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Urbana City Council reckons with the arrest of Aleyah Lewis

On Tuesday, the Urbana City Council met to discuss the findings of an independent investigation into aspects of the April 10 arrest of Aleyah Lewis. The bulk of the meeting was a presentation from Hillard Heintze, an independent investigations and consulting company. Hillard Heintze was contracted by the city to review the city’s use of force investigation and to investigate a related misconduct allegation against the Urbana Police Department.

The meeting also featured nearly an hour and a half of public input, with most of the discussion centering on issues of policing.

Hillard Heintze was represented by Debra Kirby, Marcia Thompson, and Mark Giufree. All three have experience working in law enforcement.

One of the primary areas of investigation of the Hillard Heintze report was to identify if the internal investigation into the incident, which cleared the officer responsible of wrongdoing, was sufficient. Giufree said, in the meeting: “we found the actions were in policy.” This applies to the officers’ use of force and restraints. The officers who were involved in the use of force were Sergeant Michael Cervantes and Officer Eric Ruff of the Urbana Police Department.

Cervantes and Ruff responded to the area alongside several other UPD officers. The Hillard Heintze report included a copy of the dispatch call, which included the line “[a 911 caller] said she heard a loud pop and there was a gentleman walking up and down Cottage Grove with a gun in his hand. He looks like he is wounded and there is a Black female with him.” She also gave some details about what the suspects were wearing.

The issue at hand is Cervantes’ and Ruff’s use of force. In their arrest of Lewis, they used two kinds of restraints, and struck Lewis while wrestling her to the ground. Lewis used strong language against the officers and attempted to leave the scene several times.

Video of the incident was shared widely on social media, leading to protests in support of Lewis and against police misconduct. Hillard Heintze investigated an anonymous claim that UPD officers instructed Urbana resident Gregory Hugger to delete a video of the arrest. Hillard Heintze investigated the claim and reported that Hugger denies being told to delete the video.

Beyond the use of force, Hillard Heintze indicated that four other elements of the arrest “warrant review,” including: the verbal engagement of the officers, the use of a long gun while arresting Lewis, the use of verbal commands, and the policies surrounding UPD’s use of force investigation.

Including recommending a review of the policies surrounding the subjects listed above, Hillard Heintze gave the city 18 recommendations to “Continue to Advance Police Community Engagement.” These recommendations included instituting a de-escalation section of the use of force policy, training UPD supervisors on how to investigate use of force cases, and creating a community engagement plan.

Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said “I think the suggestions and recommendations were excellent and we should make every effort to incorporate them into our policy.”

The Urbana Police Chief, Bryant Seraphin, also said he was interested in implementing some of the reforms. He said he wanted to identify “how can we incorporate the existing model with the Lexipol suggestions, with the Hillard Heintze suggestion.” Lexipol is a for-proft group that contracts with police departments to write policies that fit within law and industry practice. It has recently been criticized by Madison Pauly in an article for Mother Jones. Pauly puts forth that the amount of power over police policy Lexipol has should concern people interested in reform movements.

Almost equaling the time spent on the investigation presentation was the public input section of the meeting. Dorothy Vura-Weis gave a moral argument against the arrest of Lewis, saying “I was very upset at the episode and the many different tapes I saw at the beginning of the incident with Ms. Lewis, appalled by it, and really think that it deserves the deep review and changes that were discussed tonight.” Vura-Weis sits on the Champaign County Board of Health.

elizaBeth Simpson, a PhD student and communications professional specializing in small group facilitation, criticized the Hillard Heintze investigation. Speaking about her experience with one of the community listening sessions Hillard Heintze facilitated, she said “It was so poor that I really have strong concerns about the veracity of the rest of the findings.”

In addition to more critiques of the investigation and its use of taxpayer money, several community members specifically spoke out against the intergovernmental agreement between the city and Urbana School District 116 regarding school resource officers in Urbana schools.

Photo by Andrew Adams.

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