Illinois police forced a Black college student to the ground, put a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger in a case of mistaken identity, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the teen last month.
Jaylan Butler, a 19-year-old student at Eastern Illinois University, had been traveling back to campus with the school’s swim team after a competition in South Dakota when the team’s bus pulled over at a rest stop in East Moline, Illinois, on Feb. 24, 2019, around 8 p.m. local time.
He stepped off the bus to stretch his legs and, at his coach’s suggestion, snapped a picture next to a road sign reading “Buckle Up. It’s The Law” for the team’s social media account.
Moments later, police vehicles with flashing lights suddenly pulled up in front of Butler, according to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Illinois on Jan. 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Springfield. Officers then allegedly exited the vehicles and aimed their firearms at him.
“Butler has always known that he could be targeted by police officers because he is Black,” the lawsuit begins. “Mr. Butler’s father taught him at a young age how to maximize his chances of surviving an encounter with law enforcement — stop instantly, put your hands up, drop anything you are holding, and drop to your knees.”
So, Butler did just that, according to the complaint.
“Get down!” the officers allegedly shouted at him. “Don’t fucking move!”
The officers then forced Butler, who complied with their orders, to lie face down in the snowy ground, the lawsuit contends. They allegedly held Butler down, with at least one officer pressing into his back and at least one other pressing down on his neck, as officers handcuffed his arms behind his back.
Another officer squatted down in front of Butler and allegedly pressed his handgun against the student athlete’s forehead.
“If you keep moving, I’m going to blow your fucking head off,” the officer told Butler, who was unarmed and never made any threatening movements, according to the lawsuit.
The police had been searching for an armed suspect that had reportedly shot at a vehicle on a nearby highway. Butler, his swim coach and the team’s bus driver explained to the officers that the teen was a member of the Eastern Illinois University’s swim team, according to the lawsuit.
The police quickly realized Butler was not the suspect they were searching for and one of the officers told the local dispatcher that the incident was a “false alarm,” the lawsuit alleges. But the law enforcement officials continued to detain Butler.
Police allegedly patted down Butler, who was still handcuffed, and searched his pockets and placed him in the back of a squad car, where he remained for several minutes.
They eventually removed Butler’s handcuffs, asked for identification and released him from custody, according to the complaint. But they never told Butler why he was detained and did not provide their badge numbers to him when he said he wanted to file a complaint. What’s more, they did not document the stop and search incident as required by law.
“We have a law in Illinois that requires police to record these interactions, to make a record of them when they stop a car, when they stop a person, etc.,” Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for ACLU of Illinois, told HuffPost. “That was just ignored in this instance.”
“We put these accountability measures in place as a state, as a community,” he added. “I think it’s really critical that we also insist that police follow them.”
The lawsuit lists six defendants: East Moline Police Officer Travis Staes, Hampton Police Officer Ethan Bush, Rock Island County Sheriff’s Deputies Jack Asquini and Pena (no first name provided for the second deputy) and two unknown law enforcement officers identified only as John Does.
In their complaint, Butler and the ACLU of Illinois accuse the defendants of several violations, including unlawful search and seizure, false arrest, excessive detention and excessive force.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Saturday, East Moline Police Chief Jeff Ramsey said Staes had a “brief encounter” with Butler, but that the officer had acted “properly” and “lawfully.”
“The lawsuit filed by Mr. Butler portrays a version of events that is inconsistent with the version of events we have uncovered in our initial review,” Ramsey stated. “I am confident the allegations against Officer Staes are without merit.”
The suspect in the interstate shooting had crashed his vehicle near the rest stop, fled the scene on foot and was later apprehended by police, according to Ramsey’s statement.
The Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office defended Asquini and Pena in a statement a few days earlier, also claiming the allegations are “without merit.”
The East Moline Police Department, the Hampton Police Department and the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
After the incident, Butler boarded the bus with his teammates and prepared for the 3.5-hour journey back to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. The bus was eerily quiet, so Butler, the only Black person on his swim team, took it upon himself to break the silence and suggested they all watch a movie.
“He saw himself as having to be the person to put things back in line in that way,” Yohnka said.
But Butler was traumatized by the event, which left him angry, sad and depressed in the months that followed, according to the lawsuit. The St. Louis native had trouble concentrating at school, where he is studying biological sciences, and sought assistance from a therapist to address his emotional distress.
It’s unclear whether the police officers were wearing body cameras and if those cameras recorded any of the incident. Butler has not received an apology from the defendants, Yohnka told HuffPost.
“Even when he followed all of the instructions, this was the way he was treated,” Yohnka said. “This didn’t end in tragedy but somebody got harmed significantly. ... There has to be accountability.”