In Focus: A mom wanted to know whether police pointed guns toward her kids. EPD kept the footage locked away.

July 4, 2021

Anya Tanyavutti was in her dining room preparing for dinner when her children told her they watched police officers pull their guns out in front of a playground.

Her three kids, ages 1, 4 and 6 at the time, and their babysitter, Erin Tomlinson, had just walked into their 2nd Ward duplex unit early in the evening of July 11, 2019. They’d spent the last few hours at the playground outside Washington Elementary School, adjacent to the Robert Crown Community Center and just a couple blocks from the Tanyavuttis’ home.

When Tanyavutti asked her kids where they’d been, her two oldest children started up excitedly. There were police officers at the playground, they told her. And the 4-year-old said they pulled their guns out.

For a moment, Tanyavutti, who was at the time a school board member for Evanston/Skokie School District 65, thought they weren’t serious, “because sometimes kids say stuff, and it’s not accurate,” she said.

But then she looked at Tomlinson, and the babysitter nodded. A dozen police officers pulled a man over, had him step out of his car and stand in the middle of the street with guns trained on him from three directions — all in view of an elementary school playground.

Tanyavutti was shocked and upset. And she wanted answers.

But when she went searching for them, she said she found herself up against police leadership who refused to respond to even her most basic questions. They repeatedly denied her access to the principal record of the incident: body camera footage recorded by responding officers. Elected officials were also ineffectual at retrieving the footage for her, she said.

“I felt unseen, uncared for — I felt unsafe,” Tanyavutti said. “Who does matter? Whose children matter? Why is it (that) my kids and the kids in this neighborhood matter less? Why is it that exposure to violence is uniquely reserved for us?”

City officials largely refused to speak to The Daily for this story. Of the four alderpeople who were involved in Tanyavutti’s interactions with the city, two — Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd) and former 4th Ward Ald. Donald Wilson —did not respond to requests for an interview. Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) provided a brief statement in response to The Daily’s inquiries but declined to be interviewed. Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) spoke to The Daily but said he could not recall much of the incident.

Then-Evanston police Chief Demitrous Cookdirected The Daily to the city’s Corporation Counsel, Nicholas Cummings. He declined to comment and advised Cook and EPD personnel to do likewise, citing the potential for future litigation against the city. Cook resigned from the department shortly thereafter, for unrelated reasons.

Commander Dennis Leaks, who led EPD’s Office of Professional Standards at the time, has since retired and could not be reached.

As a result, this story largely recounts the Tanyavuttis’ version of events, supplemented by documents and emails obtained by The Daily. These documents do not include video of the July 11 incident, which EPD has repeatedly denied The Daily.

That video is still held by EPD despite the department’s refusal to release it, due to a state law that mandates departments maintain flagged body camera footage for two years. The hold on deleting the video will expire next Sunday.

“Nature of Call: Misc traffic”

At the time of the incident in July 2019, the Tanyavutti family had lived in the 2nd Ward for just weeks but had been Evanston residents for the better part of a decade. Tanyavutti and her husband Eric moved to the city nearly seven years prior, when she got pregnant with their first child.

The family first lived in the 6th Ward, less than a block from Willard Elementary School, where the Tanyavuttis frequently took their kids to play. While the neighborhood was idyllic and beautiful, it was also overwhelmingly White and wealthy. As a Black woman and an Asian man, the couple said they felt out of place.

“We felt that quite a bit,” Eric said. “Passively, but sometimes actively.”

The issue was particularly pronounced for Tanyavutti. When she took her children out in their stroller, Eric said people would ask her whose kids she was watching, because they more clearly took after their father.

After the birth of their third child, the couple decided to move someplace more racially and economically diverse, settling on the 2nd Ward duplex.

That July 11, the Tanyavuttis’ children, along with the child of a family friend, had gone out with Tomlinson, who has babysat for the couple since their second child was born. The group ended up at Washington Elementary School, where Tomlinson strung a hammock between two trees. Dismissing the playground, the four children played on a short wall on the north end of the grounds,facing the intersection of Florence Avenue and Lee Street.

