This article originally appeared at WILL/Illinois Public Media on July 5, 2023. Reprinted with permission. It has been edited for space and style. See the full version here.
“I had a big goose egg on my forehead,” Tianna Morrow recalled, after being pushed down by Urbana police officer John Franquemont. “I busted my head on the cart where the kids put their shoes.”
Morrow and her boyfriend, Lamar DeShawn Phillips, who are both Black residents of Urbana, were sleeping when they were woken up in the middle of the night by police in January, 2018. They had crashed on the couch at an apartment rented out by Phillips’s brother. Morrow says they had his permission to be there, but police were called by the brother’s girlfriend, who was also residing in the apartment.
After he refused to leave, Officers Franquemont and Adam Marcotte, both white, moved in to arrest Phillips, and a struggle ensued. Franquemont put Phillips in a headlock, but he slipped out. Phillips attempted to escape through the front door, but Franquemont grabbed him and punched him several times in the face, according to reports by both Franquemont and Phillips.
Morrow tried to plead with the officers, but Franquemont shoved her and she fell back, hitting her head on the shelf. When she got up, Marcotte pushed her and she hit her head a second time, she said in an interview with the Invisible Institute.
Phillips and Morrow were both arrested and taken to jail. They were charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstruction of justice.
Phillips pleaded guilty in April, 2018, before unsuccessfully attempting to change his plea. Morrow’s case was delayed for almost two years, and dismissed in December, 2019. Still upset by what happened, Morrow filed a formal complaint with the police department on March 9, 2020. “They shoved me twice,” Morrow wrote in her complaint, “and I flung back and hit my head.”
Franquemont’s Use of Force Continues: “I Had a Knot on My Head”
In April, 2020—a month after Morrow filed her complaint—Franquemont arrested another Black woman, named Laquesha Thadison. Thadison—who, according to police reports, had not listened to officers’ orders to stay away from her cousin, who they were arresting—was “grabbed” by three officers, including Franquemont, she said in an interview with the Invisible Institute.
“He said that I was resisting him, but I wasn’t,” she said. “As soon as he grabbed me, he just pulled my arm behind my back, and he was twisting it real hard. I’m like, ‘Ouch, you’re hurting me. Why are you grabbing at me like that?’ And then he swung me in the car . . . and then he punched me in my face like, two times. My face was swollen on my county picture. I had a knot on my head.”
According to Franquemont’s own report, he “pushed Laquesha’s head onto the hood of the car and held her down until she stopped thrashing.” His bodycam was apparently knocked off in the process, so what transpired was not captured on camera. However, police were later able to watch dashcam video from the squad car.
A complaint was filed with Urbana police by Thadison the day after the incident. She described being “physically battered” by Franquemont. She wrote, “I did not resist. I gave him no reason to be physical.”
George Floyd Changes Everything
Urbana’s Civilian Police Review Board (CPRB) heard neither Tianna Morrow’s nor Laquesha Thadison’s complaint.
Morrow waited until after her criminal case had been thrown out to file her complaint; the Urbana Police Department (UPD) summarily dismissed it without investigation in March, 2020, weeks after it was submitted, because it had not been filed within 45 business days of the date of the incident she was complaining about.
Thadison’s complaint was dismissed a month later for a similar reason: because a lawyer had contacted the city claiming to represent her, but never even told the city what the case was. Still, the UPD wrote in its letter closing the complaint, “we assume it is in connection with the criminal matter or to advise that you are considering filing or will be filing a civil action against the City.”
No civil lawsuit was ever filed, and the attorney, Jamie Propps, did not respond to a request for comment.
Because neither Morrow nor Thadison took the extra step of appealing their summary denials to the CPRB, “both of those things the board wouldn’t have seen,” said Mikhail Lyubansky, who chaired the board at the time, in an interview with the Invisible Institute.
As these cases were being dismissed, there was community outrage over the violent arrest of Aleyah Lewis, an unarmed Black woman, by Urbana police. Two months later, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. Over that summer, protests grew in Champaign-Urbana and nationwide over the killings and mistreatment of Black residents by white police, and many called to “defund the police.” Community members were showing up every week to speak at the meetings of the Urbana City Council, which was still convening via Zoom in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Community members directed their attention to the CPRB and called for reforms.
“George Floyd changed everything,” Lyubansky said. Floyd’s death “shined a spotlight on police departments everywhere.” Lyubansky pledged to reform the CPRB after hearing community input.
Reporters with the Invisible Institute spent several weeks seeking comment from Urbana city officials, culminating in a detailed list of questions sent to City Administrator Carol Mitten over a week before publication—which she never acknowledged.
UPD Begins Moving to Investigate Franquemont
Even though her official complaint to the UPD was thrown out, because Thadison alleged at the scene of her arrest that Franquemont had punched her in the face, UPD Sgt. Jared Hurley conducted a supervisory investigation of her claims.
Based on Hurley’s initial findings, UPD Deputy Chief Richard Surles then recommended that the case be reviewed by the UPD’s Use of Force Committee, an internal UPD board that met on June 17, 2020 to consider whether Franquemont abided by the department’s use-of-force policy. It ultimately agreed with Hurley’s conclusion that “pushing Thadison face-first into the backseat of the squad car served no legitimate purpose,” but did not find that he punched her.
Franquemont was immediately put on paid administrative leave.
Urbana police launched a formal investigation into possible excessive use of force, led by Lt. David Smysor. Investigators began a review of his interactions with the public over the previous 12 months. This included 198 videos, 97 citizen contacts, 14 traffic stops, and 87 use-of-force/arrest incidents. They flagged a handful of incidents, including the Comstock and Thadison cases, which, Smysor wrote, “fit the pattern of problematic conduct that has been described.”
Lt. Smysor began to interview several Urbana police officers about the five incidents, compiled his findings, and eventually confronted Franquemont in an interview.
The interrogation of Officer Franquemont took place on February 26, 2021. Lt. Smysor led much of the questioning throughout the two-hour long interview. “Do you agree uncooperative subjects do not deserve corporal punishment for their obstruction?,” Smysor finally charged. At this point, Scott, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) attorney, interrupted and told Franquemont to say no. Smysor asked, “You don’t feel like you ever crossed the line?” to which Franquemont replied, “No.”
Franquemont’s employment with the City of Urbana was terminated on March 11, 2022.
Franquemont has appealed his termination to a third-party arbitrator, a process available to him through the city’s FOP union contract.
“I’m glad he was fired,” Thadison said. “He’s been abusing his authority . . . he was not in control of his emotions. He was more intimidating than reassuring that he’s here to help you.”
Additional reporting by Sam Stecklow and Andrew Fan of the Invisible Institute. This story is part of a partnership, focusing on police misconduct in Champaign County, between the Champaign-Urbana Civic Police Data Project of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit public accountability journalism organization, and Illinois Public Media. This investigation was supported by funding from the Data-Driven Reporting Project, which is funded by the Google News Initiative in partnership with Northwestern University|Medill School of Journalism.
Brian Dolinar has reported on criminal justice issues in Champaign-Urbana for almost 20 years.
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