NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local News

When BPD Uses Tasers Or Pepper Spray, Blacks Are Often On The Receiving End

Bloomington Police Department entrance
Amy Niebur
An officer’s use of force must be in proportion to the resistance, as spelled out in the Bloomington Police Department's 12-page Response to Aggression policy.";

On a Thursday afternoon four years ago, the police watched as Donnelly Jackson left his mother’s house on Riley Drive in Bloomington after a short visit.

Moments later, Jackson and his acquaintance and driver, Ashley Burrell, got pulled over. Police told them they were in a “drug area.” Jackson told police he didn’t have any drugs, but grew more upset. He thought police were harassing them because they saw a white woman (Burrell) driving around with a Black man (Jackson).

Police ordered Jackson out of the car. He told officers to hold on; police claimed he was argumentative and belligerent. Officers removed him from the car, then pepper sprayed and Tasered him.

Jackson was arrested and charged with misdemeanor resisting a police officer. The charge was later dropped. Jackson and Burrell filed a federal lawsuit over the Jan. 7, 2016, incident. They alleged excessive use of force, false arrest, and unreasonable search of a vehicle, naming the City of Bloomington and four police officers as defendants.

It’s rare for Bloomington Police to use force like what happened to Jackson. It’s happened to 128 people in the past three years, out of more than 219,000 calls for service, according to BPD records.

But like with the Normal Police, people of color are more likely to be on the receiving end when it does happen in Bloomington, according to use-of-force data obtained by WGLT. Of the 128 people, 67 were Black. Six were Hispanic.

The intersection of police and race was thrust back into the national consciousness after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. That led to protests across the country seeking not only  reform, but to fundamentally change the size (and funding levels) of police departments. In response, Bloomington and Normal police departments have condemned Floyd’s killing, acknowledged they’re not perfect, but asked the public to refrain from painting all police with a broad brush.

Dan Donath in office
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
BPD Chief Dan Donath stressed that officers only use force in response to aggression, and only then at a level that matches the level of resistance.

BPD’s 128 incidents only document when officers used a Taser or OC (pepper) spray; struck someone with a hand, knee, or leg; or used a police dog. Lesser levels of control, such as less serious physical contact or verbal direction, are not included. There were no uses of deadly force during the three-year period. At least one officer was injured in 18 of the incidents, BPD said.

The use-of-force data show BPD officers use OC spray more often than Normal officers. Bloomington officers used OC spray 67 times between June 2017 and June 2020. Records show NPD officers didn’t use it at all in calendar years 2017, 2018, or 2019. (It’s possible that some of BPD’s OC spray incidents were an officer displaying their OC device, but not actually using it, said Assistant Chief Chad Wamsley, because of how BPD earlier tracked data from such incidents.)

BPD officers Tasered people 49 times; Normal Police used their Tasers six times. Bloomington officers used hand, knee, or leg strikes on 32 people over the three years; NPD used strikes three times, said Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner.

Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath said he didn’t know why there was such a difference. One factor could be BPD’s larger size. It has around 128 full-time sworn personnel, compared to around 84 at Normal Police. Bloomington Police also deals with more so-called index crimes each year—nearly 1,500, compared to about 1,100 for Normal Police.

Donath, who became chief in 2019, stressed that officers only use force in response to aggression—and only then at a level that matches the level of resistance. The officer’s use of force must be in proportion to the resistance, as spelled out in the department’s 12-page Response to Aggression policy. Officers were determined to have acted within that policy in all 123 separate incidents affecting the 128 different people, said Wamsley.

Black people comprise 52% of those 128 people, despite only making up about 8% of the population in McLean County. When asked about that disparity, Donath again noted that force is purely responsive.

“I would remind you that B (Response to Aggression) happens as a result of A (resisting arrest, running from officers, disobeying lawful orders, or attacking an officer),” Donath said via email. “The question is why is A happening so frequently? We, the police, don't control how often A occurs. That is up to the individual(s) we are interacting with.”

If someone feels that Bloomington Police have used excessive force, they have a few options. One is to file a citizen complaint. That has happened eight times in the past three years, according to records obtained by WGLT.