Tomlinson was trying to take down the hammock when they saw two Evanston Police Department patrol cars pull over a silver Mercedes sedan just north of the intersection. At first, Tomlinson said they didn’t pay it any attention — until they heard a nearby teenager say something about a gun.

When Tomlinson looked up, the occupant of the Mercedes, a Black man, stood in the middle of the intersection with his hands raised. At least five patrol cars pulled up on both sides of Lee Street and the north side of Florence Avenue. Several officers stood in a semi-circle around the man, Tomlinson said, with their sidearms drawn and raised toward him.

Tomlinson said they ran over to the four children and told the kids to duck behind the wall. They quickly did so as well, holding the Tanyavuttis’ youngest child.

Eventually, Tomlinson peeked over the wall and saw the officers had holstered their weapons. According to an incident report filed by responding officer Mark Mizell, the man who was stopped had been driving his own car, which had previously been stolen but independently retrieved without informing police. After 11 other officers arrived on the scene, the man was released without being charged, the report said.

“We are working to provide the best answer and will do so as soon as possible”

After hearing what had happened from Tomlinson, Tanyavutti reached out to Fleming and Suffredin, the 9th and 6th Ward alderpeople, respectively. Neither was Tanyavutti’s alderperson at that point, but she knew Fleming from the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership, a Black-led advocacy group. She had also met Suffredin’s wife through a parent support group, and their children played together when the Tanyavuttis lived in the 6th Ward.

Though she knew both personally, Tanyavutti made sure she had Tomlinson’s account before reaching out.

“I’m a Black woman,” Tanyavutti said. “Oftentimes our voices are minimized and dismissed. I understand documentation is necessary to validate my voice, opinion and beliefs when confronting powerful opinions.”

Tanyavutti was already known as a critic of EPD from her role on the District 65 board. Earlier that year, she condemned the presence of school resource officers after a staff member called the police on a Black kindergarten student in March 2019. As a result of that incident, school resource officers patrol the perimeter of District 65 schools but do not interact directly with students.

In an email to Suffredin and Fleming, Tanyavutti asked why officers had elected to pull the driver over in front of the playground, and criticized EPD officers for drawing their sidearms and pointing them in the direction of her children.

She pointed out in the email that for the nearly seven years her family had lived in the Whiter, higher-income 6th Ward, they had no escalated encounters with armed police. Data obtained by The Daily shows EPD conducted the fewest traffic stops in the 6th Ward and the third-most in the 2nd Ward in 2019.

She raised several questions about the department’s conduct and procedures, and she asked for the footage recorded by officers’ body cameras as they pulled over the man.

“We need information that will reassure us,” Tanyavutti wrote in the email.

The email was sent to several city officials, including former Mayor Steve Hagerty and former City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz,before reaching then-police Chief Cook. Cook and former Cmdr. Leaks, who headed the department’s Office of Professional Standards at the time, worked with Tanyavutti directly.

But the chief and his deputy largely dodged or blocked Tanyavutti’s questions. She said Cook initially indicated he would allow her to view the body camera footage of the incident and promised a written response to her questions. However, she said he refused to provide that response until she had visited the police department — a condition Tanyavutti said felt coercive.

Tanyavutti said the chief also indicated he had opened an investigation into the July 11 felony stop, which he relayed in an email to another elected official, former 4th Ward Ald. Donald Wilson.

“We are looking to provide the correct answer as soon as possible,” Cook wrote to Wilson. “We have found video related to the incident and will answer as soon as all the facts are reviewed… We will provide answers to her questions soon.”

However, Cook and Leaks never responded to Tanyavutti’s emails directly, opting to call her instead, which left no electronic record of their conversations. Leaks continued to call Tanyavutti until he was called out in an email to Cook by Betsy Wilson, a friend of Tanyavutti who works as a mitigator for criminal defendants facing the death penalty and who Tanyavutti had recruited to help with the police.

