After months of stalling, the city of Champaign has finally released documents about the incident on June 5, 2011 when a 20 year-old African American man, Brandon Ward, was choked in the back of a squad car by white officer Patrick Simons. While five officers have been disciplined, not one has been suspended for a single day. Nevertheless, it is a sign of the shake-up taking place in the Champaign Police Department.
The Ward case created a storm of controversy in November 2011 when Champaign city officials announced that they had seen video of a black youth being abused by police. It occurred around 2:30 a.m. at 4th and Green streets after the bars had closed. Video of the incident was anonymously leaked at the Independent Media Center website, ucimc.org, and has received nearly 15,000 hits to date.
On December 19, State’s Attorney Julia Rietz announced that she would press no criminal charges against any of the police involved in the Ward case. Typically, when criminal actions are resolved, police reports are made available to the press and the public.
After some time had passed, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the police reports in the Ward case, but was told on April 4, “This is still under investigation and cannot be released.”
On May 2, 2012, the city released a 12-page conclusion to their investigation. New Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb held a press conference where he said that “three to six” officers may be disciplined, although he did not provide specifics and the local media did not ask for any.
Creative Police Reporting
On June 5, a year after the incident, the city council approved a $45,000 settlement with the Ward family. I filed another FOIA request and finally, on June 7, 2012, I received the police reports written by officers Patrick Simons and Brian Ahsell. The documents are an example of creative police reporting, an embellishment of the facts to justify the excessive use of force.
In his report, Simons draws from Ward’s background to support the charge that he was resisting arrest. “I felt Brandon shift his hand in one quick motion and slip almost completely free of my grasp,” he writes. “I would later learn [that] Brandon was a star high school wrestler and this is a skill commonly mastered by people who wrestle [for] any period of time. I sprayed Brandon in the face with my pepper spray and forced him onto the hood of the car.”
Ward was placed into handcuffs with the help of fellow officer Brian Ahsell, who claims that his hand was broken while arresting Ward. The specifics of this alleged broken hand, such as whether it was the right hand or left hand, were whited out from the documents provided to me by the city, which claimed they were protecting the privacy of the officer.
An unedited copy of Simons’s report obtained from the Ward family states, “Officer [Ahsell] was placed into a cast and is currently unable to work at the time of this report.” Through a follow up FOIA request, I was able to get the time sheet for Ahsell which shows that he worked on “duty injury” on June 6-7 and June 11-12. I also obtained from the city an insurance claim written in Ahsell’s handwriting that reads “While placing suspect into handcuffs, suspect pushed towards me.”
When watching the video, it is clear that although Ward is verbally disputing his arrest, there is no moment when he performs a wrestling move and breaks free from officer Simons. Viewers can see clearly that Ahsell has enough mobility to handcuff Ward, even push Ward’s face into the hood of the squad car with his left hand. Ahsell shows no feeling of pain. This leads one to speculate, did Ahsell ever break his hand? This is not an insignificant detail, as the broken hand was the reason for the felony resisting arrest charge filed by Champaign police.
After getting Ward into the back of the squad car, Simons drove to the parking lot of the nearby post office, stopped, and opened the rear passenger side door. Simons claims he was trying to help Ward get the pepper spray out of his eyes. “I had Officer Prosser stage at the other door so he could extract Brandon when I distracted him. I moved into the rear seat and pushed Brandon’s chest while Officer Prosser simultaneously opened the door and pulled him out. Brandon began screaming that I choked him due to incidental contact I made with his neck. I located Brandon’s driver’s license in his rear pocket and administered a sudecon wipe to his face.”
Anyone watching the video will question whether Simons was really concerned with the well-being of Ward. We look on as Simons lunges into the backseat of the squad car and reaches for Ward’s neck. We hear Ward cry out, “He’s choking me.”
Describing the contact as “incidental” is obviously intended to minimize the abuse. The officer is providing more than “just the facts.”
Letters of Reprimand
After filing another FOIA request, I was able to obtain five disciplinary letters that were issued to the officers involved in the incident, as well as their superiors. Four of the five were issued May 1, the day before chief Cobb’s press conference.
Both Patrick Simons and Brian Ahsell were given a “letter of reprimand” for the June 5 incident. Simons was cited for violating police policy against excessive use of force: “The use of physical force to accomplish a police task is restricted by law and departmental directive to that force which is reasonable and necessary under the circumstances.” Ahsell was cited for violating policy that states, “Employees shall be courteous in their conduct and communication to citizens… In the performance of their duties, employees shall not use harsh, rude, overbearing, abusive, violent, profane or indecent language or conduct.”
Additionally, their supervisors were reprimanded. The immediate supervisor Sergeant Matt Crane was cited for not fully investigating the allegation of misconduct. A letter to Lieutenant Brad Yonkha says that “Conflicting evidence or information” was not taken into consideration. Additionally, Deputy Chief Holly Nearing was given a letter of reprimand on May 22, 2012 for her actions between June and September 2011 in which she failed in her responsibilities to “review of all allegations of misconduct by members of the department.”
The disciplinary letters will be removed from personnel files of the officers after two years if there are no further infractions, as agreed to in the police union contract.
That officers were disciplined at all is a sign that new police chief Cobb is more willing to hold individuals accountable than his predecessor R.T. Finney, who was forced into early retirement after this and other scandals had wracked his department. Yet, in the end, these letters amount to mere warnings to officers responsible for the beating and choking of a citizen while in custody, and their supervisors who signed off on the mistreatment.