Public Speaks Out About Use of Force by Urbana Police–Council Reviews Police Investigation

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On April 10, Urbana police responded to a call on East Colorado Avenue about an armed man and possible shot fired. Police arrived, frisked an uninvolved youth, and then focused on a man and woman they suspected were involved. After the police apprehended the male suspect, an officer initiated physical restraint with the young woman and a violent skirmish ensued, which was captured on video from above at a nearby apartment building. The video covers a span of six minutes, during which the woman is seen struggling as a police officer punches the resident in her head, strikes her in the ribs with his knee, sits on her with a rifle pushed into her back, handcuffs her and then hyperextends her arms. The person who videotaped the event, Gregory Hugger, posted it that day; the video has been viewed by over 34,000 people and has received 1,800 comments. Police allegedly visited Mr. Hugger’s home later and asked him to take his video down, but he refused. Weeks later, after the police released extensive, edited body camera footage, Linda Kwon released this close-up video, in which the woman can be heard saying “You just punched me! I hope you have body cameras on!” It also shows the woman being arrested by multiple officers who hobble her legs and place a spit hood over her head in the squad car. The resident was taken directly to the county jail and charged with four felony counts for resisting arrest and aggravated battery to police officers, and faces up to 12 years in prison.

The Week After

The City of Urbana prepared a press release, which stated that theofficer struck [the resident] one time in the head in an attempt to distract her in order for officers to gain control of her arms while they were trying to handcuff her.” It also stated that the couple had “gotten into an argument at Lewis’s apartment. This argument spilled out onto the front lawn at 1003 Colorado, where a handgun was fired.” The press release did not mention the extended struggle—an omission conspicuous to community members who had seen video of the incident on Facebook. In a statement to the City Council, Jacqueline Hannah condemned the City’s “shameful press release attempting to discredit the victim.”

Based on this press release, the News Gazette reported on the incident, but failed to mention that the officer hit the resident, as well as that the gunshot may have stemmed from a domestic violence incident. It said that “she allegedly got into a tussle with one officer that resulted in him getting a scratch across his face and a broken thumb.”

The resident involved was released a week after her arrest; funds for her bond were raised by family, friends, concerned community members and the Champaign County Bailout Coalition. She reported that during her incarceration her mandated COVID-19 quarantine had been broken and that, upon expressing concern, an altercation occurred in which she was tased twice by an officer, the first time without warning. A Sheriff’s Office incident report later confirmed these allegations, which appear to be contrary to department policies regarding taser use.

Mayor Diane Marlin published a video on April 17 responding to the influx of calls, complaints and concerns by citizens. She concurred that the initial bystander video is disturbing to watch, but applauded the police department for its professionalism. She promised an upcoming investigation and asked citizens to “withhold judgement” until they could learn more about the incident.

April 20: Dozens of Community Members Speak Out, Mayor Promises Report by Chief of Police

On Monday, April 20, twenty-seven local residents spoke up at a virtual City Council meeting. They asked for charges to be dropped against the resident and for the city to conduct an outside, independent investigation. Mayor Marlin announced an expedited investigation would occur and a report by the Chief of Police would be given at the upcoming council meeting on April 27.

Concerned citizens suggested that police failure to attempt to verbally de-escalate created an unnecessarily dangerous circumstance. Rohn Koester called for the charges to be dropped, pointing to the fact that “charges against [the woman] all stem from the assault that the police initiated.” Members of First Followers and Black Lives Matter CU also spoke. Carol Spindel read a statement on behalf of the local ACLU: “We urge the City of Urbana to investigate this matter professionally, transparently and fairly … Urbana officers are professionals who know how to use verbal techniques to de-escalate. Instead Urbana Officers … rushed towards [the citizen] to arrest her, triggering a physical altercation.”

Daniel Lachenmacher, a former member of the Navy, stated that he was “appalled by the way the police were engaging one-on-one while wearing assault weapons … This is unconscionable to me that an officer is sitting on the woman’s back with the muzzle of a rifle on her back.”

Emily Rodriquez, democratic nominee for Champaign County Board and chair of the Champaign Citizen Police Review Subcommittee for the past two years, shared after the meeting: “I’ve never seen anything like the behavior of these Urbana Police officers in my work with Champaign Police. I’ve read dozens of citizen complaints, I’ve seen hours of dash and body cam footage, and [spent] plenty of time discussing those complaints with CPD officers and administrators. I can’t imagine anyone would be proud of this work.”

