Did political correctness cause Ithaca Police Department brass to turn a blind eye to the seemingly decade-long incompetence of its first and only black, female officer?
That’s the question that arises out of the surprise announcement Thursday by the mayor of Ithaca that failure to adequately investigate some 200 cases over a 10-year period had called into question the department’s basic competence. So significant was the malfeasance that the city has asked anyone who reported a crime in the last decade to notify authorities if they felt that crime was inadequately investigated.
Most troubling is that many of the crimes apparently involved sexual assaults against women and children.
In charge of investigating those sex crimes over the period in question was Senior Investigator Christine Barksdale, who has refused to comment to “The Ithaca Voice,” a local newspaper.
Barksdale entered law enforcement in 1995, as the first black, female correctional deputy in the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office. She subsequently joined the Ithaca Police Department where she was promoted to investigator and given responsibility for all sex abuse cases.
While in the department, she became involved with various non-profit boards in the community and was repeatedly awarded for her pioneering status. She was often cited for outreach to Ithaca’s people of color. In 2019, she received the city’s highest award associated with Black History Month. She also has owned two businesses, a gallery of African-inspired art and an environmentally friendly sex-toy store.
She has been seen for a number of years as a community leader.
But in recent months, a new boss in the investigations department became concerned about case backlogs. Asking investigators to account for their cases, problems appeared and an outside law firm was called in to conduct an audit. That audit, officials told “The Ithaca Voice” and a city press statement said, showed an investigator with some 200 open cases stretching back some 10 years.
The newspaper has identified that investigator as Christine Barksdale, though neither the city nor the police union have verified or commented upon that, and Barksdale has not been available. Most telling is that no one who knows has denied that it was Barksdale, or attempted to defend her or her reputation.
There are two natural questions: How could a sworn police officer essentially blow off so many cases, particularly as they involved such sinister crimes; and, How could such a 10-year pattern of failure not be detected by supervisors and co-workers?
The first question falls into the vagaries of personal character, or the lack thereof.
But the second question gets to a fundamental failure of basic management and function. In a paramilitary organization with structural command and control, how does one employee’s workload get blown off and not get noticed?
The unavoidable answer is that it must have been noticed.
If cases that came up on an average of every two and a half weeks for 10 years simply disappeared from the radar, that would have been noticed. If nothing else, responding officers – the ones who answered the 911 calls and had first contact with victims and complainants – would have had a natural curiosity about what had happened to cases they had passed off to a senior investigator.
Further, over 10 years and some 200 victims, somebody would have complained to somebody about the fact their case never led to an arrest. Wouldn’t advocates for sex-abuse victims or somebody from the district attorney’s office have noticed that cases were chronically not getting solved?
Of course they would have. And of course people knew this was happening. There is no way they couldn’t have known.
Which means they chose to ignore this.
They chose to look the other way.
Which raises the question: Why?
Why did a succession of sergeants, lieutenants, deputy chiefs and chiefs not call this investigator to account? Why did they choose silence over victims? Why did they allow this to fester and fail, year after year?
Any answer would be speculative, and the question will probably never be officially answered, but it is the real crux of this matter. People can be dirt bags and failures, but institutions are supposed to find problems and impose accountability.
And various officials of the Ithaca Police Department chose not to.
Was it because they are immoral idiots, grifting a check and a pension out of the taxpayers? If that were the case, it would probably have manifest itself elsewhere in the department, with other failings of duty – but such failings are not evident.
Which leads to this question: Was it because of Investigator Barksdale’s unique demographic and position in the community?
Did her status as the first and only black, female officer protect her? Did the network of community awards and goodwill shield her from workplace accountability?
And if so, what will the department and the city take away from this? In Ithaca, one of the most progressive communities in New York, respect for diversity is high and important. If that respect ended up being a shield for malfeasance, and a failure to serve the victims of sex crime, then Ithaca needs to address that, and fix it.
Diversity is good, but it cannot be a haven for bad.
Ithaca must be honest about why it tolerated this bad conduct for so many years.
Even if the answer is political correctness.