The sole Black member of the Eastern Illinois University Swim Team is taking authorities to court after he claims he was unlawfully arrested and threatened by police in a harrowing incident early last year.
Even after realizing Jaylan Butler’s arrest was a mistake, a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois Tuesday alleges officers proceeded to criminalize the collegiate athlete by brutalizing and detaining him on the side of an Illinois highway.
Butler and his teammates were headed home from a college swim meet in South Dakota on Feb. 24, 2019, when he suddenly found himself surrounded by police. The incident unfolded just after 8 p.m. when the team’s bus stopped on a frontage road near an I-80 rest stop outside East Moline, Illinois, so the swimmers could stretch their legs.
One of the coaches asked Butler to snap a picture of a nearby road sign for their social media page, which he did. As he walked back to the bus, several police cars suddenly raced up and the 19-year-old was soon faced by armed officers.
“Surprised and confused, Jaylan instantly followed his father’s advice and stopped, put his hands up, dropped his phone, and dropped to his knees,” according to attorneys with the ACLU of Illinois, who filed the suit on his behalf. “Police officers swarmed around Jaylan with their firearms pointed at him and pushed him facedown onto the snowy ground.”
As a Black man in America, Butler recalled his father teaching him to never give police a reason to think he was up to trouble. He heeded the lesson and followed the officers’ commands without hesitation.
ACLU Illinois described the event in detail: “Jaylan had no idea why the officers had appeared. While one officer handcuffed him, other officers pinned him to the ground by pushing a knee into Jaylan’s back and pressing down on Jaylan’s neck.”
One of the cops reportedly held his weapon to the young man’s head and threatened to “blow his [expletive] head off” if he moved, according to the complaint. Despite the objections from Butler’s coaches and teammates, the police went on to search his pockets and later detained him in the back of a squad car, handcuffed.
Bus driver Todd Slingerland watched in horror as the arrest unfolded and recalled hearing one of the officer’s threats against the Black swimmer.
“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,” he told The Dispatch. “As far as I was concerned, they were assaulting an innocent victim with deadly force.”
The driver told The Dispatch that officers did offer a reason for detaining the Black college student: “Their excuse [for targeting Butler] was that they thought the bus was being held hostage.”
Butler, 19, said the incident left him frightened and depressed.
“Now whenever I see a police officer, I don’t feel safe—I feel scared and anxious,” he added.
He and the ALCU of Illinois are now suing officers from the Hampton Police Department, the East Moline Police Department and the Rock Island County Sheriff’s Office for false arrest, excessive detention, assault and excessive force, among other offenses.
“What happened to Jaylan is an example of the harmful police interactions that people of color experience far too often, but which receive much less attention,” said Rachel Murphy, a staff attorney with the organization. “They never told Jaylan why he was being arrested, even after they realized their mistake. Instead, it’s clear they based their decision to arrest and harm Jaylan on the fact that he was a young black man.”
Butler was eventually let go after producing his ID. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, as police were searching for a suspect in a vehicle who shot at a truck on Interstate 80, The Dispatch reported.
It’s unclear if the young athlete has received any sort of apology.