Michael Suguitan / Sun Senior Photographer

Ithacans protested the termination of Christine Barksdale, an IPD investigator, at Wendesday's Ithaca Common Council meeting.

March 5, 2020

Ithaca College Students Fill Common Council Chambers In Support of IPD Investigator Barksdale

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Side by side, members of the Ithaca Common Council and demonstrators with rolled-up signs filled the chambers of City Hall.

At around 5:45 p.m. on Wednesday evening, the demonstrators took their places, standing in a U-formation around the public seating area. They put memory chips in cameras and unfurled signs, reading, “#voicesforchristine,” “Love for Christine,” “Where’s the public apology?” and “Thank you Christine for your sincerity.”

The demonstrators stood in support of Christine Barksdale, a former Ithaca Police Department investigator and member of the Tompkins County law enforcement community for 25 years, who was terminated as senior investigator by the IPD in response to her department’s failure to investigate crimes, including a disproportionate amount of sex crimes.

But demonstrators, who were predominately people of color, said Barksdale had played an invaluable role as both a mentor and a member of law enforcement, calling the disciplinary action against her unjustified.

“A lot of you are going to be in the hot seat tonight,” said Richard Onyejuruwa, an IPD commissioner.

Trust was the question that took center stage with demonstrators giving statements to Common Council members during privilege of the floor.

“It’s very important that when you’re approaching a life saving business, you ask questions. Due diligence ultimately builds trust,”  Onyejuruwa said.

Southside Community Center president Prof. Nia Nunn, education, Ithaca College, said her students trusted Barksdale for her work in combatting sex crimes and felt the loss of her termination from the IPD.

“Now who are they supposed to trust?” Nunn said.

Nunn told Common Council that “this retaliation from IPD leadership in an attempt to punish Barksdale not for her performance but rather for daring to live daring to be bold, daring to be unapologetically black.”

IPD officer Jack Nelson invoked the issue of lost trust once again.

“We’ve got our own treating our own disrespectfully, and now we’re supposed to trust police?”  said IPD officer Jack Nelson. “How does the public feel that you’re disrespecting one of your own?”

The IPD has always dealt with internal matters quietly, avoiding explanation to the public, said Ed Kopko, Barksdale’s attorney. But, according to Kopko, in Barksdale’s case, the city handled publicity differently — and that is where the problem lies.

On Jan. 9, the city released a statement explaining the disciplinary action against Barksdale — who remained unnamed in the release — explaining that the department had discovered cases left univestigated or inadequeately investigated over the last decade, including sex offenses.

“Impacts of these investigatory failures were by definition deeply traumatic for victims who came to the IPD seeking help and justice, and found none,” the report stated.

The report also said that the IPD was seeking the termination of the investigator involved.

IPD Police Chief Dennis Nayor was unwilling to comment in depth because he is “prohibited from discussing personnel matters.”

In an email to The Sun, Nayor said that “NO rush to judgment is ever made by me or my administration,” and that “complete and thorough fact-finding coupled with extremely credible and reliable supportive evidence are ALWAYS the basis for any administrative action.”

“There is no chance in hell she’ll be terminated,” Kopko said. He added that Nayor should be “stripped of any sort authority to discipline police officers,” which he believed should be granted to the mayor and common council, “who have calm heads [and] no vested interests.”

After the final speaker from the group, Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 spoke for several minutes.

“I’ve always looked up to Christine — she took me under my wing,” he said. But Myrick lamented the legal constraints on his response.

“She shouldn’t be a scapegoat, I agree,” Myrick said of more widespread causes of the under-investigated crimes, adding that the mistakes in Barksdale’s case are distributed between IPD and city government.

Other members of the Common Council spoke sympathetically to the demonstrators, acknowledging the failures of the government in handling this case and complimenting the actions of the demonstrators.

Cynthia Brock (D-1st ward) acknowledged the importance of having a woman of color in public office. George McGonigal (D-1st ward) assured the demonstrators that there are people in the Common Council defending Barksdale.

“What I didn’t hear was anger, or disrespect, or unwillingness to have a conversation,” said Deborah Mohlenhoff (D-5th ward). Stephen Smith (D-4th ward) said that he appreciated the demonstrators “keeping our feet to the fire,” adding that the case is complicated, and that all sides of the story deserve to be heard.

Correction, March 5, 9:24 a.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled Christine Barksdale’s name in the photo caption. It has since been updated.