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Experts on policing put Normal arrest video in context

Normal police officers took Taylor Brown into custody when she refused to give them her phone.
Town of Normal
Normal police officers took Taylor Brown into custody when she refused to give them her phone.

Video of an arrest at the Normal Police Department has prompted a social media furor, and the incident has resulted in a lawsuit against the department. What civilian eyes may see as an injustice, though, can look perfectly reasonable to those familiar with law enforcement.

Taylor Brown, 18, went to the police department in the wee hours of Feb. 9 to give an interview after a fire at her residence. She waited quite a while for a detective, and then wanted to go home about 3 a.m.

NPD officer from a video: “So, we're going to have to seize your phone. So, go ahead and hang up."
Brown: “Seize my phone, for what?"
Officer: "Go ahead and hang up."
Brown: "Why?"
Brown’s mother on the phone: (unintelligible.)
Brown to mom: “They want to seize my phone but I'm not under arrest."
Officer: “You're not under arrest but your phone is going to be seized.”
Brown: “No. No.”
Officer: “You're going to hang up the phone.”

Video: Watch body-worn camera footage from Normal Police, showing the Feb. 9 incident:

Till then, it was an orderly conversation. Brown was talking with her mom, who works for the Chicago Police Department. Brown kept asking why they wanted the phone. Officers kept saying the matter was under investigation. It went downhill.

Twelve minutes later, Brown was on the floor in handcuffs about to go to jail for alleged aggravated battery of an officer. One officer said on video Brown had kicked her when officers took Brown to the floor to get the phone.

Brown: "What is happening right now? I came down here because I thought I was doing an interview. Why am I in cuffs?”
Detective: “Well, I'd like to still interview you.”
Brown: “But why am I in cuffs? I'm scared. Why are you all touching me? Why is my stuff being seized? You told me I was coming here for an interview. I came here under false pretenses!”

Social media reaction to the video has been harsh and negative toward police. Brown has filed a federal lawsuit against several officers and the department alleging they violated her civil rights.

Illinois State University criminal justice sciences professor Michael Gizzi said police continually pressed Brown to give up the phone and told her she was not leaving with it. Gizzi called it "troubling."

"It was as if the officer was almost goading her. She was escalating conflict instead of de-escalating a situation, continually saying we're taking the phone, we're taking the phone, we're seizing the phone," said Gizzi.

The police perspective

Bill Lally, another criminal justice sciences professor at ISU, has a different take. Lally, also a police officer, acknowledged the repetition of the same set of words could be viewed as provocative. But he said the reason officers do that kind of thing likely came from a desire to stay on one line of dialogue. Lally said argument usually doesn't produce a resolution, so officers do not stray from the intent. In this case, they say they needed that phone.

A lot of online reaction to the video deals with the police lack of a search warrant. And Brown reacted on the video as if officers saying the fire is under investigation is not enough of an explanation.

“You cannot search me or take my items without giving me a reason," said Brown.

That is not accurate. Lally said officers don't need a warrant if they can argue that if they don't intervene immediately, the potential for evidence to be destroyed is high. Lally said officers could have said more about why they wanted the phone, but in an investigation it's not always a good idea to do that.

"The caveat is you've now let them know that you are concerned that they may, given enough time, destroy evidence that's in their phone. So, if your ultimate goal is to secure the phone without any attempt to delete information, then you are probably not going to tell them why you want the phone," said Lally.

Civilian viewers of the video may think that Brown got in trouble when she physically resisted the police seizure of the phone. Lally said she actually may have broken the law earlier when she refused to comply with a lawful order. That can be construed as "active resistance."

Another question by those who watched the video is why NPD needed four officers to deal with Brown. Lally said a person can be polite and conversational one moment and then try to knife an officer the next. He referenced police video of the stabbing of a Peoria officer in which the person was polite and calm in interactions with the officer right up until he pulled a knife. Lally said demeanor is not always a guide to how an interaction will go. And having more resources nearby can be safer not only for officers, but for the person being arrested.

Lally acknowledged if officers had clarified what they were after, or tried in a different way to talk Brown down as things escalated, they might have reduced tension. But that doesn't mean they did anything wrong at the time.

"I have to be very careful not to be an armchair quarterback. We don't have all the information about what the particulars of this investigation involved," said Lally.

And there is still an investigation, even though the police department was not initially successful in getting a search warrant to look at what was on the phone after they took it from Brown.

The police investigation motive can be in tension with the department's goal to build strong relationships in the community and public confidence. It worked that way for Taylor Brown that night.

"I came down here because I trusted you, and look at what you're doing," said Brown.

It's possible to do everything right in an investigation and still be wrong in the eye of the public.

Lally said police agencies realize there needs to be more community engagement and conversations with community members to gain compliance and trust instead of becoming what he called an "authoritarian organization" that does what it does because the means justifies the outcome of solving crime. He said that discussion is ongoing in many departments at many levels. Some departments have made the transition easier than others.

As body cameras become more prevalent among police agencies across the nation, there will be more examples of this tension playing out in public. Lally said he's not sure police should change tactics, but that the public should have more education about what police do and why they choose a particular course of action. He said that's not happening everywhere.

"Within the policing world it is the belief that the average citizen not only doesn't understand why the average officer does what they do but is almost looking for things to chastise a police department for. As a result of that you have police departments shutting down that conversation with the general public moreso than I think it would be advantageous for both sides to have," said Lally.

Police chief's view on trust

Steve Petrilli, the police chief in Normal, disagreed with Lally. Petrilli declined to talk about the specifics of the Taylor Brown case because of the investigation and the lawsuit. But Petrilli said he doesn't see law enforcement agencies turning inward the way Lally does.

"From everything we do with social media to the events we host and the events in which we have a police presence now, (they) are much more robust than I remember them being 10-20 years ago. We are doing a lot better job of engaging with the community and making sure they see us as a partner and not a detriment," said Petrilli.

Petrilli said even though body cameras can result in misunderstanding by the public, they do increase accountability and that bodes well for police and the public because it encourages conversation about officer decisions, in addition to efforts to be more accessible and active in the community.

"Exactly for those reasons, so we can create trust. We can create transparency. And knowing that if an incident does happen, and the police department maybe we didn't do something right, the expectation is we come out and own that. And I think that's the trust you try to build with the community so if an incident does come up, the trust and transparency is already there," said Petrilli.

Yet video also can erode trust even if officers are just doing their jobs. Gizzi, the ISU professor, said members of the public who already are leery of interactions with law enforcement take videos like this one as confirmation of their existing belief.

"To me, the true lesson is, and it's unfortunate one but, I would never, under any circumstances go to a police department for any interview at all without an attorney present. Because you have no idea what the reason is and what they are thinking as to why they want to question you," said Gizzi.

Gizzi said it's never going to look good when officers use force.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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