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Traveling teen mistakenly taken down by local police. ACLU has filed a lawsuit
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Traveling teen mistakenly taken down by local police. ACLU has filed a lawsuit

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Stepping off a bus at an East Moline rest stop, the out-of-town college student had no idea what was about to hit him.

Jaylan Butler and his teammates from the Eastern Illinois University swim team were at the end of a long day. After competing in a conference championship swim meet in South Dakota, they spent the bulk of Feb. 24, 2019, traveling back to Charleston, Ill., in a rented coach with their school logo plastered on the sides.

The parents of one of Butler's teammates lives in the Quad-Cities, and arrangements were made to meet up with them at the rest area just over the Illinois border past the Interstate 80 bridge.

"The bus was hot," Butler recalled. "We got out to stretch our legs."

Though it was hot inside the bus, the temperature outside was in the teens as the hour approached 8 p.m. Butler, wearing his EIU team jacket, was heading back onto the bus when his coach suggested he take a selfie in front of Illinois' "BUCKLE UP, IT'S THE LAW" sign. The team had been taking pictures throughout the trip and posting them to social media to update parents and others on their location.

"As I took the picture, there was a line of police officers ... they came to a screeching stop in front of me," Butler said. "At that moment, I only knew a couple things to do that my dad always told me."

As a young black man, he had been taught by his dad to never give police a reason to think he would cause trouble. He remembered the lessons, and he dropped his phone, raised his hands, and got on the ground.

He could not imagine what the police wanted with him. But they weren't messing around.

His life was threatened

Bus driver Todd Slingerland knew immediately that something was going wrong.

"I was sitting in the driver's seat, waiting for the parents to get there, and Jaylan was the last one to get back on the bus," Slingerland said. "A car screamed in, and I jumped out of the bus, knowing something was going down that shouldn't be going down.

"As I got out, a second police car came screaming in."

Two officers had Jaylan on the ground — his face pressed into the snow and an officer's knee pressed into his back. One cop was pointing a shotgun, Butler and Slingerland said, and another had a gun pointed at the 19-year-old's head.

"He said, 'If you move, I'll blow your (expletive) head off,'" Butler said.

Slingerland heard the same threat and shouted at the police that Jaylan was his passenger, and they were making a mistake. As he rushed back to the door of the bus and yelled for the coach, two more police vehicles arrived.

"The one officer was telling Jaylan they were going to arrest him for resisting, but how could they arrest him for something he hadn't done?" Slingerland asked. "Their excuse (for taking Butler into custody) was that they thought the bus was being held hostage.

"I had all the lights on, so the bus was lit up. The bus had EIU on the side, and Jaylan was wearing an EIU jacket. I told them to get the sheriff over there because this was a very big mistake.

"They said the sheriff was busy with an active-shooter event."

Meanwhile, Butler's mind was reeling. What in the world was going on?

'Assaulting an innocent victim'

At least two Rock Island County Sheriff's deputies had rushed into the rest area, along with at least one officer from the East Moline and Hampton police departments. The identity of two other officers is unclear.

The reason for their interest in Butler likely will be made known in U.S. District Court in Rock Island, where the ACLU out of Chicago has filed a lawsuit against the six officers, including two who are named as John Does. The suit alleges Butler was the victim of unlawful search and seizure, false arrest, excessive detention, excessive force, failure of bystander officers to intervene in unconstitutional conduct, and assault.

Butler and the bus driver, Slingerland, said they immediately knew the police were making a big mistake. When the police realized it, too, they said, they took off.

"I'm an old Navy man," said Slingerland, who has been an over-the-road driver for nearly 30 years. "I've seen a lot, but I've never seen anybody screw something up as bad as they did this, especially the first two (officers). None of this makes any sense.

"I have all the respect in the world for police officers, but I wanted to body slam that guy who said what he said about shooting Jaylan."

Slingerland said he is certain it was a Rock Island County sheriff's deputy who put the gun to the 19-year-old's head and threatened to shoot him.

"As far as I was concerned, they were assaulting an innocent victim with deadly force," Slingerland said.

Butler said he knew what was happening was wrong. In fact, at one point, he asked for the badge number of the officer who threatened to kill him. He was ignored, he said.

"Mr. Butler informed at least two defendants (officers) that he wanted to make a complaint," the ACLU lawsuit alleges. "The first defendant ignored him. The second defendant said, 'There's nothing I can do.'

