No matter how much training or technology they get, the cops just can’t stop killing Black people. On a Wednesday morning, November 16, 2016, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Champaign police received a call about a “disorderly” subject, Richard “Richie” Turner, a homeless man well known by many students and community members in Campustown.
Richie was chased by police into the back alley of Penn Station. There he was tackled and pinned down by four officers from the Champaign Police Department (University of Illinois Police were not involved in the incident): Officer Christopher Young, Officer Andrew Wilson, Officer Michael Talbott, and Sergeant Thomas Frost. Police pushed Richie’s face into the concrete, cuffed him by his wrists and ankles, what is known as being “hog-tied.” After a short struggle, Richie stopped breathing and laid motionless. Richie’s death was called an accident, but his sister is not willing to accept this explanation. “To me, it was not an accident,” Chandra Turner told me.
What follows is a look into Richie’s death from an investigation conducted by the Illinois State Police obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a report released by the office of Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup, and correspondence with Richie’s sister, Chandra Turner, who is determined to find out what happened to her brother.
“Out of Sorts”
Police were responding to a call made by a woman who later told police she was “familiar” with Richie and saw him “almost every day.” On this morning, Richie was in front of the Firehaus bar on Sixth Street with a bottle of wine at 8:30 a.m.. She called police to check on him because he seemed “out of sorts.”
When Officer Christopher Young arrived, Richie was sitting on the ground in front of the Home Town Pantry convenience store at Sixth and Green. As soon as he saw the police, Richie “abruptly moved around trying to stand up.” He is described by police as “yelling” and “largely unintelligible.” After Young approached him, Richie grabbed a construction sign and threw it on the ground. Young “yelled” at him to put it back and told Richie to “leave the area.”
Richie crossed the intersection at Sixth and Green and headed north. Police then “followed” Richie yelling at him to stop. Richie is described in police reports as “running.” But according to Richie’s sister, Chandra Turner, he had a bad leg from falling one winter and could not have run too fast.
Officer Andrew Wilson called an ambulance, seeking an “involuntary submittal for evaluation.” This story is partly about the failure of police to adequately address people with mental illness, or if they should be called upon at all to deal with people often afflicted by paranoia.
In the alley behind the Penn Station restaurant, police stopped Richie. Officer Wilson was the first to put his hands on Richie, grabbing his right arm. Wilson was aware of Richie’s history of “mental illness” from “several interactions” with him in the past.
Sgt. Thomas Frost wrote in his report that Richie appeared “very manic and was thrusting his arms up and down, back and forth. Additionally, he when he moved his head it moved rapidly from side-to-side.” His said this behavior was a “mirror image” from April 2016 when police took him to Carle hospital for a mental health evaluation.
At this point, as Officer Young describes it, they all three “fell to the ground.” Police had Richie face down on the concrete. Officer Wilson turned Richie’s right arm around his back. Officer Young was on top of him, with his right knee on Richie’s left shoulder. Young wrote in his report, “I used my right hand to stop Richie’s head from lifting/turning.” While pushing his face into the concrete, Officer Young was “constantly telling Richard to relax.”
Officer Michael Talbott then took hold of Richie’s legs, while Officer Thomas Frost put a “hobble” around his ankles. A police hobble can be tied around the feet, and then connected by a rope to handcuffs. This restraining of an individual by hands and feet is known as “hog tying.” This practice has contributed to other deaths in police custody in Los Angeles and Memphis.
Although Sgt. Frost had a Taser with him, he did not use it. Whether the outcome would have been different is questionable, as Tasers have been linked to deaths in custody.
“At that time,” Officer Young reported, “we noticed Richard was no longer resisting or moving.” When police rolled Richie over on his back, “he did not seem to be breathing.” Richie was pronounced dead shortly after being transported to Carle hospital.
Deputy Coroner Sara Rand concluded that Richie’s death was “accidental,” but a contributing factor was “physical and mental stress during restraint by law enforcement.”
Police interviewed witnesses who give another perspective. Two homeless men were nearby, and although they did not see police kill Richie, they witnessed events before and after. One man followed police in their pursuit of Richie and said they “tackled” him. A second man said he saw police put Richie into an ambulance and heard one of the officers say, “who had they knee on his neck?”
A University of Illinois student was also interviewed. In his opinion, police were “a little aggressive” in the way “one officer kneeled on him.”
None of the four Champaign officers had body cameras.
“Something ain’t right”
Richie’s sister Chandra reached out to me after receiving the coroner’s report. She was surprised at the test results. Richie was found to have a minimal blood alcohol content (0.004%), he was clearly not drunk. There were also no drugs in his system, only coffee and tobacco.
“He would not be dead if it wasn’t for [the police]” Chandra explained to me. She pointed out that police had Richie’s hand behind his back, and his feet tied. “They didn’t try to save him,” she said. “Something ain’t right.”
I spoke with Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb about the incident. He told me there was an internal investigation still underway and he could not comment. Asked when his investigation would be done, he could not provide a timeline.
Richie’s death raises the question of whether police should be used to respond to individuals with mental illness. As I have reported, during the 1990s, Champaign County operated an award-winning Crisis Team, made up of trained professionals who answered calls about people who were suicidal or mentally ill, whether in the local jail, or on the street. Such mental health services were eliminated and privatized by Sheriff Dan Walsh soon after he came into office. Since then, CU has seen a rise of deaths in police custody. In 2015-2016, there were three deaths in the county jail.
In recent years, out of the debate over a new jail, local mental health services providers, county officials, and local police briefly attempted to create a Detox Center for people in need of drug addiction and mental health services, but the idea has been abandoned by several bureaucratic committees.
Sunny Ture, an organizer with Black United Front UIUC, responded, “The murder of Richard Turner is a tragedy for his family and another reminder of the Champaign Police Department’s destructive relationship with the Black community. The many mistakes their officers made have been obscured and ignored because Richard was Black, poor, and homeless. His life did not matter to Sheriff Dan Walsh, who has a history of cutting mental health services in favor of more tools of criminalization. Richard Turner’s murderers should be held accountable for their crimes, and the Champaign Police Department should immediately end the practice of commanding armed officers to interact with people that have mental illness.”