Ithaca Police Officer Files $5 Million Discrimination Suit Against Chief, City

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs