Suit Challenges Racism, State's Eavesdropping Law

Illinois is rare in prohibiting citizens from recording police officers without their permission

By BJ Lutz and Anthony Ponce
|  Thursday, Feb 16, 2012  |  Updated 11:08 PM CDT
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Tyrone Gillett was arrested Aug. 3, 2011 after taking video of police arresting another man downtown.

Tyrone Gillett was arrested Aug. 3, 2011 after taking video of police arresting another man downtown.

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Citing the First Amendment, the ACLU on Tuesday asked a federal appellate court to block future prosecutions of the ACLU and its staff members for recording police officers performing their public duties in a public space.

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A Chicago attorney says video of an August scuffle between her client and a police sergeant shows racism in action, and she says it highlights why Illinois' eavesdropping law should be changed.

Tyrone Gillett, 29, was one of two men approached by police after officers noticed them taking video of a third man being arrested. But attorney Torreya Hamilton said Gillett, who is black, was treated very differently than the other man, who is white.

"I think the video shows two individuals being treated dramatically differently based on the color of their skin," Hamilton said Thursday.

The attorney has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago and three police officers identified in Gillett's video.

Illinois is rare in prohibiting citizens from recording police officers without their permission. It's a law the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging, and one that even police Supt. Garry McCarthy is on record saying he'd like to see changed.

In Gillett's video, a police sergeant approached the white man and asked him to stop taping. The man complied. But when that same sergeant saw Gillett recording video, the sergeant appeared to have a very different reaction.

"Sir. Sir! Take a hike," the sergeant is heard saying before a struggle ensued.

The lawsuit alleges the sergeant physically assaulted Gillett by kneeing and kicking him. Gillett was handcuffed and arrested, charged by police with resisting arrest.

"He's not interfering with anyone. He's standing on the sidewalk," said Hamilton.

Though her client wasn't charged with violating the state's eavesdropping law, Hamilton said that if it weren't videos like Gillett's, civil rights violations would continue to go unpunished.

"It shows that this kind of thing is still going on, and we need to be able to record such instances so that we can learn from them and so we can police the police," she said.

Gillett has no criminal history, and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office ultimately dismissed the charges against him in connection with the incident. The suit seeks a "substantial sum in punitive damages," as well as court and attorney costs related to the case.

Breaking the state's eavesdropping law is a Class 1 felony in Illinois. The Cook County State's Attorney's Office and Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police are on record supporting the legislation in its current form.

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