If the Evanston Police Department was on trial on Jan. 30 at the Levy Center, the Lawrence Crosby case was Exhibit A, as what had been planned for several weeks as a police open house turned into an often-heated session of Police-citizen interactions.
A video, composed of several different videos and edited by the City for privacy concerns, that showed the events that led to the arrest of Lawrence Crosby, a graduate student at Northwestern University, had sparked – and in some cases re-ignited – anger among residents. Mr. Crosby was stopped by police in October of 2015 after a 911 caller reported a possible car theft. After Mr. Crosby was stopped, thrown to the ground, and struck by police officers, it was ascertained that he in fact was the owner of the car he was driving.
Police Chief Richard Eddington said at the beginning of the meeting that he would spend 20 minutes talking about the video and then ask the audience members to visit the stations that had been set up with members of the various police department teams – patrol, problem-solving team, neighborhood enforcement teams, investigation team, deployment team, and Office of Professional Standards.
Assuming most of the nearly 200 people were familiar with the video, Chief Eddington said he would point out parts that might stand out more to police reviewing the tape than to others viewing it and would offer context for certain police actions. He also said that, after he and other police personnel had reviewed the videos and before any of the videos had been made public, he had implemented some changes to Department policies and procedures that should prevent similar incidents of escalation in what should be normal police stops.
“Changes have been in the works long before the Crosby video became public,” Chief Eddington said.
The video and related stories can be found online at evanstonroundtable.com.
The Video: Police View
“I have to take ownership of this,” Chief Eddington said. “I have to look and see what happened, how we got there and what can be done.”
Chief Eddington said police reviewing the video would look at several “key indicators” to assess “what sparked the reaction of the officers.” One such indicator, he said, was the “credible report of a stolen car.” Mr. Crosby got out of the car and he was carrying something in his hand, and “that’s a problem for us,” the Chief said. Later the object was determined to be a cell phone. In addition, when Mr. Crosby was told to get on the ground, he tried to move to the front of his car. He did this because he had a dashboard camera and wished to record the events.
Mr. Crosby, apparently not understanding the instruction to get on the ground or not reacting quickly enough to it, was quickly surrounded by at least five police officers and then struck by one. That is when the incident “went south,” Chief Eddington said.
“The swarming of Mr. Crosby is a difficult thing to watch. If you have a scintilla of humanity, it is difficult. It is never going to look good. When I look at this, the question is, ‘Is it lawful?’ Yes, Mr. Crosby was struck multiple times. There was no permanent damage, no hospital bills. The officers applied the force they believed was necessary at the time. This stopped when Mr. Crosby was handcuffed,” the Chief said. He added that the coarse language expressed by the officers and heard on the tape was “not directed at Mr. Crosby.”
Several times Chief Eddington told the standing-room-only crowd that the police very often have information about a suspect or an incident of which that person is unaware. “You have no idea what [police] have been told, what we’ve been led to believe,” he said.
Gangs have stolen cars in Evanston and used them in shootings in both Evanston and Chicago, Chief Eddington said. “This impacts on the police officers’ judgment and their perception.” He added that in 2016 police obtained more than 50 handguns in traffic stops. “This is a hazardous endeavor,” he said. He also said, “How many officers knew what Mr. Crosby had in his hand was a cell phone?”
Mr. Crosby was charged with violation of two City ordinances; the charges were dismissed by a judge.
The Video and the Police: Audience View
Questions from the audience covered nearly all aspects of the Crosby situation, ranging from the initial 911 call and the dispatcher’s response to the actions by the officers during the stop, to the role that race played in the way the events unfolded.
In response to specific questions, Chief Eddington said because of the “rapidly evolving situation,” there was no time for the police officers to run the license plate to ascertain the owner of the vehicle. De-escalation training, he said, will help slow things down in future situations.
On the video, one police officer is heard to tell Mr. Crosby he is “lucky I didn’t shoot you, because of the way you came out of the car.” Chief Eddington said the way Mr. Crosby exited the car prompted the officer to say that, reiterating that traffic stops can be “hazardous” for police officers, who have removed illegal handguns during traffic stops.
Two people said that they faulted the 911 dispatcher. “What can be done when the 911 operate does not convey correct information?” one person asked. She added the caller said she was reporting a “possible” stolen vehicle, but the information relayed to the police officers was definitive that the vehicle was stolen. The 911 caller followed Mr. Crosby’s car for several blocks. Carolyn Murray said she felt the 911 dispatcher should have told the caller to stay away from the situation. Not doing so, Ms. Murray said, put the caller herself in danger.
