Some Back Police, Others Question Use Of Force In Fairview Heights Sky Zone Incident
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS — The families of two teenagers arrested after a fight at a Fairview Heights indoor trampoline park debated with city officials and supporters of the police department during a committee meeting at City Hall Wednesday night.
At the center of the division was a group of viral social media videos that showed an unidentified Fairview Heights police officer using a clenched fist to break up a hair-pulling fight between the two juvenile girls, who were taken into custody for disorderly conduct and resisting police and later released to their parents.
An internal investigation, which was reviewed by the Illinois State Police and the O’Fallon Metro East NAACP, found that the officer acted within his department’s training and use-of-force policy.
About 50 citizens attended the meeting of the city’s Operations Committee Wednesday, which at times became contentious as speakers alternately demanded accountability from the police department for its use of force and defended the officers’ actions in the midst of a “chaotic” scene.
For Erisha Moore-Howard, the mother of one of the teens involved, the department’s investigation did nothing to change her mind about what she saw in the viral videos.
She said her daughter was caught in the middle of the scrum and was defending herself when another officer pinned her to the parking lot by sitting on her back. She has suffered bouts of depression and stress since the incident, Moore-Howard said.
The confrontation was captured on one of the videos, which hadn’t previously been released to the BND for publication. It can now be viewed at bnd.com.
Moore-Howard asked members of the city council and the police department what determines “adequate use of force” when a child is involved.
“What is the adequate use of force for an officer to use on a child between the ages of 14 and 16?” she asked. “I have a child that was restrained at the Skyzone incident two weeks ago where an officer sits on her back with a flashlight and his knees in her side. What’s the proper protocol?”
Police Chief Chris Locke responded that department policies outline specific actions based on variable circumstances, but did not provide details or examples.
“It’s based on circumstance,” Locke told Moore-Howard.
Those who attended the meeting “in solidarity” with Moore-Howard and the other family were not satisfied with the answer. Locke declined to comment on the parent’s complaints after the city’s operations committee meeting.
Fairview Heights Mayor Mark Kupsky made his first public comments about the incident on Wednesday. He had been recovering from surgery and appeared at the meeting wearing a brace and sling across his right shoulder.
He called the incident “regrettable” and assured all who attended the meeting that their views were being “taken seriously.”
“It was a regrettable event that happened for all involved that night but it was most sad for those who started the fight that other people were caught in,” he said. “We work to have transparency and follow the best practices, and we will continue to do that. We will continue to ensure we have the right training and we’re doing the right thing.”
What happened at Sky Zone?
Police from Fairview Heights and other agencies were dispatched to Sky Zone, 10850 Lincoln Trail, on the evening of June 26 at the request of the trampoline park’s management to disperse a crowd of more than 200 patrons.
According to a release from Fairview Heights police, “while the officers were there, several fights between juveniles broke out in the parking lot and vestibule of the business.”
The officers’ attempts to break up the fights were captured on video that spread quickly on Facebook and Instagram with at least one post garnering more than 4,500 views. It showed an officer, which the Fairview Heights Police have not identified, punching downward on one of the two fighting girls.
The department’s investigation found the officer’s response to the “volatile and dangerous” situation exhibited a “tremendous amount of restraint.” It explained that the officer was using his fists to break one of the girls’ grip on the other’s braided hair.
“While some initially shared images made it appear the officer was improperly striking one of the participants; (viewers with the NAACP) observed the officer merely striking the hands/forearms of one participant to break the grip of another individual’s hair,” a statement on the investigation read.
Three days after the incident, Kupsky and Locke requested an independent review of the videos by Illinois State Police and the O’Fallon-Metro East Chapter of the NAACP. Both supported the investigation’s findings, according to a release by the Fairview Heights Police and an interview with Francine Nicholson, president of the local NAACP.
“These officers were surrounded by a large crowd. Individuals from this crowd were rushing into the altercations and attempting to do harm to the combatants and/or the officers. One officer was dragged to the ground and another had equipment stolen,” according to the statement.
Four juveniles were arrested and released following the incident. No charges have been filed.
An elected city official, Alderman Ryan Vickers, had also called for the investigation after seeing the videos of the incident on Facebook and Instagram and asked that the officer be suspended. He called the use of force “inappropriate” given the girls’ age and race, an assessment he stood by after the investigation’s outcome was released.
He also said such altercations could be avoided if the police department was more reflective of the growing racial diversity of Fairview Heights’ population; the officer in the video is white and the teenage girls are Black.
Currently, the police department has two Black officers, according to a release. A 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimate categorized 32.7% of the city’s population as being of Black or African descent, an additional 5.6% with two or more races, and 2.8% Latino.
Visions of George Floyd
One of the teens arrested at SkyZone said she also doesn’t agree with the investigation’s finding and wants “justice” for what happened to her. She said she felt like her “civil rights were being taken away.”
“What he did to me was wrong,” she said standing next to her mother. “I would have never put my hands on him so I don’t know why he put his hands on me.”
J.D. Dixon, a former Belleville mayoral candidate and activist for racial and environmental causes, attended the meeting in support of the families. Dixon said the investigation’s conclusions conflict with what he sees when watching the viral videos.
“It’s nobody’s fault it went viral other than that officer for using excessive force,” Dixon said. “If a grown man is sitting here and using a closed fist and punching down on two teenage girls and video shows this officer punching her in the back of the head, how is that not excessive force? How is this police department, how is this city council, how is anyone defending that?
“If it was your daughter you’d be outraged. If a grown man punched your daughter in the back of the head, you’d be outraged, and an officer sitting on the back of a teenager is excessive force.”
Dixon also repeated a point made previously by Vickers, who said the image of a police officer sitting on the back of one of the teens evoked the image of George Floyd’s death and subsequent sentencing of the Minneapolis police officer who was responsible for it.
“How do you restrain a child by sitting on top of them after you’ve seen George Floyd and with everything that’s going on?” he said. “The city and police defending it are perpetuating systemic racism but still — regardless of color, creed or whatever — what that officer did was wrong.”
The calls for accountability were mirrored by support for the police department.
Patty Karraker, a Fairview Heights resident who attended the meeting, said the teenagers who were involved in the fight at SkyZone needed to learn respect and should have stopped fighting when officers arrived.
“When the police showed up, the fight should have stopped,” Karraker said, pointing her comments toward the parents in the room. “Teach your kids some respect and get off the policeman’s back.”
Former Fairview Heights council member Pat Baeske also spoke, repeating sentiments from last week’s city council meeting that the comments Vickers made to the Belleville News-Democrat were “shameful.”
She called the charges of racism against the department “phony” and “demoralizing” to the police.
Last Tuesday, two members of the council, Brenda Wagner and Denise Williams, joined the Fraternal Order of Police Fairview Heights Lodge 217 in calling for Vickers to be formally censured for his comments.
Several other residents called the officer’s actions justified.
At Wednesday’s committee meeting, Vickers called for the city and police department to be “open-minded” to the complaints from the parents and families of the teenagers.
Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.