A black college student has filed a lawsuit after Illinois police officers who mistook him for a suspect held him at gunpoint and allegedly threatened to "blow [his] head off."
Jaylan Butler, a 20-year-old sophomore at Eastern Illinois University, was returning to college with his teammates after a championship swim meet in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on Feb. 24, 2019.
At around 8 p.m., the bus pulled over near a rest stop in East Moline, Illinois, where Butler and several of his teammates got out to stretch their legs, according to the civil complaint filed by the ACLU of Illinois, which is representing Butler.
One of Butler’s coaches told him to take a photo of a road sign that said “Buckle Up. It’s the Law” to post on the swim team’s social media. Butler — who is the only black member of his swim team — took a photo of himself smiling in front of the sign, and as he was walking back to the bus, several law enforcement vehicles with flashing lights pulled up in front of him.
Butler, though confused, said in the lawsuit that he knew exactly what to do in that moment, having been taught by his dad from a young age: he dropped the cell phone he was holding, put his hands up, and dropped to his knees.
Officers from the Hampton and East Moline police departments, as well as the Rock Island Sheriff's Department, got out of their cars with their guns pointed at Butler, the lawsuit alleges, then yelled “Get down!” and “Don’t fucking move! Stay right there!”
Butler complied with their requests, and they handcuffed him. One of the officers pressed his knee into Butler's back, according to the lawsuit, and another one pressed on his neck.
The lawsuit alleges that while squatting in front of Butler, one of the officers — who is not named in the lawsuit — put his gun to Butler's forehead and said, “If you keep moving, I’m going to blow your fucking head off.”
At this point, the charter bus driver asked law enforcement what they were doing with Butler, while Butler and his swim coach explained that he was part of the college swim team.
When law enforcement realized that Butler was not the suspect they were searching for, they allowed him to sit up but did not remove the handcuffs or inform Butler that he was free to go, according to the lawsuit.
They then told Butler that he was being held for resisting arrest, and he was allegedly escorted to a squad car, patted down, searched, and left inside the car for several minutes.
When officers removed Butler's handcuffs, he was asked to show his ID and was subsequently released from police custody.
According to the lawsuit, Butler was never told why he was detained or arrested. Officers also declined to give Butler their names, badge numbers or agency affiliations, the lawsuit alleges, and they did not document the stop and search or give Butler a receipt following the encounter, both of which are required under Illinois law.
The officers named in the lawsuit are Travis Staes of the East Moline Police Department, Ethan Bush of the Hampton Police Department, Deputy Jack Asquini of the Rock Island Sheriff's Department, and Deputy Pena, whose first name is not listed in the lawsuit, but who was identified by the Dispatch-Argus newspaper as Jason Pena. Two unnamed officers referred to as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 are also listed as defendants.
East Moline Police Chief Jeff Ramsey said in a statement that the allegations in the lawsuit didn't match up with what the department found in its initial review of the incident.
"I can confirm that Officer Staes did have a brief encounter with Mr. Butler and that he handled that encounter properly, lawfully, and in accordance with the policies and procedures of the East Moline Police Department," the chief said.
The Rock Island Sheriff's Department said in a press release that Deputies Asquini and Pena arrived at the scene after Butler had already been detained, and had only a "brief interaction" with Butler before continuing a manhunt.
Hamilton Police Chief Terry Engle directed requests for comment to the department's legal counsel, who was not immediately available Saturday.
In the months after the incident, Butler had trouble concentrating at school, the lawsuit says, and began seeing a therapist for trauma and depression resulting from his encounter with police.
"I remember sitting in class the next day, looking at the bruises on my wrists and replaying the events of that night,” Butler told the ACLU of Illinois. “Now whenever I see a police officer, I don’t feel safe — I feel scared and anxious."
Rachel Murphy, one of the ACLU of Illinois attorneys representing Butler, told BuzzFeed News that Butler's case was representative of many encounters people of color have with police that are never reported.
"So often we hear about the tragic stories of black men who are unarmed and are killed by police," said Murphy. "This is an instance where he survived, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t injured by the incident."
Murphy said law enforcement has since offered some clarity on who and what they were looking for when they detained Butler, but that Butler and his family still have many questions they want answered.
"That doesn’t explain to us why they treated Jaylan the way they did, why they forced him onto the ground, why when he’s already surrounded by officers one officer puts his gun against his forehead and threatens to shoot him, why they continued to hold him and keep him in handcuffs," Murphy said. "Those are still the questions that we have."