Normal Police officers rarely use force on the job. But when they do, people of color are more likely to be on the receiving end of that force.
That is one of the takeaways of a WGLT review of Normal Police records documenting use of force and citizen complaints between 2017 and 2019. In that time, NPD officers self-reported using force (beyond standard handcuffing) 188 times. With between 8,500 and 12,000 incidents involving police enforcement action each year, that means officers used force about 0.61% of the time.
NPD says its officers are only allowed to use force when someone is resisting—and even then, they can only use force that is proportionate to the resistance, and each incident is reviewed up the command chain. Most often, it was an officer using physical force (hands, fists, or feet), the records show. Other times, a firearm or Taser was displayed,but not used. Officers reported actually firing their handgun just once in those three years. Tasers were used six times. An officer used a flash bang once, in 2019.
Injuries to those on the receiving end of the force also were relatively rare. There were two injuries in 2019, eight in 2018, and six in 2017, records show. A report prepared by Chief Rick Bleichner documenting all the 2019 incidents found that “individuals under the influence or alcohol and/or drugs and/or suffering from mental illness continued to be a contributing factor in the frequency and level of a subject’s resistance.” Those represented about 43.8% of all 2019 incidents.
But if force beyond handcuffing is used in Normal, it is not uncommon for a person of color to be on the receiving end of it, according to police records.
Of those 188 use-of-force reports filed by officers, 106 (or 56%) involved a subject or arrestee of color. Black subjects comprised 47% of all use-of-force reports, records show, despite only making up around 8% of McLean County residents.
When asked about that disparity, Bleichner said a lot is dependent on the types and nature of the call involved. Certain types of calls, such as drug investigations or those involving firearms, have “skewed higher to minorities” at times, he said. He also stressed that the 188 use-of-force reports do not equal 188 people, because a single incident can generate multiple reports. A single shots-fired call on Vernon Avenue in April 2017, for example, yielded six use-of-force reports because an officer displayed his firearm to six people, Bleichner said. All six were black, records show. (Police later said someone was arrested for some unlawful backyard target practice.)
Between 2017-19, there were two cases in which an officer was later found not to be justified in using the force they did—in other words, in violation of departmental policy.
The first was a reckless driving incident on Sept. 20, 2017, when an officer used a Taser on “drive stun mode” on someone who was “verbally resisting but whose actions didn’t meet the requirement for a threat,” records show. The person who was Tased was a 21-year-old white man who was not injured, records show. The second incident occurred Nov. 15, 2018, when an officer’s gun went off during cleaning.
In both cases, “appropriate corrective action was taken along with a review of the directive and remedial training,” according to NPD records.
Bleichner stressed that every use-of-force incident above normal handcuffing gets a thorough review, with multiple layers of oversight to ensure the action complies with department policy. Each incident above is documented and investigated. All materials, including body camera footage, are reviewed.
“Our staff are trained that the application of force is clearly based on somebody’s resistance,” Bleichner said in a recent interview. “It’s never done as any type of punishment, or anything like that. It’s always in response to what that individual is doing.”
On June 11, WGLT requested comparable use-of-force and complaint records from the Bloomington Police Department. The city says it’s working to compile those records, but asked for more time to do so.
At Normal Police, in addition to internal reviews, members of the public with concerns about an incident can file a complaint. There were 14 citizen complaints filed in 2017, 10 in 2018, and 22 in 2019. WGLT recently reviewed 17 recent citizen complaints and the letters explaining to the filer how they were resolved. They were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Sometimes, a single complaint about a single incident can allege multiple acts of misconduct against multiple officers. For example, the 22 complaints from 2019 involve just eight separate citizen complaint forms. Of those, two complaints involved alleged excessive use of force. In both cases an internal investigation found the force used was proper.
One of the incidents took place around 2 a.m. Sunday, April 28, 2019, outside the Flats student apartments near Illinois State University. A young black woman alleged two officers racially profiled, unlawfully searched, used excessive force and were discourteous to her and her brother during a pedestrian stop. In her complaint she called it an “unnecessary stop and frisk,” records show.
A Normal Police lieutenant was assigned to investigate her complaint and interviewed several people involved, records show. Police said they smelled burning cannabis, and that the woman herself yelled and “aggressively approached” a sergeant on scene and tried to pull her brother away. Her “unlawful actions” prompted an officer to “take ahold of your arm and lawfully command you to move back or you would be arrested,” according to a letter sent to her May 23, 2019.
“The investigation of these allegations shows that (the sergeant’s) stop of (your brother) was based on valid probable cause and had nothing to do with (his) race,” Normal Assistant Police Chief Stephen Petrilli wrote. “I find no evidence that the officers treated you or (your brother) with disrespect or were discourteous during this incident.”
Of the 17 filed complaints reviewed by WGLT, only two led to NPD determining an officer’s conduct was improper. Both involved the same officer.
The first incident was Nov. 4, 2019, when the officer responded to a battery at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. The complainant alleged the officer was dismissive and behaved rudely. An investigation determined he was “argumentative and unprofessional,” and that he acknowledged his “poor handling of this incident and internal departmental corrective measures have been taken to ensure it will not happen again,” according to a letter from Petrilli to the complainant dated Nov. 26, 2019.
But it did happen again.
On Feb. 1, 2020, the officer, who is black, responded to a barber shop for a “remove subject” call. A complaint was filed, alleging the officer was “scary and aggressive” and grabbed a woman’s arm inside the shop. “In that moment I was fearing for my life—confused, devastated, and hurting,” the woman wrote in her Feb. 3 complaint.
NPD investigated and determined the officer “failed to recognize this incident as a civil issue which contributed to his incorrect assessment of his authority. (The officer) should not have grabbed your wrist or told you to leave the business,” Petrilli wrote in a Feb. 24 letter to the complainant.
The officer was “argumentative and unprofessional,” Petrilli wrote. He has “acknowledged his poor handling of this incident and internal departmental corrective measures have been taken to ensure it will not happen again.”
The person remains an officer at NPD after those corrective actions, Bleichner said.
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