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Government, Politics & Issues

Fairview Heights Police Chief Promises Investigation Of Cop’s Use Of Force Against Teen Girls

A screenshot from a video posted to social media of a Fairview Heights police officer using force to break up a fight at SkyZone. Fairview Heights Police Chief said the city will ask a third-party to investigate the incident.
Provided
A screenshot from a video posted to social media of a Fairview Heights police officer using force to break up a fight at SkyZone. Fairview Heights Police Chief Chris Locke said the city will ask a third-party to investigate the incident.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Fairview Heights will ask a third-party source to investigate an incident in which one of its officers appeared to use a closed fist to break up a fight between two juvenile girls at an indoor trampoline park, according to a Facebook post from the police department attributed to Chief Chris Locke.

About 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 26, officers from Fairview Heights and other police departments were sent to Sky Zone, 10850 Lincoln Trail, to disperse a crowd of more than 200 patrons. While officers were there, several fights broke out in the business’s vestibule and parking lot, according to a press release the Fairview Police Department issued five days later.

Officers took four juveniles into custody for disorderly conduct and resisting police, Fairview Heights police confirmed. All were released to their parents’ custody.

Videos of the fighting spread widely throughout social media. Several showed a police officer appearing to punch two females engaged in a fight, each bent over at the waist while pulling at the other by the hair. Authorities have not identified the officer.

An elected Fairview Heights official, Alderman Ryan Vickers, called the use of force “inappropriate” and said the officer should be suspended pending a thorough investigation.

Locke first addressed the incident Saturday, a week after it occurred, in a statement released through the police department’s Facebook account. In it, he said a third party will be asked to review the incident and the department’s response to it.

Officer Tim Mueller, the Fairview Heights Police public information officer, had said last Thursday that an internal investigation was standard any time physical force is used by Fairview Heights Police.

“Fairview Heights Officers enjoy strong support from our community,” Locke said on Facebook. “We appreciate the relationship we have and do not take it for granted. We have maintained this relationship by being a professional organization with very high standards. We investigate every use of force and do so thoroughly. This is crucial to keeping the community’s trust in place.

“This exact process began the evening of the incident and continued throughout the week. An outside entity will review our process once our inquiry is complete.”

Locke said he won’t comment further on the incident pending the outcome of the probe.

“The Department will not make comment or draw conclusions prior to a complete review of all the facts,” he said.

‘Divisive and inflammatory’

Locke also used the social media post to complain about an initial news article that was published at bnd.com on Thursday and in the News-Democrat’s print edition on Friday.

In calling for the officer’s suspension, Vickers said in the article that complaints made by those who saw the video should be taken seriously, especially in the wake of the George Floyd’s death and subsequent sentencing of the Minneapolis police officer who was responsible for it. Vickers also said the use of force was endemic of a police department whose officers do not reflect the diversity in the city’s population.

The officer shown throwing punches in the video is white; the juvenile girls are both Black.

“With this issue, you’ve got 35 officers and one Black cop and one female cop,” the alderman said in an interview. “Do we have a force that looks like our city? One Black cop isn’t going to cut it for a town that is 45% Black.”

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 2019, 32.7% of Fairview Heights residents were categorized as Black or of African descent while an additional 5.6% identify as being of two or more races and additional 2.8% Latino.

The Fairview Heights Police Department has not responded to inquiries both by phone and email to confirm the racial makeup among its officers.

In his Facebook post, Locke called Vickers’ comments in the BND article “divisive and inflammatory” and that the article rushed to judgment prior to the conclusion of a thorough investigation.

Police say news account is wrong, but not why

Locke said some of the details reported in the BND account are inaccurate, though he wouldn’t say, specifically, which ones.

Mueller registered a similar complaint on the phone Thursday after the article was published on bnd.com. When a reporter asked Mueller to explain what specifically needed to be corrected, the officer refused, asking instead that a BND reporter call back the following morning.

When the reporter called Friday morning, Mueller asked that additional questions be submitted in writing and said the department would address them in a statement later in the day. In a followup email Friday afternoon, Mueller said he prepared answers to the submitted questions, but that they had to be reviewed by Locke.

The BND left voicemail messages with Mueller again on Saturday and Monday. As of Tuesday morning, the messages have not been returned.

The only additional statements regarding the incident at SkyZone came via Locke’s Facebook post on Saturday. It addressed none of the questions from the BND reporter or specified what errors had been made in the BND article.

These are the questions the BND submitted to Fairview Heights Police in an email to Mueller:

  • What are the demographics of your police force?
  • What specifically was incorrect about what Alderman Ryan Vickers told the Belleville News-Democrat and does the Fairview Heights Police Department have a statement on his comments?
  • Why isn’t the officer who used force being identified, as he’s a public servant?
  • Will a third party be investigating the SkyZone incident? If so, why? And if not, why?
  • Also, yesterday you said the Fairview Heights Police Department has never had any issues with race or racial investigations. I just want to confirm that for my reporting.

The Belleville News-Democrat is seeking police reports of the incident through the Freedom of Information Act.

Confirmation of incident took five days

The BND first received word of the Sky Zone incident on Sunday, June 27, the day after it occurred. Multiple attempts to reach the Fairview Heights Police Department on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful. When a reporter attempted to reach Mayor Mark Kupsky on Thursday, an administrative assistant who answered the phone at City Hall said he was out recovering from a surgery.

Mueller returned the reporter’s message on Thursday, confirming that officers had been dispatched to Sky Zone and that the four juveniles had been taken into custody for their part in the melee.

Less than an hour after the initial article was published on bnd.com, the department issued a release with additional details about the timeline, the size of the crowd and the police presence. Those details were added immediately to the article online, but were not available ahead of the deadline for Friday’s print edition.

In the meantime, videos of the incident have spread widely on social media, with one poster alone having garnered more than 4,500 video views and hundreds of shares on Facebook alone.

Parents upset, want justice


KSDK Channel-5 reported on the incident on Friday including video of another officer sitting on a teenage girl in the parking lot of Sky Zone. The video was taken by the girl’s mother, who told the TV station the officer needed to be held accountable. Vickers also was quoted, repeating his call for greater diversity on the police department and an investigation into the officer’s use of force.

Locke’s Facebook post had no comment on the other media coverage.

The Fairview Heights City Council is scheduled to meet on Tuesday. There is no discussion of the Sky Zone incident or a potential third-party investigation listed on the agenda.

Kavahn Mansouri is a reporter and Todd Eschman is an editor with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.