Friendly Fire: As Federal Discrimination Lawsuit Against Ithaca Police Begins, Documents Show Origins of Conflict
This is part three and four of Friendly Fire, a series chronicling allegations of racism and corruption in the Ithaca Police Department. Read part one and two here.
Part III – “I don’t call them ‘D Black Man’ or anything’” – Rivalries Began at Police Academy
There are many people in the Ithaca Police Department who Officer Chris Miller — whose $17 million discrimination lawsuit against the City of Ithaca opened Wednesday — appears not to like or trust. One of them is Scott Garin.
It is not just the black fuzzy dice that Garin, a black officer, reportedly hangs from his car’s rear view mirror — a garnishing Miller calls a “direct and blatant” violation of state law. It is, Miller contends, the depravity of a man far more concerned with his own advancement than the welfare of the city’s inhabitants.
One night on the Commons, for instance, Garin allegedly left his police car — filled with rifles and police jackets — unattended so he could follow two women into a bar. After Garin went inside, a man allegedly asked several people how to steal the fully automatic weapons in the car. After three attempts to break in, the man reportedly stole two of Garin’s police jackets before passersby called 911, court documents said.
It took someone telling Garin, who was still inside the club, that the man was trying to break into his car to end the “threat of weapons being loose on the Commons,” Miller says. While The Sun could not independently verify the story, another officer in the police department, speaking with The Sun on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the allegations, said Miller’s report was accurate.
In his lawsuit, Miller has alleged the prevalence of stupidity, negligence and corruption throughout the police department. The most high-profile of these accusations — that Lt. Marlon Byrd aided drug dealers — is just the tip of the iceberg, Miller says in his lawsuit.
But Miller’s frustrations with IPD officers can be traced back to before he was even hired by the department.
After working as an officer in Vinton, Va., Miller enrolled in the Broome County Law Enforcement Academy, proving an adept student and scoring high marks on his civil service exams en route to his job with Ithaca Police. But even if his history in Vinton remained mostly hidden from view, he remained plagued by essentially the same obstacles: disagreements with authority and an apparent unwillingness to let the perceived inequities of the world go unchallenged.
Miller sat in the car one morning in the early 2000s with Mike Nelson and Scott Garin, who would later join him at IPD. Nelson and Garin, who are black, liked to listen to FM 106.9 on their way to the academy, according to Miller’s testimony.
“It’s a predominantly black radio station with some kind of comedi[an] — D White Man, it’s called — that comes on and makes jokes, which I didn’t appreciate but they thought it was funny, and even though I asked to change it, it never got changed,” Miller said. “I didn’t like D White Man being played. I thought it was derogatory … I don’t call them ‘D Black Man’ or anything.”
As Miller seethed, the three drove through Candor, N.Y. Then the car got a flat tire, and the group went to see Keith Fields, Miller’s “best friend” and a black mechanic, to have it fixed. When Garin, according to Miller, expressed his surprise that Miller had a black friend, Miller was outraged.
About a decade later, Garin was named a defendant in Miller’s lawsuit.
Garin was not the only officer who met Miller at the police academy and later ended up a defendant in Miller’s $17 million lawsuit. Another early recipient of Miller’s contempt was a black officer named Pete Tyler, now deputy chief of the IPD, whom he met at the police academy.
But if Miller quickly made black enemies within the police department, he also forged friendships with white officers.
Officer Scott Salino, for instance, testified on Miller’s behalf in the trial.
“[Miller’s] still a friend of mine. He was a good cop on the street — always backed me up, always covered us. He was there for us as a working cop,” Salino said. “What the city is trying to do to him, I thought, was absolutely horrendous … I thought that was disgusting, actually.”
Officer Stephen Moracco, who said he quit the IPD to join the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office despite its lower pay, said he shared Salino’s — and Miller’s — abhorrence of the way IPD brass treats its rank-and-file.
“I’d had it with the specialty treatments and I couldn’t stomach going there anymore. There’s corrupt people that work there that aren’t held to the standard that they go after other people for and I got sick of it,” Moracco said in his testimony. “People do egregious things and the administration is well aware of [it], and have done nothing and do nothing, but they will nitpick for other things.”
