ITHACA, N.Y.—A federal lawsuit naming four Ithaca Police Department officers as defendants has been filed, alleging that their arrests of two people during an infamous incident in April 2019 constituted a use of excessive force.

IPD officers Benjamin Buck, Zachary Dorn and Gregory Herz are all named in the suit, which was filed in July in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, as having used excessive force. Officer George DuPay is also named as a defendant, with the suit alleging he engaged in use of excessive force and failure to intervene. The suits were originally filed in July 2022.

In total, two lawsuits were filed, one each on behalf of Rose DeGroat and Cadji Ferguson, both concerning the pair’s arrest on April 6, 2019, after an altercation on the Ithaca Commons. DeGroat was charged with two counts of second-degree attempted assault, an E-level felony, and a misdemeanor of resisting arrest initially; those charges were then lowered to misdemeanors, re-upped to felonies after being put before a grand jury, then eventually dismissed. Ferguson was acquitted on charges of disorderly conduct. The situation and its fallout prompted a press conference with Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten and then-Ithaca Police Department Chief Dennis Nayor.

The full depot of videos that were released by the City of Ithaca in the weeks after the incident can be viewed here.

The suits call both arrests unlawful and claims that both Ferguson’s and DeGroat’s treatment during the arrest was a Constitutional violation. It asks for at least $500K in damages for pain and suffering, punitive damages against each officer, an injunction against the officers “from engaging use of excessive force and failure to intervene,” attorney’s fees and any other reward the judge decides.

Both Ferguson and DeGroat were taken to the ground by Ithaca police as they responded to a fight involving Ferguson and a third party on the Commons. Ferguson was tased, while DeGroat was taken down and then tased and pinned down, in part by her head, by three officers after she tried to intervene on Ferguson’s behalf (more details of the incident below).

When dismissing DeGroat’s charges in October 2019, Judge John Rowley stated this about the IPD officers involved in the arrest: “Ithaca Police officers overreacted to the initial situation […] The police made no effort to defuse the situation or to simply separate the men while the conflict was sorted out.” Rowley also called the snap decision to tase Ferguson “inexplicable” and the officer’s actions “regrettable.”

The police department conducted an internal review at the time, eventually determining that the police did not violate any procedures and would not be punished.

Contacted through their attorney, Ed Kopko, DeGroat and Ferguson did not respond to a request for comment. IPD Deputy Chief Vincent Monticello and Ithaca City Attorney Ari Lavine also did not respond to requests for comment. This story will be updated if any of them do respond after publication.

Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Thomas Condzella offered a statement in reaction to questions about the suit. He said that the union stands behind each of the officers involved, saying they were “all acting in good faith and trying to bring order to a rapidly evolving, chaotic and dynamic situation using only limited information available to them at the time.” They are being represented by the City of Ithaca, with additional legal support from the PBA if necessary.

Condzella confirmed that the officers will remain on active duty, at least for now, while the lawsuit plays out. He blamed divisiveness and former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick for the tension surrounding the incident and for fomenting an “anti-police agenda” locally.

“Had [the officers] simply done nothing, or taken more time to gather additional information before intervening in the out of control drunken brawl, they would have then been criticized for not acting fast enough,” Condzella said. “As Ithaca Police Officers continue to move forward in partnership and collaboration with our community towards meaningful police reforms, we all also continue to try and recover from the divisiveness of the past, this case is another unfortunate example of that.”

The winding saga played out for much of the summer and early fall of 2019. After videos of the arrests began circulating on social media and in news reports, most notably in the Cornell Daily Sun, the City of Ithaca released body camera footage from the responding officers as well as surveillance footage from Commons cameras.

The body camera footage (all videos are available at the aforementioned city video depot) shows a chaotic scene as the bars let out on the Commons around 1 a.m. on April 6, 2019. It displays that there was clearly an altercation between Ferguson and another man, identified as Joseph Ming, that transpired after Ferguson felt Ming was acting suspicious toward Ferguson and his group of friends, which included DeGroat, according to the suit. One aspect that became crucial in the later criminal trials was that Ferguson initially claimed Ming had touched one person from the group sexually and nonconsensually; Ferguson later acknowledged he wasn’t actually sure if there had been any contact between Ming and the unidentified person.

Regardless, Ferguson and Ming proceeded to fight in the middle of the Commons, with police stationed at the west end of the Commons running to interrupt the situation taking place about 100 feet away. They did so by running at the pair, with Herz grabbing his taser and pointing it at Ferguson while yelling for him to get on the ground. Herz trips, then after returning to his feet fires the taser into Ferguson’s back and Ferguson is brought to the ground by another officer, identified as DuPay.

That’s when a clearly panicked DeGroat tries to intervene on behalf of Ferguson, striking one of the police officers at least once before she herself is quickly taken to the ground. The most jarring portion of the video is when an officer uses his knee for an extended period of time to pin down DeGroat by her head while she is being handcuffed.

In trying to build the case that DeGroat’s and Ferguson’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the suit alleges that each named officer “when seizing, arresting, and acting with force against [DeGroat and Ferguson], acted under color of law by using the authority vested in him by virtue of his employment with the Ithaca Police Department…” and that not only were the arrests illegal, but the manner by which Ferguson and DeGroat were arrested was excessive and unnecessary.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com