March 13, 2012

Claims Against Police Lieutenant Tied to Discrimination Suit

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This article was written by Jeff Stein, Liz Camuti and Michael Linhorst.

The allegations that a high-ranking Ithaca Police Department officer aided drug dealers stem from lawsuits that claim IPD racially discriminates against white officers — a crucial context that defenders of the embattled officer say has been missing from public discussions of the controversy.

In interviews with The Sun, several city officials and community leaders said that Lt. Marlon Byrd, a black officer who was born and raised on Ithaca’s south side, is being targeted primarily because of his connection to  the city’s black community — a community whose relationship with the IPD is often marked by tension, antipathy and sporadic violence, they said.

These perspectives cast a new light on the debate over Byrd’s conduct and raise questions about the validity and motives of those whose testimony have impugned Byrd’s character.

The accusations against Byrd — which were first published by The Ithaca Journal on Jan. 13 — remain unresolved. Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 and Tompkins County District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson are currently investigating the charges, but it is not clear why the allegations have resurfaced now.

Though all the published evidence against Byrd originates with the arbitration of officer Chris Miller, damaging accusations have since been made by multiple sources.

Miller, who is white, sued the IPD in spring 2010 for $17 million, claiming he suffered racial discrimination when Byrd, rather than Miller, was promoted to lieutenant. That lawsuit gave rise to an arbitration with the IPD.

Miller’s lawsuit and arbitration began after the IPD attempted to fire him for reportedly violating a variety of regulations, including “falsifying business records and official misconduct,” according to court documents. Miller argues that his attempted firing was just one example of IPD’s discrimination against him.

To further his claim, Miller said that Byrd should not have defeated him for the lieutenant promotion, in part because Byrd is a “poor police officer.” Miller, as well as several other white officers, testified that they had reason to believe Byrd had assisted drug dealers.

“There were times during some of our briefs, and talking to others, where they would always wait to the last minute to let us know about warrants because they didn’t want information getting out,” Officer Bob Brotherton testified during Miller’s arbitration, according to documents first obtained by The Journal. He added that there were concerns “Byrd would give out information to where we’d be going.”

Miller is not the only white officer to sue the IPD on claims that he was passed over for promotion due to racial discrimination.

In a $10.5 million suit filed last month, Sgt. Douglas Wright alleges that in 2007, he was passed over in favor of Pete Tyler, a black officer who is now deputy chief of the IPD. In 2009, Wright was again eligible for promotion, but was passed over for Byrd, according to the lawsuit.

“Byrd was promoted even though [Chief of Police Ed] Vallely and Deputy Chief [John] Barber both had information and evidence of serious criminal allegations which they failed to investigate. The decision to promote Byrd over [Wright] was based on race,” the lawsuit states, referring to allegations that Byrd aided drug dealers.

While several white officers have claimed that Byrd’s credibility is in question, several city officials, community leaders and members of the city’s black community called Byrd an exemplary officer. According to them, Byrd’s willingness to forge ties with the community — which they called his biggest asset as an officer — is, perhaps paradoxically, also the same trait that made him susceptible to the allegations.

For instance, when the fatal shooting of a black man by a white officer in 2010 threatened to bring racial tensions in the City of Ithaca to a boil, Byrd spearheaded an effort to reconcile the IPD with the city’s black community, according to Audrey Cooper, director of the Multicultural Resource Center.

After the shooting, Cooper said, most officers began riding two to a police car “for fear of community retaliation” — except for Byrd, who she said worked to bridge the barriers between the IPD and the community.

Byrd sought to engage with local residents in non-confrontational ways, taking action that many city leaders told The Sun was perceived as breaking ranks with his own.

“Some people believe that any degree of familiarity with others that are suspect is inappropriate,” former Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81, who served from 1996 to 2003, said in an interview Tuesday. “But a good police department that practices community policing maintains relationships in the community with all types of people including those who might be suspect — that’s one of the things that [Byrd] has done over the years and can contribute to the suspicion of others.”

In the aftermath of the 2010 shooting, Byrd emphasized the importance of community policing — developing personal relationships with the residents of certain neighborhoods — as an effective means of reducing tension.

“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,” he told The Sun. “I want the police to also see the community in not just a negative way.”

Many of Byrd’s supporters also said that the behavior of the officers making claims against him brings their credibility into question.

“In this community the man who brought the suit was noted to be prejudiced and bigoted in his attitude toward the minority community,” Pastor Ronald Benson said. “[It] wasn’t a secret in our community that Miller was not friendly to minorities.”

Cooper, echoing many of Byrd’s defenders, called on the public to refrain from passing judgment until the official investigation has run its course. She noted that Byrd has requested an independent investigation into the allegations made against him.

“There’s a whole air surrounding him of questioning every move he makes, like he’s under a microscope. How can you live and work that way?” Cooper said.

But the ramifications of the accusations affect more than just Byrd, according to Kirby Edmonds, senior fellow and program coordinator at the Dorothy Cotton Institute.

“The most obvious concern is that if there is internal dissension in the department, it certainly affects how officers feel toward each other, affects the level of trust they have of each other [and] raises concerns both about their performance carrying out their duty and their safety,” Edmonds said. “My concern is that the way the information is being made public … exacerbates what are already very disturbing racial tensions in the community.”

Original Author: Sun Staff