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Outside Review: Aleyah Lewis Arrest Followed Urbana Police Policy

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URBANA – The Urbana City Council will hear a  presentation Tuesday night on a report from an outside firm which concludes the police officers who arrested Aleyah Lewis followed the Urbana Police Department’s use of force policy.

But the study by the firm Hillard Heintze suggested possible revisions to the policy and how the department reviews use of force cases.

The city of Urbana released the report on Friday. A link to the report is here.

The 39-page report gives a detailed account of the arrest of Lewis’ arrest in southeast Urbana on April 10. Officers investigating a report of a shooting arrested Lewis’ companion, Kamarion Busby, who was carrying a gun and had suffered a gunshot wound. They then struggled with Lewis when she started walking away from the scene. Sgt. Michael Cervantes and Officer Eric Ruff wrestled and struck Lewis in their efforts to subdue her. At one point, officers forced her to the ground in a stomach-down position, and at another, placed a spit hood on her, along with a strap-like restraining device known as a hobble.

Her arrest was captured on police bodycam video and also bystander video that went viral, prompting charges that the officers used excessive force in the arrest and did so because Lewis is Black. Mayor Diane Marlin hired Hillard Heintze to conduct the outside investigation, after Champaign County NAACP President Minnie Pearson called for one in a News-Gazette op-ed article in May.

But the Hillard Heintze report concludes that “the use of force in this case was consistent with the UPD’s use of force policies,” and that that police department’s Use of Force Review Board followed the evidence in reaching the same conclusion. The report states that Cervantes and Ruff followed the policy, which authorized them to “use only that amount of force that appears necessary” to the officer at the time.

But in reviewing the use of force policy itself, the Hillard Heintze report notes that it lacked any reference to de-escalation techniques, does not address the use of force on individuals placed in restraints and does not address the risk of positional asphyxiation when individuals are held on the ground in a stomach-down position. And while not a use-of-force issue, the report also noted language the officers used in speaking to Lewis that could be viewed as patronizing and unprofessional, and further agitate a civilian they are trying to calm down.

And the report suggested four areas for improvement when use of force incidents are reviewed internally: canvassing the scene to find civilian witnesses willing to talk about what they saw; follow-up interviews with subjects on whom the force was used; training of supervisors who conduct follow-up investigation of use-of-force incidents; and making sure officers involved in the incidents are always interviewed for such investigation.

The Hillard Heintze investigation also included meetings with community members, to get their views on police-community relations. Several recurring themes were identified among their concerns including: de-escalation procedures, the use by police of patronizing, racist and sexist language, excessive use of force, and the release of bodycam and squad car video footage that some saw as insufficient and others saw as too much.

Hillard Heintze also issued a second report at the city’s request, on allegations that a person who posted video of the Aleyah Lewis online was contacted by a police officer and asked to take it down. A link to the second report is here.  The report stated that investigators identified the person, who consented to an interview and said he was never contacted by police about posting the video.

The Urbana City Council is scheduled to hear a presentation from Hillard Heintze on their investigation at a Committee of the Whole Meeting, Tuesday, September 8 beginning at 7 P.M.

According to the News-Gazette, Lewis is scheduled for a court appearance on that day, for both the charges stemming from her April 10 arrest, and other charges stemming from an unrelated incident in June.

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Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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