The timing couldn't be odder. As the nation's attention is focused on a racially charged police incident in Ferguson, Missouri, Ithaca is reacting to an incident in the wake of last weekend's arson case. Mayor Svante Myrick says he'd "like to thank the community for their concerns and urge patience" while an investigation proceeds.
Mayor Svante Myrick. 14850 file photo.In a statement, the Ithaca Police Department explains that a police sergeant, called in from home to help investigate a pair of suspicious vehicle fires on Saturday night, spotted four people on bikes in the neighborhood while driving his personal vehicle, and followed them while calling in uniformed backup.
The IPD statement says patrol officers had spotted people riding bicycles near the arson sites, and the shift commander had asked officers to "stop these people for the purpose of ascertaining their identity, and to inquire if they had any information related to the recent criminal activity."
IPD says that when marked police cars arrived on the scene and turned on their emergency lights, the group fled on their bikes. They ultimately stopped when he exited his vehicle, and the statement says that, "not knowing the intent or identity of the group of people who had initially ignored his lawful commands to stop, the sergeant removed his firearm from the holster and kept it pointed in a safe direction as he gave verbal commands to the subjects to lie on the ground."
Officers on the scene determined that the four were all 15 years of age, and immediately turned them over to the custody of their parents. Mayor Myrick says the teens' families have expressed concerns that the sergeant drew his weapon, that he was not clearly identifiable as a police officer because he was out of uniform and in an unmarked car, and that the officer was white and the teens were of color. Some accounts of the incident say the kids were handcuffed and guns held to their heads.
The Mayor, who met with the families on Wednesday, says, "As a black man, I'm well aware of the history of violence between the police and young men of color -- see most recently the tragedy in Ferguson, MO -- and motivated to ensure that this pattern does not play out in our City." Also at the meeting were police chief John Barber, Common Council alderperson J.R. Clairborne, GIAC director Marcia Fort, and GIAC staff member Travis Brooks.
Mayor Myrick says he and Chief Barber have ordered an internal review of the incident, which will be conducted by Deputy Chief of Professional Standards Christopher Townsend. The Mayor says he's also opening a separate, public investigation, to be conducted by the Community Police Board. According to the City of Ithaca web site, the Community Police Board acts as a community liaison to the police department, and is made up of commissioners who are "chosen from a range of culturally and economically diverse community groups with consideration given to the effect each appointment will have on the diversity of representation, including geographic representation, on the Board."
Chief Barber, in a message to concerned community members, said, "I understand your concerns, but it's important not to pass judgment until the entire investigation has concluded." Barber says, "The goal of the Ithaca Police Department is to provide the highest quality professional service to the community."
Community members are planning a vigil on South Cayuga Street and East Green Street near the Tompkins County Public Library, across the street from Ithaca's City Hall, on the afternoon of September 3rd, the date of the next Common Council meeting. They encourage community members to attend the Common Council meeting, and are asking the City to move the meeting to a larger venue that would accommodate more community members in attendance. The Mayor declined to comment on plans for the vigil or Common Council meeting.
IPD asks that anyone who witnessed the interactions between the police officers and the group of young cyclists please contact the department to share what they saw and heard. You can contact IPD via police dispatch at 607-272-3245, the administration line at 607-272-9973, the Crimestoppers Tipline at 607-697-0333, or the anonymous online tip form.
For more, follow 14850.com on Facebook and Twitter.