An Ithaca police officer is claiming in U.S. District Court that the City of Ithaca and Ithaca Police Chief John Barber discriminated against her based on her sex, gender and sexual orientation and retaliated against her when she complained.
Officer Sarah Crews said in the lawsuit filed Thursday that “discriminatory, hetero-normative and sexual stereotypical” IPD policies require her to search, transport and monitor female arrestees because IPD identifies Crews as female. Crews, in the lawsuit, said she is an “openly gay female and identifies as gender non-conforming.”
Disproportionately searching and transporting female arrestees, Crews said, puts her job in jeopardy because women recognize that she is openly lesbian and have, multiple times, threatened to falsely claim that Crews sexually abused them.
A female detainee harassed and masturbated in front of Crews in 2011, the officer said in the suit, after Crews was assigned to supervise the arrestee because of IPD’s policies requiring that people who are arrested be searched and supervised by officers of the same sex.
“This prisoner harassed Crews, saying Crews’ prisoner checks were sexually motivated in frequency,” Crews said in the lawsuit, using “prisoner” to refer to a woman who had been arrested. “At one point, the female prisoner began masturbating in Crews’ presence and said, ‘Hey big gay woman, you want some of this? I’m gonna make it up that you did something to me.’”
Crews, represented by Ithaca attorney Ed Kopko, claims that the chief’s and the city’s alleged discrimination created a hostile work environment and violated the New York Human Rights Law, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and Title VII, which protects employees against discrimination based on sex.
The officer is requesting $5 million in monetary damages for “past and future pain and suffering” and loss of past and future income, punitive damages against Barber, a court order that Ithaca prohibit “further illegal and discriminatory conduct” and an award of attorney fees.
Crews has been an employee of IPD since 2007 and is currently working for the department, according to the suit. Public records confirm that Crews has been employed by the city of Ithaca for at least the last seven years.
Barber, a 23-year veteran of the department, is retiring in less than two weeks and has emphasized transparency and progressive policing in his three years as chief. He declined to comment on Crews’ allegations, citing city policy.
“IPD values diversity amongst its Officers and works to foster a welcoming environment for all,” Barber said in a statement to The Sun. “IPD’s detainee search policies conform to state and federal laws, which limit same sex searches.”
A voicemail message left on Crews’ listed phone number was not returned on Monday evening, and Kopko, her attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
Crews made dozens of verbal complaints over several years and sent a formal objection to two IPD sergeants by email in May 2015, according to the lawsuit. The officer’s complaints, the lawsuit claims, led to retaliation by Crews’ superiors, who she said assigned her to less-preferred beats more frequently after her emailed complaint.
In Crews’ email, quoted in the legal filing, she objected to jailing female prisoners. Crews noted that male officers are prohibited from jailing female prisoners and said the policy is discriminatory and protects heterosexual male coworkers but does not protect her “as an openly, and obviously, gay female.”
“I have been ridiculed and treated with hostility because I expressed my concerns,” Crews wrote in the 2015 email, according to the lawsuit. “I have reached a point where I can no longer tolerate this situation.”
The lawsuit refers to three incidents between 2015 and 2016 for which IPD issued notices of discipline against Crews, the officer said. Crews claims IPD issued the discipline notices — including one for using “the f-word” in a private conversation, the lawsuit said — as retaliation for her speaking out against the search and supervision policies.
In one of the three incidents described in the lawsuit, Crews said she was called to the IPD headquarters last June to search a woman who had been arrested. When she arrived, she saw that there were multiple male, heterosexual officers who she said could have searched the arrestee.
“There and then, Crews realized that the IPD was using the stereotypical policies to highlight her gender-nonconformity, ostracize her from her peer group, make her uncomfortable, and discriminate against her,” the lawsuit said. “Crews started crying.”
A lieutenant saw Crews crying and asked her to come into his office, according to the suit, but did not again order her to search the arrested woman. Crews received a notice of discipline for insubordination seven weeks later, she said.
The lawsuit said IPD’s staff is overwhelmingly composed of heterosexual men, in contrast to the more diverse population it serves.
Crews’ union attorney proposed to an Ithaca City attorney that IPD create a policy that protects arrestees and arresting officers against sexual orientation, gender and sex discrimination, but the request was ignored, according to the lawsuit. A member of the Ithaca City Attorney’s office did not respond to an interview request on Monday.
In a 2015 interview with The Ithaca Times, Chief Barber said he would not tolerate any discrimination by employees of the department and said he had directed police staff to report any discrimination by their colleagues.
“Complaints will be investigated vigorously and with as much transparency as practical,” he said. “I will not tolerate any deviation from this. Period. The people in our community are our greatest asset and they will not be treated with anything less than dedication, professionalism, and courtesy.”
An initial conference for the case — Crews v. The City of Ithaca et al. — is set to take place before Magistrate Judge David E. Peebles on June 2 in Binghamton. Mae D’Agostino, a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of New York, is presiding over the case.