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13 INVESTIGATES: City, RPD won’t answer why officer drew gun during traffic stop

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — A video has been shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook, showing a Rockford Police Officer pulling his gun during a traffic stop.

That stop didn't result in any arrests, charges or even a ticket. The person who took the video said the officer's show of force was excessive. He wants answers as to why police pulled them over. But more than six months have passed since that traffic stop, and those answers are still hard to come by.

The video was captured on April 9. A passenger in the car, Erik Rivera, was recording with his cell phone. You can hear confusion in the car from those inside about why they're being pulled over. Then you hear a slam on the back passenger window.

An officer yells, "Open the door!"

"Pull it harder, pull it harder sir," someone in the car says back.

The door opens, and the video shows a plain-clothes officer wearing a police vest and a Cubs hat, armed with a gun. The officer holsters the gun, reaches for the camera, and the video goes black.

"I was just like, what's he doing? Why's he doing all this? We haven't done anything," said Rivera.

Rivera started recording a second time. Then another officer opened his passenger-side door.

"Come out, put your phone down, brother," the officer says.

"Why?" Rivera replies.

"Because I asked you to put the phone down," says the officer.

"Why? I can record," Rivera protests.

"Do you want to put it down or do you want me to knock it down?" the officer responds, as the phone falls to the ground.

We asked Rivera if police told him and the two others he was with why they pulled them over.

"He said the reason was because my brother-in-law pointed at him like this," River made a hand gesture with his thumb up and index and middle fingers pointed, looking like it was imitating a gun.

13 Investigates tried to find out what the reason was for the traffic stop, but police wouldn't tell us. We sent a Freedom of Information Act request for the police report, which is public information, and it was denied citing "a pending investigation" even though no one was arrested or charged.

We took our concerns about the stop and the FOIA denial to the top, Rockford's chief of police.

"I can tell you we're looking at a video that's out there from a traffic stop and the reports are being reviewed and we're looking into things," said Chief Dan O'Shea.

O'Shea said he can't comment specifically on the video because it is an ongoing investigation.

"Once internally it's reviewed then we would be able to talk about it," O'Shea said.

But he said there is no set timeframe for that internal review, and no requirement that it be done in a certain number of days.

Our interview with the chief happened in June of 2020. By October, more than six months since the traffic stop, still no one in the car was charged or arrested with a crime in connection to it. 13 Investigates got the Illinois Attorney General's Office involved, and it sided with us and told the city to release the documents.

Weeks went by, 13 Investigates never received the police report. We reached out repeatedly to the city to give us the report. When it finally answered our calls, it said it was not going to release the documents to us because there was an arrest in the case. A man named Preston Scott. But the city confirmed Scott wasn't even in the car the day of that traffic stop.

Scott is accused in a murder that happened April 2, 2020. He was arrested in July. His bill of indictment and criminal complaint make no mention of April 9, the traffic stop, or anyone who was in the car that day. On top of that, Scott wasn't formally indicted until August 26, more than two weeks after the attorney general's office told the city to give us the documents.

13 Investigates continued to fight for the information and that's when city attorneys got a judge to seal the records.

We asked the city and the mayor to comment about why this information is not being made public. They refused to go on camera, but provided us this statement:

"The Rockford Police Department initially denied the FOIA request because it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The Attorney General provided a written non-binding opinion that the reports should be released with redactions. The City went through the process of redacting the reports and reached out to RPD prior to their release.  At that time, we were advised that criminal charges had been filed, and although the individuals involved in the traffic stop had not been charged, the police reports were pertinent to the case and would likely be material that would be disclosed as part of the criminal prosecution. You were advised of this in an email on September 10, 2020.

"The Winnebago County States Attorney is the prosecutor of all criminal matters in Winnebago County, not the City of Rockford. The State’s Attorney, under the rules of prosecutorial ethics that are frequently cited by SA Hite-Ross, can take steps necessary to prevent disclosure of materials or statements that would jeopardize a fair hearing. The State’s Attorney in the subject criminal case sought a protective order consistent with safeguards contained within those rules and consistent with standard practice in criminal prosecution.  As the investigating agency, the RPD gives tremendous deference to the request by the State’s Attorney to not disclose materials when she believes that doing so could jeopardize a criminal case. We also must comply with court orders issued by a judge prohibiting materials from being released to the public."

Rivera still has many questions. He hopes his video and his story will help him get some answers.

Since police would not comment about specifics of the video, we took the footage to a former NIU professor, Kirk Miller, whose research specializes on aspects of police decision making.

We asked miller about the gesture Rivera says was used toward the officer.

"I find it difficult to believe that a police officer would find that symbol as a threat that they're likely to be a target of a weapon or certainly of a shooting," Miller said.

We also asked him to weigh in on the officer drawing his gun, and whether he believes that show of force is justifiable.

"Perhaps having your hand on your holstered weapon would be appropriate but having the gun unholstered and in a position to fire directed at the vehicle or its occupants, based on what I can see in the videos, seems somewhat disproportionate," he said.

If you have a story you want 13 Investigates to look into, please call our tip line at 815-335-7890.

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Kristin Crowley

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