Rockford, Illinois News

Local leaders respond to clashes between protesters and police

ROCKFORD — Local elected officials have responded to recent tensions between protesters and police after 17 people were arrested over the weekend during demonstrations downtown.

Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara’s response came Sunday via a Facebook post praising the work of the city police department and the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office.

“I appreciate the work of both departments as they work to keep our streets safe for all citizens and visitors,” the mayor said.

McNamara’s comments were not all in favor of the police though. The Democrat who won the seat in a 2017 landslide with plenty of law enforcement support questioned why an off-duty deputy’s son helped detain a 23-year-old woman Friday, an arrest that was captured on video by several bystanders.

According to the clips, the plain-clothed deputy, identified as Tom Brimhall, and his son grabbed Larissa Walston, who was protesting in the middle of East State Street near City Market.

After the men unclenched Walston, the off-duty deputy can be seen pointing at her, signaling uniformed officers to make an arrest. Walston was then placed in handcuffs by a Rockford policeman.

“Though we may have seen a legal explanation that citizens have the right to be involved, I want to be clear–we do not need or want civilians engaging in police activities when the scene is under control by law enforcement,” McNamara said. 

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana said at a press conference Saturday that the deputy’s son grabbed the protester because she was attempting to run away, something that’s legal for a citizen to do.

“He physically stopped her from running away, which is OK,” the sheriff said. “He did not hurt her. He physically stopped her from running away for the Rockford officer to obtain control over her.”

According to footage, Walston was not attempting to flee before or after she was grabbed. After Brimhall and his son let her go, she yelled at them, then stood in the street by herself. She was not under arrest until Brimhall signaled to the nearby officer.

“My wife signed a complaint,” Brimhall can be heard saying. “It’s her.”

Brimhall’s wife was reportedly in a nearby car that was stopped by protesters on bicycles.

Walston is charged with aggravated battery and resisting arrest. She was released on bond Monday afternoon.

Another woman, 26-year-old Dayna Schultz, who also spent the weekend in jail, is charged with aggravated battery of a police officer.

Videos of Schultz’s arrest, which do not appear to reflect the seriousness of her charges, shows her being detained by four officers as she stepped between Walston and Brimhall. At one point, an officer can be heard saying, “Stop resisting,” “Do not kick me,” and “You are under arrest.”

The arrests of Walston and Schultz were both subject of hot debate on social media over the weekend and the women have now been added to a Fourth Amendment rights lawsuit against Caruana and Chief Judge Eugene Doherty.

A total of 11 people were charged in connection with Friday’s protest.

Illinois Rep. Maurice West (D-67) also took to social media, saying he is unsettled about the events and how police have handled recent tensions with the public.

“Honestly, it feels like we took steps away from healing,” West said. “Blame was placed and thrown around throughout the weekend. I don’t have to reiterate what happened, because we saw saw it–on social media, in the news and yesterday’s front page photo in the (Rockford) Register Star. Emotions are high. My emotions are high. And, after reflection, I come to you now from a place of perspective and not emotions.”

West said the announcement by the Rockford Police Department that concluded officers did not use excessive force during a May 30 clash with demonstrators outside Police District 1 was a troubling one.

“Punching, kicking and shoving are considered justifiable use of force,” West, who’s also a minister, said. “And these findings were found based on investigations that were controlled by the police. It’s police policing the police.” We will never move forward toward trust and community empowerment if we do not step away from police policing the police.”

West said the first step toward community empowerment is the formation of a citizen-led police oversight board–one that local NAACP and other leaders are attempting to form.

“I implore Mayor McNamara and our City Council members to work urgently to implement this for the sake of community empowerment.”

McNamara hasn’t weighed in on the subject too heavily but told reporters last week he is open to discussing an accountability panel. He did say that Monday’s meeting of the Rockford City Council will include a discussion about where staff is on securing body cameras for city officers.

The mayor did weigh in on a social-media comment made by State Rep. John Cabello (R-68) after Saturday’s “Back the Blue” rally.

Responding to a Facebook user who asked, “Now is it time to lock and load? Asking for a friend,” Cabello responded to the user saying, “Not yet but be ready.”

“I am extremely concerned by a Facebook post by State Rep. and Rockford Police Officer John Cabello that was worded at worst to incite violence and at best not promote peace,” the mayor said. “We must expect high levels of professionalism and performance from those who serve and represent us and his post was incendiary and not befitting of a public servant.”

The comment also drew ire from Winnebago County State’s Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross, who said anyone who urges others to break the law is complicit in unlawful activity.

“Clearly this type of rhetoric and dialogue is unacceptable and does not further productive conversations to resolve and address positive change going forward,” Hite Ross said. “These posts do not reflect the sentiment of my office nor local law enforcement leaders that I work with. Please be assured that the Office of the Winnebago County State’s Attorney will continue to enforce the laws of the State of Illinois and also provide safe venues for peaceful demonstrations.”

Cabello said his comment was intentionally taken out of context, “contorted and twisted around to something that it is not.”

“Am I surprised that my political opponents and their supporters, none of whom showed up this past Saturday to ‘back the blue,’ is now trying to use this to ‘cancel’ me…,” Cabello said. “This particular Facebook friend, like many of the people in my district is concerned over the lawlessness he has seen both locally and nationally. He expressed that view and his concerns in a way which elicited a similar tongue in cheek response from me that some posters on Facebook have implied means that I was advocating for violence. Not only do I reject that interpretation but I will not yield my support for law enforcement.”

Saturday’s rally, scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon, was over in about an hour after it was met with about two dozen counterprotesters police relegated to a lot across the street.

After the Back the Blue crowd dispersed, some counterprotesters remained to protest Friday’s arrests. The remaining crowd eventually breached a snow fence, moving the demonstration into the street and the Justice Center parking lot. That’s where protesters and officers clashed, sending several people to the ground. Offices hit some protesters with pepper spray. Six people were arrested.

Several protesters are accused of resisting arrest, a charge West says has a broad definition that needs better language.

“Resisting arrest must have a clearer definition,” West said. “Right now, it doesn’t take into consideration the subjective content of self defense, officers use of excessive force, or whether or not the officers announce themselves as law enforcement officers.”

West said while he does not have oversight of local law enforcement, he noted his authority to write laws and that he is currently involved in drafting applicable legislation. Bills he’s working on, he said, would require crisis intervention training for all police officers and prohibit the destruction of complaints against members of law enforcement.

Along with Walston and Schultz, fellow protesters, 25-year-old Dylan Mitchel; 22-year-old William Gettings; and 20-year-old Michael Riggs were released on personal recognizance bonds Monday.

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