SPRINGFIELD — If it can happen to Art Turner, it can happen to just about anyone.
But it sure is a lot more likely to occur if you happen to be Black.
Last week, Turner, who was once the most powerful African Americans in the Illinois House, was handcuffed and hauled to jail while driving just two blocks from his own Chicago home.
Well, that’s just it. He did nothing wrong. All the same he ended up locked in a jail cell, stripped of his shoes, belt and more than a bit of his dignity.
Here’s what happened:
The 69-year-old was driving his BMW to a car dealer to trade it in for a truck. Two Chicago police officers pulled him over and said his car was missing a front license plate. He explained it had just fallen off and he hadn’t bothered to put it back on because he was trading it that day. But he produced his title, registration, driver’s license and all the other pertinent paperwork.
The police officers ran his driver’s license and then said he was wanted for failure to appear in court on a traffic offense.
Turner explained they must be mistaken because he knew he wasn’t wanted. He added, “Art Turner” is a common name. Could they double check their information?
He was then patted down, handcuffed and loaded in the back of a patrol car.
“I kept telling the police officer that the handcuffs were on too tight. That they were really hurting my wrists. I explained to her that I represented the area for 30 years in the legislature when we drove by my old office. And I said that I was certain that I wasn’t wanted for anything, could she doublecheck her information?”
The officer didn’t respond.
Authority and arrogance often go hand in hand. And let’s be honest, some folks can’t see past the color of a person’s skin. For such individuals, reasoning, accomplishments, empathy mean little.
From my time covering police departments, I can tell you a whole lot of bigots end up in law enforcement. And, no, not all cops are this way. But enough are that fear of law enforcement is pervasive in Black communities.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the nation, one might think these officers would be extra careful in how they treat people.
That apparently wasn’t the case with the pair who Turner encountered. They could have requested more information on the wanted individual but didn’t.
In case you’re wondering about Rep. Turner, he has a gentlemanly demeanor and stands a rather unimposing 5 foot, 8 inches tall. During his time in the legislature, Turner was known as quiet and cerebral. He wasn’t a grandstander. He was a budget nerd.
“I started out in college as a math major and then switched to business. Working on the state budget just seemed like a good fit,” he said.
When a handcuffed Turner arrived at the police station, he hollered that he was a former state representative and demanded to see the watch commander. A sergeant heard his voice echoing down the hallway and sought out the commander.
The commander knew him and immediately released him.
It turns out that there was an Art Turner who was wanted. But this Art Turner is 33 — 36 years younger than the former state representative. The fugitive also is covered with tattoos. And Art, the budget nerd, has none. Oh, and the wanted man is 6 foot, 2 inches tall –— 6 inches taller than the other Art Turner.
If the former state representative wasn’t a prominent person in the community and if the watch commander hadn’t known him, he might well have spent a night or two in jail before the matter was cleared up.
The commander apologized. But Turner said he never heard from the two officers who locked him up.
Now some reading this may say this isn’t about race. Maybe the former state representative was dressed in a manner that caused suspicion.
So, just what was he wearing?
“I had on a shirt that says ‘Chicago Police Golf Memorial Fund.’ On the back of the shirt, it had the Chicago police star and on the front it had the flag colors of the Chicago police. It’s a charity I’ve supported over the years.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.