One Couple's Experience Filing A Police Complaint | WGLT

One Couple's Experience Filing A Police Complaint

May 15, 2017

File photo of Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner presenting 2016 crime statistics. Heffner will discuss community-police relations with alderman Monday evening.
Credit Cristian Jaramillo / WGLT

(This story has been edited to include comments from Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner and McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers.) 

What is it like to currently file a complaint of officer misconduct with the Bloomington Police Department?

Sophie Charles and Henry Dick, a couple from West Bloomington, did just that. They said they came away from the experience dissatisfied with the results and reluctant to approach the police in the future.

On a warm evening in July 2015, Charles and Dick watched as police responded to an altercation involving teenagers. They then saw police question a man who happened to be crossing Market Street when squad cars arrived on the scene. The man was with his partner who was pushing their child in a stroller.

The man began tapping his ear and his hand. Charles and Dick say they soon realized both the man and his partner are deaf, and that the man had been asking for a notebook to write responses to the police.

They said tried to explain to officers that their neighbor had nothing to do with the street fight, and that as a deaf person, he needed special accommodations.

Within minutes, Dick said, police handcuffed the man, placed him in a squad car, and took him into custody for resisting arrest and walking on a highway (Market Street).

The next day, Charles and Dick went to the Bloomington Police Department to file a complaint about the officers' conduct. The couple, who is white, said they were concerned that their neighbor was stopped for questioning only because he is black.

When the officer taking the complaint appeared to look up Dick's name in police records, the couple said they grew fearful, even though Dick doesn't have a criminal record. 

"That felt like an intimidation tactic or it at least something that makes people feel they can't come in and voice a complaint without feeling that already their  credibility is being questioned," Charles said.

The intake officer told them it would take 30 to 60 days for the police to investigate their complaint. 

"Meanwhile (the deaf man's) criminal charges are moving forward while the police department has 30 to 60 days to decide if there is any wrongdoing on their part . That was a very real concern of ours," Charles said.

They asked to see someone higher up in the department and were able to speak first with Assistant Chief Gary Sutherland (now retired), and then Chief Brendan Heffner.

Both promised to investigate.

"Throughout the process, we felt they were very much trying to placate us, and that what we were sharing was not something that gave them cause for concern or alarm, but the process was there for us to feel better that someone was listening," Charles said.

That same day, they said they attempted to see McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers to discuss what they had witnessed at the scene of the arrest. They were told by a staff member Chambers would telephone them.

"He didn't, which was also frustrating," Dick said.

Chambers said he recalls two parties contacting his office about the issue. One he talked with one at length. He said the front desk staff told him the second party was upset, but did not leave contact information.

A day later, the couple noticed a police vehicle parked across from their home and became concerned that they were under surveillance.    

"It confirmed for us this was not a confidential process," Charles said. 

"At that point, we stopped communicating with the police department and we stopped communicating with the state's attorney's office," Dick said.

Bloomington Police Chief Brendan Heffner said during a City Council work session that the squad car was not there because of the complaint. He said the neighborhood had an elevated level of service calls and the unit was there for that reason.

Like most complaints filed with the Bloomington Police Department about officer conduct, this one from a West Bloomington couple was "not sustained" and no further action was taken.
Credit Sophie Charles

Some 71 days later, they received a letter from the police department. It said police investigators had viewed squad car video and listened to audio of police radio traffic at the time of the arrest. The investigators determined the couple's claims unfounded.

Regarding their complaint of racial profiling,  "that he was only contacted because  he is an African- American person, this allegation is unfounded," the letter said.

The department concluded that officers had made accommodations for the man's hearing impairment by "writing notes back and forth."

The couple had also complained that the officer who first approached the man did not have "reasonable grounds" for questioning him. The letter said that officer  "is exonerated." 

A charge of resisting arrest apparently was never formally filed, according to McLean County Circuit Court records.  The charge of "walking on a highway" was eventually dismissed, court records show. 

Charles and Dick said because of their experience, they now believe the Bloomington City Council should establish an independent body to both receive and investigate citizen complaints against the police.

Their recommendation goes farther than even a measure proposed last week by five community groups seeking to establish an independent civilian-led board to receive and review complaints against officers.

The City Council  is expected to discuss that proposal at its meeting Monday night.

Backed by Not In Our Town, the local chapters of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the YWCA of McLean County, the proposed measure would still allow the department to investigate its officers.

However, citizens could ask the civilian board to review the department's findings and make recommendations for changes.  

Bloomington Chief Heffner has said he opposes the establishment of a citizen review board. 

"I have lost confidence in the capacity that (the police) have to review themselves, which makes me hesitant to call them if I have a problem or witness something," Dick said. "I am worried about my neighbors and black residents who are just going about their daily lives."

Last year, 21 residents filed complaints against the Bloomington police. In only two of those were the allegations sustained by the department.

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