High-ranking officers in the Ithaca Police Department, however, might disagree with Moracco’s definition of nitpicking.
Part IV – ‘Vindictive Towards Disadvantaged and/or Minority Citizens’ – Lt. Marlon Byrd’s Fight
Officer Marlon Byrd’s patience had worn out.
What began as a one-off incident had mushroomed into a worrisome trend, and Byrd decided that he needed to take action. In late June 2009, he called for a meeting with Sgt. Navarro and the officer with whom his struggles were, in reality, just beginning: Chris Miller.
Byrd’s suspicions of Miller reportedly began about a year earlier, on Aug. 27, 2008, when Miller conducted a “highly confrontational traffic stop” with an African-American male without following protocol, Byrd said.
“Miller wrestled the driver to the ground for driving without a license,” Byrd said, noting that “the arrestee claimed he was physically attacked by Miller without any reason or provocation.”
Then, an African-American woman claimed that Miller was “very disrespectful, rude and dismissive of her concerns” when he went to her house to take a report.
After the incident, Byrd instructed Navarro to speak with Miller. But less than a month later, Byrd received another complaint from a member of Ithaca’s black community. Miller, allegedly falsely claiming that a black man was under investigation, had the man’s car towed at the man’s “considerable expense” to a lot outside the city, Byrd said. Meanwhile, Miller was reportedly “very disrespectful and rude” to the man’s daughter, according to Byrd.
“At this point, I was concerned that Officer Miller’s conduct was becoming increasingly unprofessional and vindictive towards disadvantaged and/or minority citizens in the community,” Byrd said in his written statement.
Byrd is far from the only member inside or outside the IPD — white or black — to highlight incidents in which, they say, Miller shows his deep-seated racism.
Miller’s lawsuit, “which is tantamount to a rambling and bitter diatribe, clearly expresses his anger and dislike of virtually every person of color in his department,” the city states in the court documents. “If this is his attitude, how can he reasonably be expected to work with a diverse community? His apparent prejudices are only underscored by an apparent disregard for women.”
The city claims that Miller “was the subject of complaints from female civilians where he displayed conduct that was sexist, inappropriate and intimidating.” In one incident, he “berated” a
woman who worked at a nearby store, threatening to “cite her for various infractions although she was not committing any violations of the law,” the city says.
On other occasion, Miller allegedly “made disparaging remarks about a neighbor’s residence, spat several times in the neighbor’s garden, made the motion of unzipping his pants and [informed her] that he would urinate in [her] garden,” the city claims.
Racism and sexism provide essential frameworks for understanding both Miller’s accusations against the IPD and the IPD’s accusations against Miller, both sides in the lawsuit say. But what broke officer Byrd’s patience — what triggered the meeting with Navarro and perhaps accelerated Miller’s alienation from the department — appeared to have nothing to do with either.
According to Byrd’s sworn statement to the court, Miller had left his post on the Commons without permission, thereby making it impossible for the IPD to respond to a call for help during an in-progress armed robbery.
“A violent felony in progress was not responded to in a timely manner because Chris Miller was not on his beat when he was supposed to be,” Sgt. Navarro states in his testimony.
Partly as a result, Byrd says, Miller was assigned to patrol Collegetown and the Commons — widely regarded as one of the worst assignments for IPD officers, according to court documents. Byrd’s decision was soon followed by Miller’s Human Rights Complaint against the IPD and, soon thereafter, Miller’s lawsuit against the city.
Throughout the lawsuit, accusations of racism obfuscate the motivations of the feuding officers. Each side ascribes the other’s motives to some degree of racial prejudice, and each side has varying degrees of support for its defamatory claims.
Puncturing this limiting dichotomy is one attack advanced by Miller’s foes. The city and its allies attack not just Miller’s alleged racism, nor his reported sexism, nor his apparent disregard for poor members of the community.
They attack his sanity.
The Sun will publish parts V and VI of the Friendly Fire series about the Ithaca Police Department next week.