Heidi Stevens: I watched Michael Bloomberg debate with wrongly arrested man in mind

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Michael Bloomberg joined his Democratic rivals on the debate stage for the first time Wednesday night, and I watched the discussion with Jaylan Butler on my mind.

Butler, 20, is the Eastern Illinois University student athlete who was falsely arrested and detained by police in East Moline, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Two officers held Butler on the ground. One officer held a gun to his head and said, “If you move, I’ll blow your (expletive) head off,” according to the suit.

Butler was traveling with his swim team back to Charleston, Illinois, from South Dakota last February when the team bus pulled over at a rest stop near the Illinois/Iowa border. Butler’s coach suggested he take a selfie in front of a roadside sign for the team’s social media account. That’s when police surrounded him and drew their guns.

“At that moment, I only knew a couple things to do that my dad always told me,” Butler told the Rock Island Dispatch-Argus.

Butler, the only black student traveling on the bus, obeyed the officers’ commands.

Bus driver Todd Slingerland saw what was happening from the bus and, with Butler’s coach, approached the police to tell them Butler was with them.

Officers continued to detain Butler, searched his pockets and placed him, handcuffed, in the back of a police car, according to the suit. They released him after a few minutes, once he provided photo ID.

“I’m an old Navy man,” Slingerland told the Rock Island Dispatch-Argus. “I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never seen anybody screw something up as bad as they did this. … As far as I was concerned, they were assaulting an innocent victim with deadly force.”

I graduated from EIU. I reached out to Butler, both as a journalist and as an Eastern alum, last week, shortly after I read about what he’d been through. An attorney for the ACLU told me Monday that Butler needs to “pull back” from media requests, which are starting to interfere with his school work and swim training. I respect that.

So I’ll send my support from here. No one should ever endure what he endured. I can’t imagine how a person recovers from that sort of trauma. A gun to your head. An expletive-laced death threat. I imagine it forever shapes your sense of safety and trust and belief system — in justice, in authority figures.

Ironically, I read about Butler’s arrest the same day the Chicago Tribune published a story exploring the potentially harmful mental health effects of active shooter drills in schools on the students and teachers they’re intended to protect.

“We need to put into place some guardrails to protect against collateral consequences and negative impact,” Rob Wilcox, deputy director of policy and strategy at Everytown for Gun Safety, told my Tribune colleagues.

Which brings us to Bloomberg.

As mayor of New York, he helped found and fund Everytown for Gun Safety, along with a group of concerned mayors and activists (mostly moms). The group advocates for mandatory background checks, raising the minimum age to 21 for gun purchases, the enforcement of laws keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and other gun safety measures.

Also as mayor of New York, he oversaw a dramatic increase in the use of stop-and-frisk policies. From January 2002, when Bloomberg took office, through 2011, midway through his third term, police data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows a 605% spike in the number of documented stop-and-frisk incidents, according to CNN.

According to an ACLU of New York report:

“Young black and Latino men were the targets of a hugely disproportionate number of stops. Though they account for only 4.7% of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406). Ninety% of young black and Latino men stopped were innocent.”

“Though frisks are to be conducted only when an officer reasonably suspects the person has a weapon that might endanger officer safety, 55.7% of those stopped in 2011 were frisked. Of those frisked, a weapon was found only 1.9% of the time.”

Bloomberg has apologized for his use of the approach and his past comments defending it, including in 2015 when he said, at an Aspen Institute event, “The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them.”

Stop-and-frisk came up three times in the first 10 minutes of Wednesday’s debate: Bernie Sanders brought it up first, followed by Elizabeth Warren and then Joe Biden. Bloomberg changed the subject to Trump. Twenty minutes later, moderator Lester Holt raised the topic again.

“If I go back and look at my time in office,” Bloomberg replied, “the one thing I’m embarrassed about was how it turned out with stop-and-frisk.”

As he should be. But I’m hoping for more context in the coming weeks and months. I want to hear how, as recently as 2015, Bloomberg found the policy defensible, given the statistics about its efficacy, given his Everytown advocacy work to keep Americans safe from violence and trauma, given the violence and trauma that stop-and-frisk incidents subjected tens of thousands of Americans to.

In Butler’s case, officers said they mistook the EIU student for a specific suspect.

“Defendants quickly realized that Mr. Butler was not the suspect for whom they were searching … informed the local dispatcher that it was a false alarm,” Butler’s lawsuit states. “After several minutes of forcing Mr. Butler to lie face down on the ground while handcuffed, defendants allowed Mr. Butler to sit up. … They did not, however, remove his handcuffs or inform him that he was free to go, even though they had already recognized that Mr. Butler was not the suspect for whom they were searching.”

I wonder if Bloomberg knows Butler’s story. I wonder how he would respond to it. I wonder if he would say it has nothing in common with stop-and-frisk, or whether he’d see the parallels — the racial profiling, the presumption of guilt, the violence, the aftershocks.

Butler told the Rock Island Dispatch-Argus that the mood on the bus, after the incident, was somber.

“Some people were crying,” he said. “They were all pretty quiet. After about 10 minutes, I couldn’t take the silence anymore.”

They stopped at another rest stop to switch drivers.

“Getting off the bus, everyone was next to me, staying as close as possible,” he told the newspaper. “The assistant coach hugged me and said he loved me. That kind of brought on the tears. It got harder to keep that front going. I tried my hardest not to cry around them.”

That pain and that fear don’t dissipate quickly, and they ripple, obviously, through the hearts of communities and families who worry they’ll be wrongly targeted next.

I hope, going forward, Bloomberg uses the national spotlight to explain why stop-and-frisk damages the fabric of our communities. I hope he can articulate what sorts of policies he’s researching and hoping to implement instead. I hope his fellow candidates do the same. I hope this conversation continues long beyond Wednesday, and far beyond Bloomberg.

Butler deserves that. Americans, all of them, deserve that.


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