August 27, 2012

Friendly Fire: Accusations Fly as Suit Against Ithaca Police Department Unfolds

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This is part one and part two of a series on race and dissension in the Ithaca Police Department. Read part three and part four here.

The Ithaca Police officer suing the city for discrimination allegedly treated minority suspects maliciously, helped demolish the property of the homeless for fun, and, on one occasion, threw deer guts into the back of a fellow officer’s car, according to the sworn testimony of several IPD officers.

Claiming the prevalence of high-level corruption in the IPD, Officer Chris Miller named two police chiefs, one former mayor, two municipalities, one district attorney, one union president and at least five Ithaca Police officers as defendants in his sprawling, $17-million federal discrimination lawsuit. The resulting legal battle has ensnared Marlon Byrd — a black IPD lieutenant — in allegations that he aided drug dealers, and threatens to destroy the reputations and careers of many others.

But while Miller struck first, his fellow officers have since returned fire. The ongoing fight has produced several thousand pages of testimony and court records that lay bare the inner-workings of the police department, exposing its racial divisions and providing a framework for understanding the man who has been accused, in the words of one officer, of wanting to “burn [the IPD] to the ground.”

The relevance of Miller’s past to the plausibility of his claims will ultimately be decided by presiding Judge Thomas McAvoy. As McAvoy prepares to assess Miller’s allegations in court this September, he may be persuaded by the defendants’ characterization of Miller — who is white — as a racist, sexist loose-cannon entirely lacking credibility.

But Miller is not alone in his fight. And many of his claims — particularly in regard to his superiors’ alleged transgressions — appear grounded in the reams of documents he has submitted to the court.

Several other officers and civilians have testified in support of his varied allegations, and one, Sgt. Douglas Wright, has filed a $10.5-million discrimination lawsuit of his own. Miller, in fact, is just one of four municipal employees currently suing the city for discrimination.

But while these lawsuits generally focus on discrimination, the scope of Miller’s is broader. He claims that there is widespread acceptance of criminal behavior at the top levels of the IPD — that the police force spending more than $11 million a year in taxpayer money, or 18 percent of the city’s budget, is rife with wrongdoing.

His stories form a searing indictment of the IPD that — depending on one’s interpretation — read either like one man’s moral crusade or the airing of personal vendettas.

Take, for instance, Miller’s testimony about Andrew Navarro, a Latino IPD officer who has since joined Cornell Police.

One day, Miller and Navarro were assigned to drive around Collegetown in plain clothes to gather “intel” on the neighborhood — but for the first hour and fifteen minutes, Navarro did nothing but read the paper and get coffee, Miller testified.

“I was like, ‘What am I doing? We’re not doing anything,’” Miller recalled in his testimony. “[Navarro’s] words were: ‘We don’t have to do shit. We’ll just drive around all night and get paid for it.’”

Miller testified that he knows “firsthand what a piece of shit [Navarro] was … Everybody on the SWAT team that I know in the county and IPD despised him.” Navarro, for instance, regularly talked at work about having sex with his wife, Miller said.

When questioned by Miller’s lawyer, Navarro did more than deny the accusation. He attacked.

“No, I would never talk about having sex with my wife in the workplace,” Navarro said in his sworn deposition. “And, in fact, the most egregious example of someone talking about someone’s wife in our workplace … is when Chris Miller called Doug Wright’s wife a whore to Doug Wright’s face.”

This example fits within a broader narrative of Miller’s purported misconduct that, according to the defendants in the case and other officers’ testimony, long predates Miller’s time in Ithaca.

Part II – ‘I Am a Dick’ – Miller’s Time as an Officer in Vinton, Va.

“Marijuana burned in barrels and flushed down toilets. Stolen weapons recovered but not returned to their owners.”

“Bikes for needy children given to the police department’s families and friends.”

“Slush funds. Unlawful arrests. Intimidation of witnesses.”

Replete with allegations of negligence and corruption at the highest levels of the police department, the passage reads like a section of Chris Miller’s lawsuit against the IPD.

But it comes instead from the lead story of The Roanoke Times on Feb. 19, 2000. The Virginia newspaper obtained a grand jury’s report on Chief Rick Foutz and Lt. Bill Brown, the former number one and two ranking officers in the police department of the Town of Vinton, Va. The grand jury’s findings said that Brown ruled the department with “fear, intimidation and retribution,” while Foutz “willfully chose to ignore these grave problems,” according to The Roanoke Times.

It was here that Chris Miller got his first introduction to the world of small-town police. At 24, the young officer moved to Virginia in 1995 one year after he received his degree in criminal justice from Long Island University.

In their report to IPD, Miller’s bosses in Vinton noted that he was frequently cited for minor violations.

He failed to have his shoes shined properly. He carried a dirty firearm. He did not have the proper registration on his car, the Vinton officers say in their report.

And then, having already been placed on probation for “his failure to follow departmental procedures,” Miller scratched “I Am a Dick” into the shooting glasses of Paul Hickerson, his fellow officer in Vinton, the court documents say.

As Miller told it, he and a group of other officers were “fooling around” in the locker room and playing a prank on Hickerson. One officer threw a bucket of cold water on Hickerson, another messed with his shoes and Miller defaced his glasses.

According to then-Chief Foutz, Miller participated in “the destruction of another officer[’s] personal property … because he did not like the officer.” Miller was then terminated.

The City of Ithaca holds that Miller was fired in part because he did not disclose, in his job application to IPD, that he had worked in Vinton.

They believe that this omission is of crucial importance for two reasons: One, police say it shows Chris Miller lied to the IPD, which justifies their decision to fire him, and two, they say, it shows that Miller has a history of deceiving his supervisors.

But the city’s argument does not acknowledge the reports of widespread corruption at Vinton — alleged by Miller and supported by the grand jury’s testimony — and its implications for the credibility of those who disciplined Miller.

For Miller, as he says in his arbitration hearing, the malfeasance of his superiors is inseparable from the punishment they meted out. His testimony on the matter shines with righteous indignation.

“If people are going to sell drugs and steal guns and lie on reports and things like that, how are they going to judge someone else? I don’t think it’s appropriate for that individual to make, [to] pass judgment on someone else,” Miller said of the Vinton police. “It was similar to — but not as bad as — here in Ithaca.”

Click here for part three and part four of Friendly Fire.

Original Author: Jeff Stein