Three Cops Versus an Entire Community

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Probable cause, probable cause
You don’t have to break no laws
They say probable cause
—Brand Nubian, hip hop group
NEARLY A YEAR AGO, on March 30, 2007,
when a 17 year-old black youth was
stopped in Douglass Park, pepper
sprayed, and sent to the hospital by Champaign police, it
put the issue of police brutality in the spotlight locally.
The incident occurred down the street from the home of
Gina Jackson, the only African American on City Council
member and representative from the Douglass Park
district, who was holding a Democratic Party social that
fateful Friday night. The incident was quickly swept
under the rug by the local media, assisted by the comments
of Jackson herself who at the City Council meeting
following the incident stated, “racial profiling exists. It
always has and it always will.”
The trial of Brian Chesley, charged with two misdemeanors
for resisting and obstructing a peace officer, began
on March 25, 2008 and ended four days later with a guilty
verdict on both counts. A rotating group of 40-50 community
members sat through portions of the trial in support of
Chesley. Attorneys Bob Kirchner and Ruth Wyman took the
case pro bono. They called 14 witnesses, most of them
youth from ages 9 to 18, and all of them African American.
The trial depended on who a jury would believe—three
Champaign police officers or an entire community.
The trial started with the selection of an all-white jury. Of
46 potential jurors, only one was African American. First
to testify for the prosecution was Andre Davis, the Champaign
police officer who first attempted to stop Chesley.
He was questioned by Assistant State’s Attorney Rob
Scales, representing the office of Julia Rietz, up for re-election
in November 2008. Officer Davis, an African American
officer who has been with the Champaign Police
department for three years, explained his reasoning for
stopping Chesley. He said he parked in the circle drive in
front of the Douglass Park library and gymnasium at
approximately 8:30 p.m. to sort out some paperwork.
Davis testified that he saw no one else, just two subjects
walking through the park (the second individual he never
identified). The park closed at dusk and he said he could
have arrested them for trespassing. He also said he was not
aware of any activities taking place at the gym that night.
Davis exited the vehicle, shined a flashlight on the two,
and asked them to stop. According to Davis, Chesley said,
“Fuck y’all,” and accelerated his pace. Davis radioed for back
up. After Chesley had crossed the street and was on the sidewalk,
officers Justus Clinton and Shannon Bridges pulled up
and confronted him. Davis saw the two officers struggling
with Chesley and joined them in handcuffing him.
Under cross-examination by Bob Kirchner, officer
Davis admitted that he had been instructed during police
briefing to stop individuals, obtain their information,
check for warrants, and enter the incident into a database.
Davis said this was a “customary practice,” he had the
right to stop “anyone” in the North district, and this was
not based on color or nationality. Kirchner questioned
Davis why he did not write anything about trespassing in
his police report. Davis admitted that he never told Chesley
he was trespassing and that he stopped Chesley
because, “I wanted to know why he was in the park.”
Witnesses would later testify that the gym was open
until 11 p.m. and that there were people coming and going
from playing basketball. They described approximately 50-
60 youth inside the gym. It was one of the first warm nights
of spring and there were 15-20 kids in the park that night
in front of the library, on benches, and on the outdoor basketball
court. Kirchner pressed Davis as to why he selectively
stopped Chesley. The question went unanswered.
How were youth expected to leave the gymnasium if all of
the surrounding park area was closed at dusk?
Officers Shannon Bridges and Justus Clinton, both
white, followed Davis on the stand. They detailed how
they drove up 5th Street in a squad car and turned onto
Tremont, where they saw Chesley on the sidewalk, across
the street from the park. Bridges got out of the car and
asked Chesley to stop. Chesley continued walking. Bridges
then grabbed Chesley’s right arm and put it behind his
back in a move called a “chicken wing.” According to her,
Chesley “squared up” and took a defensive stance. Speaking
in euphemisms, she said that she “secured” Chesley on
a fence, but he fought back. By that time, officer Clinton
had grabbed his left arm. Next, Bridges described officer
Clinton putting Chesley in a “bear hug” and “assisting”
him to the ground—the middle of Tremont street approximately
10 feet away. Clinton then pepper sprayed him
once with a one-second burst of pepper spray.
The African American youth who were in the park that
night gave a different account of what happened. Due to
their fear of retaliation from the police, we have chosen
not to publish their full names. As attorney Ruth Wyman
stated in her opening argument, this trial pitted those who
were professional witnesses against ordinary people who
were “not polished, because they are not.”
Two other youth, ages 8 and 15 at the time, both testified
on the stand that they were playing basketball with Chesley at
the Douglass Park gymnasium as part of a Mission 180 program
that was held every Friday night until 11 p.m. The three
of them were leaving the gym to go to the “Arab,” a convenience
store at 4th and Tremont, and then take the 8 year-old
home. They said police stopped Chesley, pushed him into a
fence, picked him up, and slammed him face first onto the
concrete in the street. Chesley was not fighting back. They
didn’t know what he was being arrested for.
While officer Bridges described Chesley as being
“assisted” to the ground, others who testified said that
police: “jumped him,” “tackled him down,” “piled up on
him,” “stacked on top of him,” “were brutally beating
him,” “whooping him,” and “manhandling him.” Once
witness said Chesley was sprayed three times with pepper
spray. All heard Chesley screaming out repeatedly that he
couldn’t breath, but said police would not get off of him.
The 8 year-old said that his friend Brian, “looked dead.”
Chesley decided to take the stand and testified that he
heard Davis instruct him to stop, but told the officer, “I
didn’t do nothing wrong.” He described getting his hoodie
stuck on the fence when he was thrown against it. In
reaching to get his hood unstuck, it appears police
thought he was fighting back. Chesley described being
“lifted up” and slammed to the ground with his chest and
face hitting the pavement. He said his arm was pinned
underneath him and he couldn’t move it because police
had a knee in his back. He said he was never told that he
was under arrest or what he was being arrested for.
Throughout the trial, Judge Kennedy overruled many
of the defense’s objections, but the judge’s biases were
most apparent in his severe limiting of the instructions
given to the jury. Claims of racial profiling, selective
enforcement of law, insufficient evidence for a Terry stop,
all these were denied. Kirchner claimed he was left with
virtually no defense, that he must be able to argue that the
stop was not an authorized act.
Barred from considering the basis of the stop, the
jury returned after three hours of deliberation with a
guilty verdict.
Those who worry about the impending police state in
the wake of the Patriot Act and “total information awareness,”
should be more concerned about its arrival in black
neighborhoods. Already given orders to stop, identify, and
enter into a database anybody on the street, police now
have a carte blanche to interrogate us all.
Kirchner and Wyman plan to file a motion for a new
trial which will be heard on May 9, 2008 at 9:00 a.m. in
Courtroom E.

About Brian Dolinar

Brian Dolinar has been a community journalist since 2004.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.