August 25, 2010

Ithaca Race Relations Remain Fragile After Police Officer’s House Burned

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Less than one week after a Tompkins County grand jury found no basis to prosecute Ithaca Police Sgt. Bryan Bangs –– a white police officer –– in the shooting of a black narcotics suspect, Shawn Greenwood, Bangs’ home in Etna was burned to the ground early July 11, leaving community members stunned and divided over the issue of race in Ithaca. The shooting occurred on Feb. 23 as several officers attempted to serve Greenwood with a search warrant in a multi-agency narcotics investigation, according to Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson. They approached the Ithaca resident outside of Pete’s Grocery on West Buffalo Street. Greenwood resisted removal from his vehicle, which prompted the officers to taser him.  Greenwood then drove onto a curb and hit a Dryden police officer. The other officers on the scene yelled at Greenwood to stop driving, but when he continued, Bangs fired several shots that killed the 29-year-old man.    The report issued by the grand jury on July 1 found that Bangs acted in self-defense, discharging his weapon to prevent the van from “violently crush[ing] him against the brick wall.” Forensic teams determined that the Tasers lodged in Greenwood’s clothing failed to shock the suspect. The testimony of 26 witnesses and assessment of 233 exhibits also revealed that Greenwood possessed about 55 grams of cocaine at the time of the shooting. On July 11, a neighbor of Bangs awoke around 4 a.m. to see flames blazing from the officer’s home. Bangs escaped unharmed from the roof of his home, but the torching left the house largely unsalvageable and the arsonist remains unidentified.  The Ithaca Common Council, Ithaca Police Benevolent Association and Community Leaders of Color all released independent statements denouncing any deliberate violence against Bangs and encouraging residents to assist with police investigations. The Calvary Baptist Church and St. Paul’s United Methodist Church hosted prayer services urging healing and unity in the community, while the Tompkins County Red Cross pledged to provide shelter, clothing and food to the Bangs family. The Ithaca Police Department could not be reached for comment on the ongoing investigation. Later in August, hundreds from both the Ithaca community and across the country headed to LakeWatch Inn in Ithaca to raise money for a Bangs Relief Fund opened at the Chemung Canal Trust Company. The event featured, food, music, auctions and raffles to benefit the fund. Nonetheless, the community remains discontented as tensions rise not only in response to the jury’s decision and the torching of Bangs’ home, but also to the actions of town officials. The creators of a Facebook group supporting Bangs accused Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson and other city administrators of attempting to restrain the group’s rights to free speech and shutting the page down. Although officials have denied the allegations, more than 300 people have joined another group calling for Peterson’s resignation. “We need a real leader that will support our law enforcement officers to the fullest, a leader that is not afraid to stand up against what is wrong and not buckle under pressure,” the website says. “Mayor Peterson’s actions the last few months are inexcusable and unconscionable.” Many community members have also noticed a tense atmosphere in the city.“Whenever the Southside Community Center throws a downtown event there’s more police than I’ve ever seen,” said Ithaca resident Anthony Galucci. “We have racial and class segregation in Ithaca. The poor urban neighborhoods, black and white, are the ones under supervision.” The IPD has attempted to ease tensions by requiring its sergeants, lieutenants and chiefs to participate in the Multicultural Resources Center’s Talking Circles in 2009. Along with other members of city administration, the officers discussed racism, race issues, and racial identity with 10-16 diverse adults over a five-week period, according to Audrey Cooper, director of the Multicultural Resources Center. Cooper said she hopes lower ranking officers and city officials who have not partaken in the Talking Circles will do so in the future. “From a personal perspective, there are absolutely racial tensions in the city that need to be addressed and we create a very safe space for this,” she said. Within the Ithaca Police Department, Lt. Marlon Byrd has spearheaded a community relations program aimed at engaging with local residents in non-confrontational ways. While on shift, officers rotate in a “community car” that stops at local community centers, parks, and businesses to build relationships with residents and hear their concerns. “My philosophy is that if people get to know officers as individuals instead of as just the law, they develop a mutual respect for each other,” Byrd said. “I want the police to also see the community in not just a negative way.” Instead of focusing on traffic violations, these officers work to fix broken backboards on basketball courts, talk to students about problems in school, and bring these issues to the upper levels of the police department and city administration. Byrd came up with the idea for the program after several controversial altercations between the police and the community. According to Cornell Director of Community Relations Gary Stewart the University has looked at this social unrest in the Ithaca community through a very different lens, focusing on its effect on recruitment and retention of students, staff and faculty from every background. The Community Relations Office has spearheaded a multi-media initiative to ease community tensions and improve local communication. The office has sponsored community forums that discuss Ithaca’s disenfranchised populations, public service announcements that have won New York State Broadcasters Award, a weekly radio show called “All Things Equal” that has touched on everything from new equity strategies in area schools to local affordable housing and employment challenges, and a twice-monthly Ithaca Journal newspaper column titled “East Hill Notes.” Stewart said that racial issues “will remain on the front burner for the foreseeable future.” “As always, it’s important that every stakeholder and those who previously didn’t have a voice in this conversation continue to meet, strategize, share and stay connected,” he stated in an e-mail. “That’s the only way these problems can be resolved.”

The article originally misstated Gary Stewart’s title. He is in fact the Director of Community Relations. The Sun regrets the error.

Original Author: Dan Robbins