"Neither defendant gave Mr. Butler any of the defendants' names, badge numbers, law enforcement agency affiliations, or any other information to enable him to file a complaint."

The officers knew, according to the lawsuit, that they had made a mistake. Then they made matters worse.

"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," the suit states. "After several minutes of forcing Mr. Butler to lie facedown 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."

Instead, according to the lawsuit, the officers told Butler he was being arrested for resisting arrest. They took him to a squad car, patted him down, searched his coat pockets, and placed him in the back of a squad car for several minutes. They then removed him from the car, took off the cuffs, and told him to get his ID off the bus.

After producing his ID, Butler was released from police custody, and the officers were gone.

Who were they looking for?

Rock Island County State's Attorney Dora Villarreal, whose office will defend the two county deputies named in the suit, said it is her understanding the two John Doe defendants were not with the sheriff's department.

Asked what the officers were looking for that night, Villarreal said, "They were called in to assist on a Henry County incident."

Henry County Sheriff Kerry Loncka looked up records from Feb. 24 and said no reports were filed by Henry County deputies. Call logs gave hints about what police may have been after.

At 7:02 p.m., Loncka said, Illinois State Police asked for Henry County's assistance in pursuing a man in a vehicle who shot at a truck on Interstate 80 in Annawan.

The records he found showed the suspect vehicle went into Rock Island County and wrecked. He doesn't know where, he said, because he has no record of what happened after the vehicle left Henry County.

Rock Island County Sheriff Gerry Bustos said he knew little about the incident but said he was not, as the officers who arrested Butler are said to have claimed, responding to an active-shooter event that night.

Asked to look at the county records to determine what police were responding to on the night of Feb. 24, Bustos replied, "Looks like the closest we can find was a call of a 10-year-old child in Port Byron possibly waving a gun around down by the railroad tracks.

"It was a toy gun. Deputy did follow up with parent."

Sheriff Loncka in Henry County said his deputies asked for Rock Island County's help only after his department was asked by Illinois State Police to assist. But the state police declined to supply any information whatsoever.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records that would explain what police were responding to when they mistakenly took Butler into custody, a FOIA officer responded that no information could be supplied without the name and date of birth of the person arrested.

Despite objections that the FOIA request sought only incident reports related to the events of Feb. 24, the FOIA officer did not respond. A public information officer for the Illinois State Police said last week that she would try to help provide information "ASAP." Five days later, no information was provided.

The fallout for Butler

Before the EIU swim team stopped for dinner in East Moline on Feb. 24, the mood on the bus was upbeat.

"The energy before we stopped was really lively, excited, having a good time," Butler said. "Afterwards ... you could just see the energy change.

"Some people were crying."

Some teammates tried holding Butler's hand, he said. He pulled it away.

"I was their first African American teammate — the first swimmer they'd seen of color," he said. "They were all pretty quiet. After about 10 minutes, I couldn't take the silence anymore."

He made an announcement to his teammates as a way of checking in and reassuring them.

"I said, 'I'm OK. You're OK,'" he said. "I'm kind of glad that I did that."

But Butler said he was putting up a front to hide his anguish. It couldn't last.

"When we switched out drivers at another rest stop, getting off the bus, everyone was next to me, staying as close as possible," he said. "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."

 His coach encouraged him to call his parents and tell them what happened.

Reliving the events

Butler's parents were angry and upset to hear what police had done to their son, he said.

"I was blessed to have parents who gave me the proper tools (for reacting to law enforcement), which they hoped I'd never have to use," the now-20-year-old said. "It could have gone a different way.

"A kid like me, who has stayed on the straight and narrow, could've been killed. I didn't resist at all. I complied before they told me to do anything."

The ACLU's lawsuit addresses the emotional impact that resulted from Butler's mistaken run-in with police.

"Mr. Butler was traumatized by this incident," the suit states. "Since the event, he has felt angry, scared and depressed. He has had trouble concentrating at school and participating in activities.

"In class the next day, Mr. Butler found himself staring down at the bruises around his wrists, playing the previous night's events in his head until finally he realized his class had ended, and he was the only person still sitting there."

Nearly a year since the incident has passed, Butler's emotions have varied over time.

"In the beginning, and I didn't even know it, it was fear," he said. "As the months went on, it was, Why? Did I do something wrong?

"Then, it became disappointment.

"I know not all officers are like that, but it was pretty disappointing — what it's like to be of color in America."

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