Today I read an article about a group of officers who are in hot water for falsely arresting a black college student. Here are the basics: The Eastern Illinois University swim team was traveling home on a team bus. They stopped at a rest area and the swimmers step off the bus to stretch their legs and use the facilities. They gathered in their team jackets to take a photo for social media. As the team began re-boarding, several police cars pulled into the lot. The only black player, Jaylan Butler, was stopped by a couple of officers, proned out on the ground, in the snow, and cuffed.
Jaylan was compliant, according to the bus driver and coaches. Nevertheless, the officers felt the need to point a gun at his head and tell him, they will “blow his f—king head off” if he moved. Again, this was corroborated by the witnesses, who reported they kept telling the officers the entire time it was a mistake and he’s a member of the team.
A few other agencies showed up. The bus driver and coach related that when they asked to speak to their supervisors, they were told various reasons why the supervisors could not be called. Jaylan was taken to a patrol car and told initially he “fit the description” of a suspect they were looking for. According to the bus driver, one officer said they thought he was taking the bus hostage. But, when it became clear the team is adamant, he is with them, they tell Butler the charge would then be resisting. In the end, they finally allowed Jaylan to retrieve his ID from the bus and decided they should release him.
Now, here’s the thing. I don’t know what offense these cops were responding to. Reports say possibly the state police BOLO’d about a B/M who shot at a vehicle in the area. Fine. Everyone free unit responds to assist, right? No problem. Then, at least one cop apparently saw the team at the rest stop and the lone B/M with them. We can argue at this point, maybe he’s worth a look. But, aren’t we supposed to look at the totality of everything?
The only description that fit was Jaylan’s race.
Don’t tell me that’s not true. Remember, the bus driver and coaches said the team was wearing their jerseys for the photo. So, here’s this black kid, wearing his team colors, nobody is acting hinky, nobody is freaked out. All accounts are that the driver and coaches immediately tried to intervene in the error. To no avail. Jaylan was still thrown down in the snow and threatened with having his head blown off.
My friends, we conduct investigative stops ten times a day. Race can be a legitimate factor, regardless of black or white. When it becomes a blinding factor, that’s when it becomes a problem. I’ve forgotten how many times I got out to stop an individual based on a very vague description. That’s perfectly good policing, but the rest of the context has to matter. Their “suspect”, supposedly running from the scene of a crime, would exhibit some outward signs of flight. Then there’s the coaches and bus driver saying the kid’s with them. He’s wearing a jersey with the same name as the team bus. Things don’t add up, here. Right?
So, almost immediately, professional law enforcement officers should have understood that their initial suspicion was dispelled. Jaylan is black, nothing else fits. End of story.
I’m troubled by the rest, though. Why are we so afraid to simply say we’re sorry? My bad. Why does it so often then shift to a resisting charge?
Try for a moment to imagine yourself being grabbed up, thrown on the ground and cuffed. You did nothing. You know you did nothing. Are you going to honestly tell me that your natural, human response would not be to squirm? Try to twist around to look at the officer and insist they are wrong? Not fight to harm, just get someone to listen because you know they have the wrong person. And then because you squirm, the cop points a gun at your forehead and says, “I’m gonna blow your head off if you move again.” Would that be okay if that was your college-age son?
In the end, the worst indignity occurs. No apology. No professional conversation to explain our actions. No name & badge number as requested by a citizen. BS reasons for not calling a supervisor. (As a former supervisor, that’s the best option to stop a complaint, trust me.) Then, reportedly, they don’t even document (until much later) the stop & detention, as required by policy when you are a professional. In 2020, I’m certain most agencies require documentation of a detention that rises to the level of threatening a suspect with a weapon.
Sadly, the failure to document the use of force will likely get these cops in more trouble than the violations they committed on this young man. It’s unconscionable. It’s unprofessional. It’s traumatizing to those who have this kind of thing happen to them. Unfortunately, it happens too often. And as a profession, we accept it as collateral damage. We leave young men like Jaylan scattered in our wake. We don’t even feel bad. We justify it by saying lame stuff like, “he could have been taking the bus hostage.” Seriously?
Our power allows us to shift to POP (for non-cops, that’s pissing off the police- yeah, that’s a thing), or resisting arrest, or some other justification for our actions. Anything not to say, I was wrong. Sorry.
We don’t talk about this much as cops, but we should. I wonder how many times a day a simple apology would be the right thing to do? Worse, I wonder how many times a day cops shift to another charge, refuse to take back a ticket, ignore a witness. All because of our ego. I wonder how much goodwill we could generate if we simply acknowledged this simple thing. We’re human. Our biases sometimes affect us. We can be wrong.
Most stories about this incident focus on racial bias, which is a subject for another blog, but I wanted to talk about more than that. I want you to think about how we treat people because public trust is what makes our job easier and safer. We can all agree that it is our job to question, to check out possible suspects, and sometimes it’s risky. It is also our job to be professionals. Listen to what people are saying. Think critically. Don’t let preconceived judgments blind us to commonsense. And for pete’s sake, if we act rashly, rush to judgment, and make a mistake…
Do not cling to your arrogance. Take a few minutes to talk to the person. Try to make it right. An explanation or apology costs you nothing. The goodwill you offer will be priceless. Do not walk away and leave another Jaylan in your wake.