Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat…. I am a trial lawyer and most of my career is spent suing police departments and police officers across the country for violating people’s civil rights or when unnecessary excessive force is used on citizens. You might think that my first person account of the police encounter I witnessed is biased, skewed or peppered with exaggerations but I can assure you it is not. I tell the facts as they are and when it comes time for my opinion I promise I will tell you.
Last week one night I was out with my girlfriend along with some friends. We wound up going to one of our favorite Thursday night hangouts, a club on an elevated roof deck with open ceiling and a great view of the city. It was one of those quintessential summer nights that Chicagoans truly appreciate knowing we really only have 3 months of true summer. This club is one of those establishment, for better or worse, that gives priority service to customers who purchase bottles of alcohol at inflated prices and in return you get a table with “free “ mixers, ice and water so you’re made to think and feel like you’re being taken care of and special. We opted for a small table because we were only a few. Across the aisle, a mere 6-8 feet away was a larger table, that appeared to be an after work crowd who looked like they had been at it for a while based upon their loudness, hand slapping and laughing. It was a table occupied with twenty and thirty something year old men and women. No one was causing trouble but some people I am sure probably rolled their eyes at them as they passed their table muttering words like “amateurs” or “grow-up would you.” But they weren’t bothering anyone but themselves. And let’s face it, how many of us have ever been one of those people inside a bar before where we’ve been overserved and the greatest danger we were was to ourselves.
As the midnight witching hour was approaching, which is my cutting off point for a school night also, the large table had thinned out to the point where the last remaining soldier was a young woman in an appropriately attired pink dress who had taken her high heels off and laid down in the booth for a rest. Her designer purse was resting right next to her shoes. Within a few moments, club management and security were there asking the young woman to leave the booth. I did not hear the words but I could read the lips of those that were there and see the body language. Management and security picked up her purse and shoes and were gesturing towards the door that she had to leave. They were very careful, it seemed, not to touch her. Very likely because of a certain level of intoxication, the woman refused, shaking her head and holding her palms in front of her as if to tell them to back off.
Then the inevitable happened when you defy authority that thinks it has too much authority – – the Chicago Police were called to remove the woman from the premises. We were watching in total and utter disbelief as four uniformed officers arrived to take over the task of removing the stubborn drunk woman who had committed no offense greater than removing her shoes in a bar ( how tacky, right?) and laying down in the booth that she and her friends had arguably rented by overspending for bottle service.
While one female officer was going through the woman’s purse and removing as many items as she could and finding nothing other than an ID, the three remaining officers were gently trying to persuade her to come with them and leave. Now, at this point, you and myself and many others would have already left. However, this was not the circumstances here, unfortunately.
Our lady friend now was resisting by sitting on her hands very much like a petulant child. Then the next inevitable thing happened – the handcuffs came out and before she knew it she was forcibly flipped over to her stomach and within 10-15 seconds she was securely cuffed with hands behind the back being led out by four officers. She finally looked embarrassed by all the attention.
At this point, we were thankful no one was hurt, no one was punched or kicked, hoping they would teach our lady a lesson by driving her home and a lesson in humility, disgrace and embarrassment being learned with her having to face her colleagues the next morning. Now we decided it was time to leave also so we began by saying goodnight to our friends and walking around the tables and bar to make our way to the elevators.
By the way, did I mention to you that nicely dressed and attired young lady was African-American? Now is a good point to mention that.
As we approached the elevator, we saw five additional uniformed police officers guarding the hallway. The woman had already been taken down but these five remained to quell any further disturbance which did not exist. We were in amazement and all we could really mutter was “wow” and “really”.
We took the elevator down to the ground floor, made the left turn to get to the main exit revolving door and in our faces was the SWAT team. I am not joking. There they were. A minimum of eight fully uniformed SWAT members fully equipped and easily identified were guarding the entrance. In addition, there were at least another dozen uniformed officers milling around a sea of blue lights emulating from squad cars, vans and squadrols. Now we were muttering “WTF” instead and seriously concerned for our safety wondering if something greater had happened we were unaware of. We walked away toward the corner where two SWAT members were standing and I asked what had happened other than the drunk woman being removed from upstairs. He replied nothing else besides that but that one of the arresting officers reported over the radio she was combative and fighting. Once again I asked if there was anything else and to prove his point to me to shut up and stop asking questions, he asked my girlfriend if they had previously met – causing her to freak out.
We walked away and at about twenty feet away from SWAT Romeo, we turned around and looked at the scene on this short stretch of street in the heart of River North – cops and cars and guns and equipment all over the place for one drunk girl. C’mon now, seriously.
There‘s a term of art that’s used in law enforcement called “escalation.” Undoubtedly, this was an escalated scene by the police. A citizen can escalate a scene by resisting arrest, punching, kicking, fleeing, pulling a weapon, spitting, name calling, etc.
I am still not sure what crime this woman committed other than the proverbial disorderly conduct and even that’s questionable. But giving the police the benefit of a doubt and the woman an F in brightness, this was still an exaggerated and escalated response, and even more so because she did not do anything that I saw other than resist a likely unlawful arrest.
Which leads me to my real point here. This SWAT and exaggerated police response, for what was at worst a drunk and disorderly and at best a fun drunk night, was not a waste of taxpayer money. Assuredly, all of these members were on paid duty. However, it was a waste of diverted resources to an area of the City that needed less policing than areas where 1-2 murders a night and half a dozen shootings is normal and for a response which should have in the total required two officers if any at all. Secondly, one has to raise the issue whether the response would have been the same had the young lady been a blonde and blue eyed Caucasian instead of a dark skinned girl in a pink dress. Race has to be an issue here because of the exaggerated and unnecessary response. Third, the nature of the response raises a national issue on police community relations and behavior. Just like the Sandra Bland matter in Texas, was it necessary for that officer to lose his temper and scream and shout and threaten and handcuff and arrest a person for a victimless crime – failing to extinguish a cigarette. The phenomenon of escalation is clearly documented in that if a member of a police department escalates before the victim you will likely have a less than optimal outcome. If a victim/citizen escalates before a police officer, the law clearly states that like escalation is appropriate. However, there is no clear analysis to the contrary except that victims are allowed to defend themselves only under special circumstances. Otherwise, you are left to obey and succumb to the commands of even out of control police officers or else suffer potentially dire consequences.
Lastly, there is the issue of police communication and what I refer to as the canned exaggerated lie. You see, if a police officer utters certain buzzwords, either under sworn testimony or in a police report, such as “in plain view” or “I was in fear for my life or that of others”, under ideal circumstance the police win their case because those key words trigger a legal analysis years in the making which cause the officer to justify his search and seizure or his use of force (in most instances deadly force). Without the benefit of either audio or video recordings, or extremely strong and credible witness testimony to corroborate the event, it is difficult to prevail against the implicit credibility that most police officers have across the country. Here in Chicago, we have learned through established cases that police officers will lie to support their arrest of a victim. That victim only has a slight chance to prevail in the absence of direct contradictory evidence and that is patently an injustice and a lot of what’s wrong with modern policing and the ever increasing racial tensions brewing across the country.
I am proud to be a trial lawyer and represent victims of injustices. I am also a proud American and believer of our Constitutional rights. If we, as citizens have to follow rules and obey commands, shouldn’t police officers be held to the same standard when it comes to law enforcement? By treating each other with respect I think we’ll be amazed at how much better relations between the police and citizenry will improve. After all, how can anyone have trust in policing when the SWAT team is called out for something either we have done or we have seen our friends do or even our own kids in college have done time and again.