One person filed a complaint in February after a police lieutenant stopped him and his intoxicated friend near some bars on the north edge of downtown around 1:40 a.m. on a Sunday in September 2019. The person acknowledged impolitely telling the lieutenant to shut up. He claimed the lieutenant then pepper sprayed both him and his friend.

“I think (the lieutenant) got mad and took his aggression he had (my friend) out on me, and it was very excessive at that,” the complainant wrote.

The lieutenant told a much different story in his police report, obtained by WGLT. He said the two men were the aggressors, screamed obscentities at him, and that he felt physically threatened.

"I considered retreating but really had nowhere to go that the men could not have followed me," the lieutenant wrote. "Having no reasonable avenue to safely retreat, and while I was being threatened, I sensed I was moments away from being attacked and in imminent danger. At this point, when I had no other viable alternatives, I discharged my departmental issue pepper spray into the eyes of both men."

He said he wasn't able to activate his body-worn camera because the incident happened so quickly.

Bloomington Police investigated each of the eight complaints obtained by WGLT. In the first seven, the excessive-force complaint was either not sustained or the officer was exonerated. The eighth case—involving the lieutenant who allegedly pepper sprayed the two men—is pending, Wamsley said.

Those not satisfied with an outcome of their complaint can ask the Public Safety and Community Relations Board to review it. That’s only happened twice since the board formed in late 2017. The Town of Normal does not have a comparable board, but it has been discussed.

Lawsuits and settlements

Another option: You can sue, like Jackson and Burrell did, although that also is rare.

Jackson and Burrell filed their lawsuit in January 2017, about a year after they were stopped at Mecherle Drive and Robinhood Lane. The city and its officers admitted pepper spraying and Tasering Jackson. But they denied it was excessive.

Last May, more than four years after the traffic stop, the city agreed to settle the lawsuit for $55,000. The city admitted no fault. Jackson and Burrell are not allowed to talk about the case with the media, according to a copy of the settlement obtained by WGLT.

In a separate case, Gabriella Calhoun, a Black teenager, sued the city and six police officers over a June 2013 incident after a fight broke out at a Denny’s. Calhoun said a Bloomington officer grabbed her by the neck, slammed her to the ground, and damaged some of her teeth. She called it excessive force. Authorities accused her of assaulting and resisting an officer. Calhoun was acquitted of those charges, and she received a $120,000 settlement from the City of Bloomington, which admitted no wrongdoing.

Gabriella Calhoun
Credit Courtesy
Gabriella Calhoun sued the city and six police officers over a June 2013 incident after a fight broke out at a Denny’s. She received a $120,000 settlement from the City of Bloomington, which admitted no wrongdoing.

BPD leaders say every use-of-force incident is thoroughly reviewed up the command chain, even if no citizen complaint or lawsuit is filed.

After any such incident, an officer must file a report—nicknamed a “Blue Team,” for the software used to do it—that is reviewed by his or her shift sergeant, then the shift lieutenant, and potentially others, said Wamsley, who oversees BPD’s Office of Professional Standards. Included is any video footage available from body-worn cameras, dashboard cameras, and other sources, he said.

“There are many layers to it. There’s a lot of documentation that goes into when somebody has to use force,” said Tim Power, an administrative sergeant who helps lead training at BPD.

Donath noted that officers go through extensive de-escalation training throughout their careers. And the aftermath of any use-of-force incident is no secret to them, he said.

“They already know, ‘I have a body-worn camera.’ They know the other officers on scene have a body-worn camera. They already know that citizens can record, or businesses can record. They already know their supervisor is gonna watch it, his supervisor is gonna watch, and then another supervisor above that is gonna watch it. So it would pretty foolish to intentionally try to be excessive in your force,” Donath said.

“Could somebody just be having a bad day, and maybe they argued with their wife, or they had a prior call for service and it was really upsetting to them, and they just made a human error and did it? It’s possible,” he said. “But to intentionally do something like this is incredibly foolish because you’re gonna lose your job. You’ve got that potential to lose your job. And that’s not good for the family finances. So a lot of people recognize that, that it’s just not worth it.”

Editor's note: This story was updated July 8 from its original version, when new records became available through a Freedom of Information Act request.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Related Content