Barksdale’s termination, according to the suit, the first time Barksdale knew they were trying to fire her.

Once that decision was made, the suit turns to the department and city’s decision to release the information to the press—though it’s clear the media was already on the story, as The Ithaca Voice‘s reporting is mentioned throughout the suit (though at times, it appears the Voice is confused with the Ithaca Times). A press release was prepared and published the next day, Jan. 9, 2020, something that the lawsuit claims was a betrayal of “the long-standing practice of the city to maintain the confidentiality of personnel matters.”

Barksdale’s suit does not mention her previously reported Department of Human Rights complaint to the state, which was investigated and deemed unfounded after she complained of a hostile work environment and discrimination—focusing on Joly.

In response, Mayor Svante Myrick said that his statement was an attempt to rectify the damage he thought the news would do to IPD’s reputation with the public and serve as an example of transparency between law enforcement, government and the Ithaca community.

“I have long been committed to open and transparent dialog between City government, including IPD, and the City’s diverse communities,” Myrick said, noting the recent disclosures the city made about the events of Oct. 22, 2020. “The many candid reports, disclosures, and requests for independent investigations by my office over the years reflect that commitment.”

He further argued that, due to the public damage and pain that the situation could have caused, not disclosing the termination of an unnamed officer to the community would have amounted to hiding the truth from citizens, particularly those who may have been directly impacted.

“Contrary to Officer Barksdale’s speculation, my press statement was a crucial effort to be forthright with the public about the IPD Investigation Division’s far-reaching failings, to begin a process of rebuilding public trust in law enforcement and assisting victims of serious crimes to seek and receive the help and closure they long-ago deserved,” Myrick said in his statement. “The alternative would have been nothing short of a cover-up, likely for years until the disciplinary arbitration process required by the PBA contract is finally complete. That procedure has been drawn out even further by unreasonable delay of the arbitration process by the PBA, all while Officer Barksdale continues to receive her full salary and benefits until there is a decision.”

Nayor referred The Ithaca Voice’s request for comment to City Attorney Ari Lavine, who provided the above statement from Myrick.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com