You might think Gabriella Calhoun would be on the front lines leading protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Calhoun, who is black, had a well publicized run-in with police after a fight broke out at a Denny’s restaurant in Bloomington in June 2013, when she was 17 years old. Calhoun said a Bloomington Police officer grabbed her by the neck, slammed her to the ground, and damaged some of her teeth. Authorities accused her of assaulting and resisting a police officer.
Calhoun was acquitted of those charges, and she received a $120,000 settlement from the City of Bloomington, which admitted no wrongdoing.
Calhoun, now 25, is a college graduate, working full time as a manager, with a 4-year-old daughter. In an interview with WGLT, Calhoun suggested it’s just too emotional for her to attend recent demonstrations in person. She recently passed by a demonstration and saw white passers-by raise their fist in solidarity—and she started crying.
“As much as I wanted to go out there and protest and just hold up a sign that says ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I really couldn’t do it,” said Calhoun, who moved back to Illinois last year after living in Texas. “That’s what it does to me. I know that it happened to me, and it’s so real, and it can happen to anyone.”
Ever since Floyd’s death, Bloomington and Normal police leaders have stressed repeatedly that their departments are run differently than the one in Minneapolis, or any other city where a black person has been killed in police custody. While acknowledging no department is perfect, they have cautioned against painting police with a broad brush, and they’ve cited changes that already have happened here, such as banning chokeholds and creating a police advisory board.
Still, episodes like what happened to Calhoun do occur. And while it’s not commonplace, some alleged misconduct has had deadly consequences. At times, it has cost taxpayers money.
Other side effects are more personal. Calhoun said the 2013 incident changed the way she behaves around police. She said she avoids big parties to lower the odds she will encounter police. If she does get pulled over, she said she is assertive about her rights, but also knows to stay calm—and who ultimately has the upper hand.
“The situation I was in did traumatize me pretty good,” she said.
In 2015, Calhoun filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Bloomington and six police officers over the incident, alleging excessive use of force and that other officers failed to intervene to stop it. In 2016 the Bloomington City Council agreed to pay $120,000 plus attorney’s fees and costs to settle the case while admitting no wrongdoing.
“The anticipated defense costs were expected to be significantly higher than the settlement amount. The decision to settle was an economic decision made by the city’s insurer,” the city’s attorney told council members in 2016.
Lawsuits and settlements
There have been other settlements.
Donnelly Jackson and Ashley Burrell sued the city and four officers after being pulled over in 2016 near Robinhood Lane and Fairway Drive in Bloomington. Officers allegedly told them they were in a “drug area,” and Jackson said he felt they were harassing them only because they saw a white woman (Burrell) driving around with a black man (Jackson), according to the lawsuit.
Officers forcibly removed Jackson from the vehicle, slammed him to the ground, pepper-sprayed him, and Tasered him, the lawsuit claimed. Jackson was charged with resisting police (a misdemeanor); prosecutors later dropped the case.
Last year the city agreed to settle their lawsuit for $55,000.
“The city is not admitting or acknowledging or stating any level of fault,” Bloomington Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said at the time. “This is purely an economic decision.”
In a separate case, Bloomington agreed last month to pay $55,000 to Lisa Gilmore after she was wrongly arrested—and spent 37 hours in jail—in 2019 in a fraudulent check-cashing case.
Normal Police recently saw one of its own officers, Brian Williams, arrested on theft and misconduct charges. He allegedly stole $12,000 in cash from a home after responding there for a man’s medical emergency. The man died, and his widow filed a lawsuit against Williams, the Town of Normal, and other officers alleging they tried to pressure her into dropping an outside investigation of her claims.
Williams resigned from NPD in February. He has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges. The town is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed.
There also have been officer-involved shootings that led to settlements, which are usually paid out by a local government’s insurer.
