Report says cops made mistakes
A long-awaited report on a controversial Campustown arrest reveals just how challenging a police officer's job can be.
Drunken knuckleheads can be expected to misbehave.
The police officers who deal with them must be held to a higher standard.
That's the message behind the detailed report of a June 2011 incident in Campustown in which an intoxicated teen was stopped by Champaign Police for impeding traffic and then pepper-sprayed for resisting arrest.
The stop and the use of pepper spray was done according to city policy. But in the course of the stop, a city investigation finds, three to six officers made mistakes including:
— Courtesy and handcuffing errors.
— Using force to remove the intransigent suspect from the back seat of a squad car.
— Failing to properly investigate the arrestee's complaint about his treatment.
New Police Chief Anthony Cobb announced the officers who acted improperly will be disciplined and receive additional training so they can avoid the same mistakes in the future.
It remains to be seen, however, what difference this report will make in terms of community perception.
When this story, highlighted by leaked police video of the incident, broke last summer, the community divided into two camps — police critics who objected to how police treated Champaign teen Brandon Ward and those inclined to give police the benefit of the doubt in difficult individuals.
At one point, city officials wanted to hire an outside investigator to examine the incident. When city council members said no, City Manager Steve Carter directed police department command officers to look into it.
The report is thorough. It's an 11-page single-spaced recitation of the event, complete with an exacting time-line.
Readers ought to download a copy from the city's website and read it. What they will find is not a matter of black and white, as many hoped it would be, but shades of gray.
Suffice it to say, however, that if Ward had simply responded appropriately to Officer Patrick Simons' lawful order to stop and approach his squad car none of this would have happened.
Even if they do not want to do so, all citizens must comply with police commands.
The context the report provides also is illuminating. The late-night drunkfest that is Campustown figures prominently in this picture. So do repeated calls from citizens to police for assistance as do brawls and individual assaults by young hoodlums looking for easy targets to beat and rob.
Shortly before the Ward/Simons confrontation, police had responded to a fight at Fifth and Green streets that drew a big crowd.
Ward was in the crowd, which was dispersed to separate the warring parties.
Ward and some associates were repeatedly directed to move west, even as he continued to turn around and try to head the other direction. It was when Ward and his friends crossed the street against a traffic light, almost causing an accident, that Officer Simons stopped the group.
Ward responded with an almost nonstop barrage of obscenities and complaints. Many people looking at these facts will say: See, look what police officers have to deal with. They're right.
This is what police officers have to deal with, and it's their job to do so with a maximum of professionalism. Police officers are expected to be almost robotic in their response to provocation. But they're not robots, they're human.
The report admonishes one unidentified officer for his "indefensible" order to Ward — "Shut the (expletive deleted) up."
That's not courteous, the report states. And it's not. But, under the circumstances, it's not surprising and not all that indefensible.
The report also states that there was a better way to get Ward out of the back seat of the squad car than by using force. Persuasion always should be Option 1 because, when successful, it eliminates risk of injury to both officers and arrestee.
Finally, the report states that officers who handled Ward's brutality complaint conducted an inadequate investigation. If the standard for an acceptable report is the city's tome, that's certainly true.
But let's not kid ourselves about whether any city has the time, resources or will to conduct this kind of examination of every complaint. This case got special treatment because of the controversy.
That said, it's an excellent report that provides solid information and reasonable recommendations. But reports of this depth will always be the exception, not the rule.
So what is there to learn from it all?
Unfortunately, drunken knuckleheads are incapable of learning. That's why they're drunken knuckleheads. It's only a matter of time before police again confront another intoxicated, verbally abusive loudmouth who refuses in the most obnoxious way possible to comply with lawful orders.
That leaves it up to police to maintain order in the midst of disorder.
Fortunately, most police officers are dedicated professionals. It's our hope that they will accept the recommended training on how to improve their performance under stress in the spirit with which it is given — to do things better and avoid future controversies of this nature.