(Updated April 7 with additional response from Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells)
WOOD RIVER — As the area attempts to navigate challenges and changes brought about by the coronavirus, established practices, rules and procedures are requiring another look.
A recent YouTube video showed two young African-American men with surgical masks being followed by a Wood River Police officer as they left Walmart in Wood River. Viewers were at odds whether the men were racially profiled or causing a disturbance — as well as if anyone should be asked to remove a surgical mask in light of COVID-19 concerns.
The video, which first aired March 18, has more than 30,000 views. Jermon Best, of Belleville, who made the video, said he shared it because he wanted to show the world racial profiling is happening and the situation could have been much worse.
“I don’t know this guy personally,” said Best, who posted the video under the name Halo Dale. “We just want to shine some light because this happens so often.”
Best and another man in the video, Diangelo Jackson of Wood River, described the situation as “terrifying” and said they felt like they were “prey” being stalked by the officer who approached them and said a Wood River city ordinance prohibits people from wearing masks in businesses.
“I don’t know if he was having a bad day,” said Best. “I’ve never said that the guy was racist. All I’m saying is that his actions were suspect.”
Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells said he had been reluctant to make a public statement about the incident because the video didn’t look good on the surface. He said the posted video doesn’t show the entire interaction between the officer and the men involved, adding the incident took place before there were a lot of people wearing surgical masks in public.
“There’s not much I can say,” said Wells. “I backed the officer by what he tells me. Just like anything, there’s more to the story.”
Wells said the officer “was mistaken when it came to the store’s policy prohibiting masks” and it was “the one error” made in the incident. He said Best and Jackson immediately started saying they were being harassed when the officer approached them.
“They immediately went into the race issue,” said Wells. “He (the officer) didn’t kick them out of the store or refuse entry.”
Best said they followed the officer’s order to take off the masks and left the store rather than show identification.
“Being a young African-American male, it’s kind of hard when you interact with the police because you don’t know what state of mind they’re in,” said Best.
Jackson said “just watching a lot of videos of police officers abusing their authority towards people was keeping me afraid, wondering why this cop was harassing us.
”I was just more worried about him doing something he’s not supposed to do,” Jackson said.
Wells did not confirm the officer’s identity. He said he didn’t know the names of the men involved but Wood River Police would cooperate fully if the men wished to file an official complaint.
“I don’t have an official complaint (from them),” said Wells. “If they did make an official complaint, there is a component in law enforcement allowing things to be investigated.”
The video can be seen at youtube.com/watch?v=rtgUMDzG1V0&fbclid=IwAR21-RmGRKkWyiwEPMkApoO-J56kJHeLup-s7Fh8EhvPgpy6kHOJZtRWEOc
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On April 7, Wood River Police Chief Brad Wells released a follow-up statement on the video:
A video has been released over social media in reference to an incident at Walmart in Wood River, Illinois.
On March 15, 2020, an officer with the Wood River Police Department tried to identify two individuals he felt were acting suspicious prior to the two entering the store. The two individuals were wearing surgical masks.
The officer told the two a city ordinance prohibited the masks. A city ordinance does not exist which would prohibit the two from wearing a mask. An Illinois law does prohibit the wearing of a mask, hood, or device to conceal the identity of the wearer from a peace officer with the intent to conceal his or her identity from a peace officer in which any portion of the person’s face is hidden, concealed, or covered on any public way, public place, or property, or on any private property, without first having obtained the written permission from the owner or occupier of the property.
With the current pandemic it is understandable why any person is wearing a mask to protect themselves. On March 15, 2020, not many people were wearing a mask. A review of video from the store does not reveal anyone else wearing a mask.
The officer tried to identify the two individuals, but they refused to give the officer their identity and indicated they were leaving the store. The officer did not escalate the situation and did not pursue their identity any further. The two individuals left the store of their own volition. They were not ordered to leave the store.
An initial complaint was not received from the two involved. Since the incident the two have came to the police department and made a complaint.
The complaint is being investigated internally. The Chief of Police with the Wood River Police Department has contacted the President of the Alton Branch of the NAACP to initiate an investigation. The Chief of Police will also request a review of the incident by the Federal Bureau of Investigations when the investigation is complete.
Many requests have been received for comment on this investigation. A complete internal investigation will be done. After the investigation is complete the NAACP and the F.B.I. will be handed a copy of the investigation.
Law enforcement cannot comment on active investigations. Thorough investigations take time to investigate. The investigation is active, and a complete review of the incident will be done, not only by the Wood River Police Department, but the NAACP and the F.B.I.
The Wood River Police Department will also cooperate with any separate investigation the NAACP or F.B.I. conducts.