“The officer should have no preconceived notion of the threat involved”

The situation came to a head at a prearranged meeting on Aug. 1, where Tanyavutti, Wilson and the mother of another child present on the playground during the incident visited the police station to view the body camera footage.

The officers initially refused to answer any questions about police policy because they thought Wilson was serving as Tanyavutti’s attorney. Even after Wilson told them she wasn’t Tanyavutti’s attorney, they continued to refuse to answer questions.

“It was clear from the beginning it was a defensive meeting and they were trying to get us as little information as possible and get us out the door,” Wilson said.

The video they showed the women wasn’t body camera footage, but a recording from a dashboard camera on one of the responding vehicles. The officers were shown from behind at a distance, but neither the man being detained nor the playground were visible.

Wilson and Tanyavutti both separately described the encounter as hostile and said the meeting was intended to intimidate them. Wilson also recalled Tanyavutti and Cook arguing over whether there was institutional racism in the police department, which she interpreted as a “bad sign” for any future progress.

Neither Wilson nor Tanyavutti remembered how the three women came to leave, but eventually they had enough.

“It felt so unjust,” Tanyavutti said. “It felt like they were saying, ‘We don’t care about you, and we don’t feel we have to pretend.’”

Wilson had also already filed a Freedom of Information Act Request for the body camera footage and the department’s policies on traffic stops. That didn’t lead to the release of the footage, but EPD did pass on the incident report. The city’s FOIA officers also issued a portion of the police manual concerning traffic stops, which was originally prepared for former police Chief Richard Eddington.

“The officer should have no preconceived notion about the threat involved, and should remain constantly alert to be able to precisely arrest the risk at hand,” the manual reads. “On the other hand, police officers should not treat every stop as if the person being stopped has committed a serious crime.”

“Officers should consider the location for their traffic stops carefully. Officers should consider their own safety as well as the safety of the subject being stopped and the public at large.”

“Your request has been denied in part”

Within EPD, officers broke protocol and bent administrative rules to withhold documents, specifically body camera footage, from Tanyavutti and Wilson.

Cook never filed a formal complaint with EPD’s Office of Professional Standards. The Daily filed two separate public records requests seeking documentation of any internal investigation conducted by the office into the July 11 felony stop or other police action on that day. In addition, two requests were filed for all documents pertaining to the July 11 stop.

None of those requests returned documentation indicating the office or any other division within the department ever conducted an internal investigation into the traffic stop, nor any other police action for which a case report was filed on July 11.

In denying Wilson’s request for the body camera footage, EPD cited a clause in the state’s FOIA statute which blocks the release of “private information,” a wide-ranging category under state law that includes identifiers such as license plates.

EPD cited the same clause when declining The Daily’s requests for the footage. None of the denials specified what in the videos was considered “private information.”

According to First Amendment lawyer Matt Topic, EPD could have redacted any “private information” and released the edited video.

“The department seems to be hiding behind the privacy of the person detained, but readily available software allows for the redaction of faces in these kinds of videos,” he said.

EPD’s denials did not indicate any effort to redact the portion of the video that constituted “private information” while releasing the remainder of the video, which is what the state statute prescribes.

Wilson’s FOIA denial also cited a portion of the Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act.. That statute says police departments can deny public records requests for footage if the “victim or witness” shown in the video has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when they are recorded by officers. Departments must obtain written consent from the victim or witness if they are to release it in response to a public records request.

Neither “victim,” “witness” nor “reasonable expectation of privacy” are defined by the statute, except that a witness cannot also be a victim.Topic said unless EPD was conducting an investigation into police misconduct, the detained man would not likely be marked as either..

A public records request asking for any documentation of FOIA officers seeking subjects’ permission to release the recording returned no results. In addition, the body camera law permits the release of footage that has been “flagged” for various reasons, like the filing of a complaint or use of force.