One audience member said, “You have to be really honest about the racial overtones in this incident.”
“Everything that has some police activity in America has a racial component,” said Chief Eddington. Of the officers involved in the Crosby incident, two are Hispanic, one is African American and one is white. He also said he believed there would be a settlement in the case.
We are in the 1% of police departments in the country whose makeup reflects the population. That didn’t happen because I’m here. It’s a 30-year commitment. Do I realize I’m an old white guy? Yes, my granddaughter reminds me of this all the time.”
In answer to another question, Chief Eddington said the officers involved in the incident remain on the force today. In making that decision, he said, he looked at the officers and their records to see if any of them had been “in trouble before.”
Pressed about whether the Crosby incident involved racial profiling, Chief Eddington said, “No, this was an incident about a stolen car.”
“I’m not totally convinced, as a black man who has lived in Evansotn for 50 years that Evanston does racial profiling. I think we do have a good Police Department. Because something is happening once does not mean it’s happening every day,” said one member of the audience.
Joan Hickman urged police officers to “get to know black people. You cannot assume when you see a black person you know his or her background. We’re people, so treat us like that.”
From the audience Jean-Marie Freise said, “When I watched that video, I saw complete chaos. I have three mixed-race children, but to all of the world they are black. There should have been ramifications. I’m so disappointed that those officers are still on the staff and that they’re roaming these streets with my children. I’m worried that my 17-year-old will do something stupid.”
“We deal with a lot of people doing foolish things, and we work toward a peaceful resolution,” said Chief Eddington. “That we can police a free, democratic society without mistakes being made is not realistic. I’m up here to tell you that things will go wrong. The issue is how well we address these issues.”
Reviewing the police actions in the Crosby video prompted the Chief to make two changes to the procedures to be used in traffic stops, he said. First, he said, subjects will no longer be required to drop to the ground. He said it was clear in the video that Mr. Crosby did not know what was meant when he was told to “go prone. … Based on that, we have excluded that command. There are other options. We ask the subject to turn away from us and walk backward.” Second, instructions will be given only by a loud speaker and by only one officer. In the Crosby video, several police officers are heard yelling various things at Mr. Crosby.
Chief Eddington said he believes these changes will “slow down” the process in traffic stops and prevent situations like the one depicted in the video. He also said the Police Department is poised to enter into a two-year contract with diversity consultant Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan to continue the work he started with the Department.
Only a handful of the 200 or more residents visited the police officers grouped in their various stations. In the end, perhaps, the pointed questions and responses between the Chief of Police and the residents may have given a first-hand demonstration of how the Evanston Police Department operates in the community.
What to Do When Stopped By the Police
A handout at the Jan. 30 Police Open House offered 11 things for drivers to do when pulled over by a police officer. Ten of these are from the Secretary of State’s Rules of the Road. The final one is from the Evanston Police Department.
- Slow down and pull over safely as soon as possible. If the police vehicle is unmarked and the driver of the vehicle cannot be identified as a police officer, drive slowly and carefully below the speed limit to a well-lighted, populated spot or to the police station, attempt to catch the attention of a uniformed officer or call 911.
- Understand that a law enforcement officer may approach the vehicle from either the driver or the passenger side.
- Remain in the car with both hands clearly in sight on the steering wheel until the officer instructs otherwise or the traffic stop is complete. Do not exit the vehicle unless instructed to do so. Turn on the interior light if stopped at night.
- Comply with the officer’s request to see your driver’s license and proof of insurance. Inform the officer as to the location of these items – in the glove box or under the seat, e.g. – and follow instructions for retrieving them.
- Sign tickets requiring signature. This is not an admission of guilt.
- Cooperate with officers on the scene if pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence. Refusal to submit to breath or performance tests could result in the loss of driving privileges.
- Be aware that they may have unwittingly committed a minor traffic violation or have a problem with their vehicle or be driving a vehicle similar to one used in a serious crime. Many officers will not provide specific reasons for a stop until they have seen the license and insurance card.
- Offer explanations for the circumstance before the officer returns to his or her vehicle; cooperate during the incident even if they believe they have not committed an offence; present their grievances in traffic court and not to the officer who stopped them.
- Report disrespectful treatment by an officer to his or her superiors.
- Understand that officers are to provide their names and badge numbers upon request.
- Request that a supervisor respond to the scene or call the non-emergency police number, 847-866-5000 if they have questions or concerns about the interaction.