by Belden Fields
An Ugly Image From the Past
In the late 1960s, I joined the newly created chapter of the Champaign County ACLU and became the chair of its investigations committee. I received a call from a woman member of the Champaign City Council asking me to come to her home to discuss an issue. I went and she told me I had to promise that I would not reveal where I got the information that she was about to tell me. It was about the police, who she said were very violent and might hurt her if they found out she had talked with me. I agreed and she proceeded to tell me that some of the police officers were obtaining guns with their serial numbers filed off. The object was, of course, to plant them on people so that they could claim that people they arrested or shot were armed. She told me that an African American man who knew and talked about this too publicly was grabbed by officers, taken to the station, and beaten so badly that he lost the sight in one eye.
That image of that black man beaten so badly that he lost the sight of an eye always stayed with me as I participated in C/U Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), as one after another of Champaign police excessive force cases came before us, and as we would try to convince the Champaign City Council and the City Manager to take them seriously and punish the rogue officers. Until this past year, it was in vain.
The Beating and Charging of Myron Scruggs
The case that has occupied most of my attention over the last two years was the beating and charging of Myron Scruggs on September 15, 2012. Mr. Scruggs came to CUCPJ where he described what happened to him. Since then, I have heard his story a number of times, and he has always been consistent.
Mr. Scruggs, an African American veteran, is a dialysis technician who is sent all over the country to service dialysis clinics for diabetics. He has also taught dialysis to other aspiring technicians. He was sent to Champaign in September 2012. While he was here, a fire broke out in the hotel in which he and another dialysis technician were staying. When the firefighters let people back into the hotel, they prevented the other technician, a black woman, from entering her room. A verbal dispute ensued between her and the firefighters. Mr. Scruggs, observing this from outside of his room down the corridor, intervened and told her to just come to his room where she could have the bed and he would sleep in the chair. He thought that would resolve the issue.
Instead, when they had both been ensconced in the room, the police came and knocked on the door and demanded entry. Mr. Scruggs says that when he opened the door just a bit to look at who was knocking and claiming to be the police, he was immediately sprayed in the face and effectively blinded for the duration of the events that occurred in the room. Both he and the police reports agree that he was struck three times by the police officers. He was hit by one officer, sprayed again in the eyes, and then hit twice even more forcefully by a second officer. That beating was so severe that it caused an orbital fracture over his eye, again bringing back to me the image of the severe beating and resultant blinding by the police of the black man in the 1960s. Mr. Scruggs claims that every time he was struck, he was already down and handcuffed behind his back, and that he could not see the officers and what was happening to him. The police claimed that he assaulted them and that he resisted arrest. There was no other charge against him that justified the police entry into his room in the first place. And the state’s attorney agreed to drop the felony assault charge if he would agree to plead guilty to the misdemeanor resisting charge, which he agreed to do. If he had not done so, it would have been his word versus that of the police officers and he would have almost certainly been convicted, meaning loss of his liberty for years and loss of his professional license.
At this early stage, people in CUCPJ did two things. First, we helped him locate a skilled private attorney, Steve Beckett. He could only afford a private attorney because he had a sister with the financial means to help him. Without that he would surely be in prison today. Second, I called then-Champaign Mayor Don Gerard and asked him to meet with Mr. Scruggs and hear his story. The Mayor agreed to but said that he thought Councilman Tom Bruno, who was the deputy mayor, should also be there. I agreed, especially since Mr. Bruno had claimed that Champaign did not need a police civilian review board because people could just bring their complaints to the at-large council members, of which he was one.
Mr. Scruggs, CUCPJ member Barbara Kessel and I met with Gerard and Bruno. I demanded that the charges against Mr. Scruggs be dropped and that the police officers be criminally charged. Mr. Bruno, who is also an attorney, said that only the state’s attorney could bring such chargers against the police and that she would not do that because she would lose in court. They made no commitment on the part of the city to deal with the case. On October 27, 2015, I brought the case to the full city council and remarked how Mr. Bruno’s contention that the at-large council members could deal with complaints against the police was blowing smoke in our faces. At that time, I did not know the identity of the officers who had beaten Mr. Scruggs.
That lack of knowledge bothered me. Finally, in March of this year, 2016, I managed to obtain a complete copy of the case file, including the reports signed and filed by the officers. They were David McLearin, who first struck Mr. Scruggs in the face, and Matt Rush, who delivered the last two crushing blows to Scruggs’ head and face. Officer Rush was the officer whose violent behavior had resulted in complaints, lawsuits, and three large cash settlements from the city to his victims. The city has attempted to fire him twice and the state’s attorney has declared that he has been so untrustworthy in his reports that she will no longer use him as a witness.
I went before the city council once again and asked the city to do three things. First, to financially compensate Mr. Scruggs even though the time for him to sue the city had elapsed. Second, to investigate Officer McLearin’s role in this. And third, to ask the state’s attorney to expunge Mr. Scruggs’s resisting arrest plea, especially since the state’s attorney herself has questioned officer Rush’s truthfulness and refuses to accept his testimony in court. It should be noted that she rejected a recent request by Mr. Scruggs’s lawyer to do just that, but perhaps the city would carry more weight.
What Must Be Done
This case is one more example of why Champaign needs a civilian review board with subpoena power, why the binding arbitration system that makes it impossible to fire or severely discipline police officers who use excessive force must be changed, and why we need a state’s attorney who will either be willing to prosecute such officers or to call in a prosecutor from outside of the county to do so–as well as a prosecutor who is willing to acknowledge his or her mistakes and remedy the injustices caused by them.