Tompkins County District Attorney Matt van Houten and Ithaca Police Chief Dennis Nayor sat before a small crowd of journalists and police officers on Thursday afternoon, giving their most extensive comments on the arrests of Cadji Ferguson and Rose DeGroat, which have stirred controversy since they occurred in early April.
Ferguson and DeGroat were both arrested during an altercation on the Commons late at night on April 6; Ferguson was fighting with another person on the Commons, while DeGroat tried to protect him from police when they arrived to arrest him. Both were charged for their roles, though Ferguson was subsequently acquitted on misdemeanor charges, and DeGroat's charges were recently dismissed by a Tompkins County judge.
van Houten has been criticized by the public throughout the incident, partially fueled by allegations of racism and brutality by police officers during the incident. He said initially he wanted to take a restorative justice path, which would have likely involved no charges but some form of apology or accountability from Ferguson and DeGroat. But when it was revealed during trial that Ferguson had initially misled police, saying that the individual he fought had groped Ferguson's female friend before testifying to the contrary, van Houten said he didn't think restorative justice was enough.
"At no point was it my goal or desire for either of these young individuals to be criminalized or incarcerated as a result of this proceeding," van Houten said. "What I did want for them to do is accept responsibility for their actions."
He continued that he doesn't feel as if either DeGroat or Ferguson did take responsibility for their actions during the incident. The conference did serve to clear up some of the confusing portions of the case, some that have lingered for several months, like why DeGroat's charges were initially felonies, then dropped down to misdemeanors, then taken to a grand jury, which chose to the charges being re-upped to felonies.
"Initially, I made a decision that I probably made too quickly, and I accept that," van Houten said. "I thought about it more, and my realization was that the fairest way to determine what level of charges should be applied was to present the case to a grand jury."
They joined the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the local police department's union representation, in commenting on the case since the judge's decision to dismiss the charges; the PBA did not support the dismissal. The judge, John C. Rowley, dismissed the case in the interest of "the furtherance of justice," also claiming that Ithaca police officers overreacted to the initial situation and did not try to defuse things first before their "aggressively forceful" arrest of Ferguson.
Rowley's decision seemed to directly contradict the findings of an internal investigation by IPD that found no wrongdoing by the officers involved in the incident, especially as Rowley also stated that the initial use of a taser on Ferguson wasn't justified and that he found the testimony of one IPD officer, named "Officer Herz" in Rowley's writings, to be untrue or misleading on certain main points. Nayor wouldn't directly address the judge's decision, but did offer the following commentary on the difference between the judge's findings and his department's internal results, which he called "impartial and non-emotive."
"We don't have to agree with the decisions, and I can't speak to what anyone uses to derive their decisions," Nayor said. "I can tell you as the agency head, we have accountability and if there's something wrong we will address it. [...] We're always looking at ways to improve, even if everything is in accordance with training, legal standards and policies, we still want to look at ways we can do better."
Nayor did say that there were "training opportunities identified" while the internal investigation was covered. Of those training opportunities, he said that different crowd control techniques were under review to help officers who are dealing with a situation involving a large group of people, as well as taser usage.