A Normal Police officer shot and killed Illinois State University student Nathan Ruch, who was white, following a chase in March 2002. The officer, who was reprimanded for not terminating his pursuit of Ruch, said he opened fire after Ruch drove a pickup truck toward him. The Town of Normal said the officer was justified.
Ruch’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, which was settled four years later for $750,000.
In 2000, part-time Hudson police officer Jeffrey Gabor was charged with murder after shooting Shannon Smith on Interstate 55 near Towanda. Smith, who was white and mentally disabled, had led police on a chase after stealing a tank of gas. Gabor opened fire after Smith rammed two police vehicles.
Gabor was acquitted of murder charges. Smith’s family sued the officers involved and the cities of Hudson, Lexington, and Chenoa. They all agreed to settle the lawsuit in 2002 for $675,000.
In other instances, police have been cleared of wrongdoing in fatal shootings. That happened after the January 2009 fatal police shooting of accused serial bank robber Robert Sylvester on Interstate 55 in west Normal—famously captured by Pantagraph photographer David Proeber. Five months later, McLean County’s state’s attorney announced police were justified in shooting Sylvester, who was carrying a BB gun that had been modified to resemble a real gun.
A settlement does not necessarily prove police wrongdoing. Conversely, not every allegation of police wrongdoing leads to a lawsuit.
Some allegations of wrongdoing begin as a citizen complaint. There were five complaints filed against Bloomington and Normal police officers in 2019 related to alleged excessive use of force. Internal investigations determined officers acted appropriately in all five cases.
There are various ways to address bad behavior. An officer’s supervisor may see something small and make it a teaching moment. More serious matters can lead to formal discipline, such as a written reprimand, suspension, or even termination. Through their union contract, Bloomington and Normal officers have the legal right to file a grievance if they disagree with how they’ve been disciplined.
That happened in 2011, when then-Bloomington Police officer Scott Oglesby filed a grievance against the city. He was fired after allegedly using excessive force to control a boy at Stevenson Elementary School in 2010. The grievance arbitrator sided with Oglesby, ordering the city to reinstate him. He returned in 2015, but soon agreed to leave the force in exchange for $322,209 in back pay.
Other discipline is less serious. A police sergeant received a written reprimand in 2013 after he was recorded saying he hoped a black stabbing victim “bleeds to death.” That comment was made in relation to the Denny’s altercation that sparked Calhoun’s case.
Some blame police unions for blocking real change inside police departments, especially in larger cities. Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo, who has supported the Defund The Police movement and other reforms, said police unions “are the biggest obstacle to real reform around policing.”
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m a union girl. But we have to recognize when it’s become a problem,” she said.
Local officers are represented by the Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 21 (Bloomington) and Unit 22 (Normal), which negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the city and town.
Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath said cops “have rights just the same as an employee or a human being that works anywhere in our society. Our constitutional rights do not go away just because we work at a police department. … Violating those would be inappropriate as well as illegal.”
“Are there processes in there that might make things a little harder? Maybe so,” Donath said. “But those processes are in place to ensure people, employees, have due process just like everyone else.”
On the spot, he said he couldn’t think of an example of something made harder.
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner said he does not consider the union that represents his officers as a barrier to change. He said his department has “very few” grievances on average each year, often none at all.
“We have a good relationship with the association that represents our officers,” Bleichner told WGLT. “We have a clear division of responsibilities.”
Normal Police union members were “heartbroken” by what happened to Floyd, said Kendra DeRosa, a detective who is also president of PBPA Unit 22. “That’s not how we’re trained down here,” said DeRosa, who has been involved in union leadership since around 2008.
“Never once has there ever been a time in my tenure where an officer has done something that we know to be wrong and we’ve stood up for them,” DeRosa said. “Obviously, we have an obligation to make sure they get the protections they’re afforded by their union dues and things like that, and have access to legal (help). But when it becomes criminal, we wash our hands of that.
“Because none of us want to stand next to a bad cop—plain and simple. None of us want what happened in Minnesota to reflect on how we do our job,” DeRosa said.
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