After the meeting the woman facing charges wrote to supporters, “Tell everyone I watched the live stream and I’m more than thankful. More like speechless. I lost everything because I wanted to ask a question and got arrested. I’m not a bad person. I’m only 21 and human. I’m suffering from this. Fractured ribs, bruises, etc. It’s not fair.”

April 27: Chief of Police Releases Use of Force Review, Finds No Wrongdoing

At the April 27 City Council meeting, again dozens of citizens raised concerns about police use of force on April 10. The Chief of Police presented for over an hour on the circumstances of the case and the results of the internal Urbana Police Use of Force Review Board investigation that found no wrongdoing on the part of police. The public was told they would not have a chance to ask questions or comment after the presentation, although the City Council did have a chance to respond.

The presentation showed extensive body camera footage and audio from the 911 call while Chief Bryant Seraphin and his staff narrated the events. In the footage, the audience sees the man and the woman complying with orders, face-down on the pavement with arms out. The police order the man to stand and approach, then arrest him. The woman asks “Why is he being arrested?” When she is not responded to, she says “I am going home.” Officer Cervantes then leaves his position behind the squad car to approach her and says “You ain’t goin’ home! You fixin’ to walk way, you fixin’ to go to jail!” She approaches him with open hands, wearing pajama bottoms and flip flops. He says, “Come here. Turn around!” and immediately grabs her arms. Then she reels back and the officer tackles her to the ground. The Chief explains that the officer has to consider “Do I let a potentially armed subject walk down the street?” He describes the move of the officer as “soft hands to detain and frisk.” When the woman resists, another officer with a rifle rushes to the scene. The rifle can be seen swinging, and it appears the officer is reaching over the rifle in attempts to handcuff the subject. The Chief narrates, “he makes sure the rifle is in a safe position.” The audience can hear the women say “you stopped me for no reason, you are racist,” after which Officer Ruff knees her in the side. She shouts “You are nobody but with a badge. You are just like me.” An officer responds, “You need to act like a lady!” Later, after the subject is handcuffed and an officer is straddling her, the camera footage shows him pulling her arms to the sky. The Chief narrates “it is not hurting her.” Later he states unequivocally, “I am not aware of any injuries suffered by [this resident]  as a result of this encounter.” He however adds: “We have been late to the party in our profession in trauma-informed care.”

In their Use of Force Review report, the Police Department argued that no laws were broken on the part of police, and that they are legally entitled to use force “to accomplish a legitimate law-enforcement purpose.” The Use of Force Report argues that “Sergeant Cervantes did not know [the resident] was not armed when he employed a leg trip, nor did Officer Ruff when he used multiple techniques to effect the arrest.” The report states “Neither Officer Ruff, nor any other officer, repeatedly struck Lewis or applied pain compliance techniques without a purpose.” Since the officers acted with a purpose and perceived a threat, they deemed the use of force to be “reasonable.” Chief Seraphin explained that this event does not rise to the level of needing [external] State Police review.

The police also presented body camera footage of incriminating evidence in an interview with the resident the next morning in jail, where it appears the officer did not obtain permission to record, nor did the resident have legal counsel present. Don Owen, an Urbana resident watching the meeting, expressed deep concern after the meeting, and inquired whether “the City [sought] a waiver from Ms. Lewis before putting [on] this presentation,” since the presentation was “putting this woman on trial without her present to answer these accusations … If the suspect was a white woman with an attorney, City Government would never have been allowed to present prosecutorial evidence for over an hour at a city council meeting.”

Councilmember Eric Jakobbson shared, “The officer would have behaved differently if he knew she didn’t have a gun. That makes a tremendous difference to me.” Councilmember Shirese Hursey said, “What I would like to see going forward is public education regarding when one encounters the police … if you know the rules, then you know more how to handle yourself.”

The State’s Attorney Julia Reitz was present and stated that she did an extensive review of reports and video footage and that she “saw absolutely nothing in the reports, in the video, in anything that I reviewed that shows the officers did anything in violation of state law. I am perfectly fine with their actions in this case.”

April 28: New Close-Up Video Comes Forward

After viewing the police presentation, Linda Kwon emailed the mayor, city council, state’s Attorney and others a video she took close up of the incident. She details several “points of interest” in the video, which are also detailed in the comments section of her YouTube video. They include new information about the incident and police behavior not seen in the body camera footage, including a clearer account of communication between the detained resident and police:

@ 1:36 – Officer punches the woman in the face.

@ 1:40 Officers repeat “stop resisting arrest”—when she is already lying on the ground, face to the concrete with three officers on top of her, and clearly unable to fully resist. This looks to me like they are simply saying this for the record to make them look as if they are in the right in using excessive physical force with her.

