ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca officials have not released the mugshot of a Cornell University student who police say beat a black student while shouting racial slurs.
John Greenwood, 19, is charged with misdemeanors for third-degree assault and second-degree harassment. According to court documents, an argument between two groups of people broke out in Collegetown on Sept. 15. The argument escalated to pushing and shoving before one of the groups left the property while shouting racial slurs.
Related — Court records: Witnesses say white men provoked fight, attacked at least 3 Cornell students and yelled racial slurs
One male, who is black, followed the other group toward their home next door and said he was jumped by several white students. He ended up with a bloody nose and was later taken to Cayuga Medical Center for treatment of other possible injuries.
In the days since the arrest, officials have refused to release Greenwood’s mugshot.
Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief Pete Tyler did not directly address the release of the mugshot when asked but said the department is withholding some information to protect the integrity of the investigation.
“Very simply from IPD’s standpoint, we are still conducting follow up interviews and reviewing evidence as of today and the release of information could potentially jeopardize the case. There are many moving parts and certainly things which may or may not have actually occurred we are still looking at,” Tyler wrote in an email.
A request for the mugshot under the freedom of information law was denied. The denial states:
“…an agency may deny access to records that are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which, if disclosed would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings. The record you have requested relates to an active/pending investigation. As such it cannot be made public at this time.”
It’s unclear how exactly the release of the mugshot would interfere with an investigation and officials have refused to comment about specifics. The Ithaca Voice has appealed the FOIL denial.
Without a mugshot, local and national news organizations published a headshot of Greenwood wearing a suit and tie as opposed to in a jumpsuit, as is the case for most crimes of public interest.
Mayor Svante Myrick said in an email that not releasing Greenwood’s mugshot is on par with recent IPD policy of not releasing mugshots for any misdemeanor crimes.
“I believe the publication of those mugshots serves little public purpose, but does damage the reputation of the defendant before they’ve been convicted of a crime. I also believe that in the case of many misdemeanor crimes even a guilty verdict shouldn’t merit the punishment of public shaming. Greenwood’s alleged crimes are more serious than most,” Myrick wrote. “And I think I understand why some people want his mug shot to be published. They want to see his mugshot published because they believe – rightly – that the media has for years demonized young black men who commit crimes as ‘thugs’ while portraying white defendants as wayward children who just took a wrong turn. So they hope that releasing his mug shot will even the scales. ”
Myrick said, however, that two wrongs don’t make a right.
“The way towards a more just and equitable treatment is not to release more mugshots of white defendants. It is to stop releasing mugshots altogether,” he said.
But Kristin O’Neill, assistant director at the New York Committee On Open Government, said refusal to release mugshots can be illegal.
“It’s a record subject to the Freedom of Information Law,” O’Neill said. Not releasing a mugshot, she said, “can’t just be because the mayor says so.”
According to Section 87 of the Freedom of Information Law, there are limited instances when a public record can be withheld. While this does include instances when the release of a document or mugshot could compromise an investigation, that claim doesn’t seem to hold water in this instance.
O’Neill said she is “broadly” familiar with the Greenwood case from news reports.
She said in instances where somebody has been charged with a crime and the charges are not dismissed or sealed by a court of law for some legal reasons, mugshots should be released.
“Given the number of times (mugshots) are disclosed to the public, I honestly cannot think of how the disclosure of a mugshot could cause any of the harm envisioned by the statute,” O’Neill said.
In comparison, police agencies throughout the Southern Tier readily release mugshots in press releases or per request.
Greenwood is scheduled to be arraigned at Ithaca City Court at 9 a.m. Wednesday.