“Based on my understanding of the facts, the incident qualifies as an arrest, a detention and a use of force under the body camera statute,” Topic said.

“Devon Reid, in his official capacity as Evanston City Clerk v. City of Evanston”

EPD has tightly controlled public access to body camera footage since officers were first issued body cameras in 2017. When the city began receiving public records requests for body camera footage, the department bypassed the city’s sole FOIA officer at the time, then-City Clerk Devon Reid. The department released the footage or issued denials directly to residents through a service separate from Evanston’s NextRequest system.

The clerk’s office would also receive complaints from people who hadn’t received police records or couldn’t access them, Reid said.

As a result, Reid filed a lawsuit in 2019against the city, former City Manager Bobkiewicz and Michelle Masoncup, the city’s corporation counsel at the time. The suit argued the police and law departments’ refusal to release documents to Reid’s office was impeding his ability to comply with the state’s FOIA statute. He sought a declaratory judgment that would mandate EPD pass unedited body and dashboard camera footage to him for redaction before release to the public.

But the case never made it to trial. City Council voted to add new FOIA officer positions, including designated FOIA roles for EPD that would be filled by police officers. Subsequently, Reid’s lawsuit was dismissed.

City Council said the addition of FOIA officers was a necessary response to a rising number of public records requests. But Reid said the intent was to render his lawsuit moot and has maintained that response times for FOIAs increased after the addition of new officers.

“The capacity issue was a false issue because there was no correlation,” Reid said. “Yes, the number of FOIAs increased, but there was no correlation between that increased number and a lack of responsiveness.”

“HARD TO BELIEVE!!!”

Fleming, the 9th Ward alderperson, sent an email to Anya Tanyavutti, the three other alderpeople and then-Mayor Hagerty the day after the Aug. 1 meeting.

“While I was not privy to the meeting, I never want a resident to feel dismissed (or) disrespected during an interaction with any of our city staff,” Fleming wrote.

In the email, Fleming said she raised concerns with Cook and expected future conversations to be more “productive,” but she also defended the officers, claiming they operated according to legal counsel, and praised Cook’s conduct as chief.

“While I am a firm advocate of positive police/community relations particularly in the Black community; we unfortunately live in a city where police sometimes need to draw their guns in the protection of our citizens and themselves,” Fleming wrote.

Separately, she forwarded that email to Cook, who sent it to Leaks with the added message “HARD TO BELIEVE!!!”

Tanyvautti sent an email to the four alderpeople, as well as her husband and Betsy Wilson on Aug. 3, 2019.

“As a tax paying resident of Evanston I don’t consent to this culture of policing nor do I feel safer by the use of weapons by a department that had such disregard for children and the truth,” she wrote.

After having seen either dashboard or body camera footage of the incident, Suffredin reached out to the Tanyavuttis on Aug. 29, 2019.

He said he sympathized with the couple, but defended EPD. He raised issue with the use of the phrase “police brutality” in the subject line of Tomlinson’s original account, which was forwarded to Suffredin and Fleming when Tanyavutti first reached out to them. A tense email exchange ensued between Suffredin and Anya and Eric Tanyavutti.

“You all are not unintelligent people, but if you want to be intentionally narrow in thought and ignore the broader content of everything I’ve said and written, you may, but that is a reflection of your values not my lack of clarity,” Tanyavutti wrote in her last email to Suffredin.

She continued, “You’re okay with your police department officials acting as bullies and lying in the line of duty and you believe we residents should feel safe in these conditions? These are not the indicators of justice, progressive politics or racial equity, I assure you. You have power, only you’re using it to (obfuscate) and do nothing.”

Suffredin responded.

“Noted.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @joshuajirvine

Related Stories:

Last July, former City Clerk Devon Reid implemented a police transparency policy. Almost a year later, the city has yet to follow it.

Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook retires amid speculation around part played by city manager

Aretha Barnes appointed interim police chief of EPD

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