@ 2:05 – Officer forcefully knee-kicks the woman in her side/stomach.

@ 2:30 – Woman says, “I want to ask a question.” Officer responds, “Well, you don’t approach us, we got guns and stuff.” Officer proceeds to sit on the woman from 2:30 of video to 4:08—after she had already been forcibly restrained and handcuffed.

@ 3:03 – “Get off of me bro. I got asthma.”

@ 3:08 – Officer moves the woman’s arms to the side and up and holds them there for a while, making it uncomfortable for her.

@ 3:53 – Officer says, “I’m trying to explain what’s going on”—which is not true at all. Not a single one of these officers had said a single thing by way of explanation to her the entire time. But what they had done is throw her to the ground, punch her in the face, kick her in the stomach, and sit on her after she was already cuffed for several minutes, even after she had told him that she has asthma (not that there was any good reason for him to be sitting on her in the first place).

Later in the video, @ 6:50-7:00 – Two young women were walking by on the sidewalk behind where I was standing. They had stopped to watch, and made a comment about the police being racist. One of the officers who had heard them said in response, “You want to see my gun?” (@ 6:55) And the girl responded “That’s none of my business.” However, this interchange is mostly obscured in the footage by wind noise.

May 3: News-Gazette Article

On Sunday, May 3, the News-Gazette published a second article, in which Police Chief Seraphin was quoted as saying, “I am satisfied that it was done within policy and within the bounds of the law,” and State’s Attorney Julia Rietz added “The officers acted appropriately under the law and Urbana Police Department policy … We are proceeding with the charges filed against Ms. Lewis.” Although reporter Mary Schenk conceded that public comment occurred, she did not quote any community members or their concerns. She falsely reported that the resident “apologized” for her behavior, which is not substantiated by the video footage.

May 4: City Council Meeting: Some Council Members Ask for Independent Investigation

On May 4, the public and council members responded to the internal police investigation. Physician’s Assistant River Andres argued Chief Seraphin’s claim that the resident suffered no injuries. “My major shock came, however, when I saw the cavalier way in which the officer hyperextended her shoulders for no apparent reason, while sitting on her back. She is prone with both arms handcuffed behind her back … Hyperextending a shoulder joint like that can cause a dislocation, a rotator cuff tear, a labral tear, or even injury to the brachial plexus, which is a bundle of vital nerves and blood vessels just under the armpit,” they wrote. Jeff Putney was upset that the police yelled at the resident to “act like a lady” after punching and hitting her. Ben Stone called the investigation a “depressing farce.” Allan Axelrod accused the city of simply “avoiding law suits.”

City Council members responded to residents. Shirese Hursey spoke of the need for dialogue, but expressed that “we would not be having these conversations if she had only complied.” Dennis Roberts spoke to the need to seriously consider the concerns, given the large number of people who had spoken up. Roberts called for an independent investigation, for the officers involved to be put on a three-week leave, and additional police training to prevent similar escalations from occurring in the future. Jared Miller voiced support, as he had on the 27th, for the concerns expressed by residents, and his deep disappointment in the work done by the police on the 10th. Maryalice Wu joined Roberts in calling for an independent investigation.

May 6: NAACP Speaks Out

Minnie Pearson, President of the local NAACP, published a guest commentary in the News-Gazette, presenting a statement by her organization: “The NAACP Champaign County Branch believes that the videos show the officer using excessive force.” She pointed out that the Urbana Police have yet to adopt the NAACP and Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police “10 Shared Principles,” which “give officers guidance on how to handle encounters that build trust and not additional reasons to distrust.”

Furthermore, Ms. Pearson did not mince words about a fundamental issue: “We also believe that had Ms. Lewis been a white female, Urbana police would not have body-slammed her to the ground in the manner in which they did to this young lady.” She urged the Urbana Police Department to investigate the issue thoroughly and adopt the 10 Shared Principles to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Conclusions

In less than two months, a sleepy University town has seemingly been awakened by the short but violent altercation on a sunny afternoon. According to many, the incident on Good Friday is only a graphically well-documented glimpse into an all-too-familiar pattern. As we have seen, initial reactions from the city pointed to well-worn justifications related to gun violence and the need for behavior change among young people. This time, these familiar lines appear to be falling on deaf ears and, increasingly, being drowned out by a growing call for deeper analysis and structural change. The coming months are expected to prove to be a transformative time for justice in Champaign County.

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