On Saturday, August 9, Ithaca Police were called to two vehicle arsons, which started a series of events that led to an internal investigation of an incident involving a police sergeant, a gun and a group of 15-year-olds.
Officers responded to the 400 block of North Albany Street for a vehicle arson, which was a total loss. About 30 minutes later, at 10:44 pm, officers were called to the 400 block of North Geneva Street for another reported vehicle arson, which was also a total loss.
While all this was happening, patrol officers noticed a group of people riding bicycles near the scenes of the vehicle arsons. The Shift Commander asked officers to stop the group, find out who they were and find out if they knew anything about the recent crime activity in the area.
A sergeant of the Criminal Investigations Division, who was in his personal, unmarked vehicle, had been called in to help in the investigation. Police say the sergeant saw four people on Esty Street and called for marked back up. As the patrol units turned on their lights, the group reportedly fled the area on their bikes. The group got off their bikes and continued on foot toward Cleveland Avenue, where the unmarked Sergeant spotted them and commanded them to stop.
The group continued to run, according to Ithaca Police. The sergeant then reportedly got out of his personal vehicle, at which time the group turned and stared to approach him, police say. The sergeant then pulled his gun on the group, commanding them to get on the ground. Other officers responded to the scene helped identify the group. They were all 15-years-old, according to police. They were turned over to their parents.
Friends of the teen's families say the boys did not know the man following them was a police officer since he was out of uniform and in an unmarked car. Those friends told CNYCentral that the boys were headed towards a relatives house since they thought they were being pursued by a stranger.
In a statement, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick said the teen's families are concerned that racial bias may have been a factor in the incident. Myrick says "the officer was white and the teens were of color."
Myrick says he had a meeting with the teen's families and the police chief.
"We had a positive and productive meeting and the parents laid out a number of concerns. They also posed some good questions. Questions that need answers. And in important ways their version of events differed from the version the officers have shared," said Myrick.
The Ithaca Police department has opened an internal investigation and a second parallel independent public investigation is underway with the Community Police Board.
The investigation into the vehicle arsons is underway, and anyone with information is asked to call Ithaca Police at 607-272-3245.