Lawmaker’s arrest shows we still have a long way to go
Imagine being handcuffed to a table in a police interrogation room for seven hours and not allowed to call a lawyer or even take a restroom break — even though you had done nothing wrong.
That’s what state Rep. Curtis Tarver, D-Chicago, contends happened to him.
Last month, the urbane, freshman lawmaker had all charges against him dismissed by Cook County prosecutors – nine months after his arrest.
His alleged offense? He was carrying while Black.
Oh, of course, that is not what the arrest report says. But like all too many Black men, he’s found that he faces a different standard than the rest of society.
His official charge was a misdemeanor: failure to surrender a revoked conceal carry license, or CCL.
Despite the officer’s contention that Tarver’s CCL was invalid, it ultimately was determined by prosecutors that his permit wasn’t revoked. There was an apparent clerical error in the Chicago Police Department’s database.
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Back in November, Tarver was driving in his district when he was pulled over for having a burned-out headlight. Then the officers asked if he had a gun in the car.
“Being a trained attorney, a headlight being out is not necessarily a reason to ask for a firearm. But, I disclosed it because, quite honestly, I’m a Black man on the south side of Chicago, I’m afraid not to,” he told me during a telephone interview.
And it was 8:30 p.m. and he was eager to get home and not to argue — with six police officers — about his constitutional rights.
“There is a long-standing difference in how black people with guns are treated than how white people are treated,” said Frank Edwards, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University. “This deep-seated fear may date back to fear of slave rebellions. But just look at how much worse the armed Black Panthers were treated in the 1960s compared to how white militias are today. … In Kenosha, that white teenager walked right by those police officers with a rifle on his shoulder.”
Tarver said during the traffic stop, police asked him to give them the gun. When the officer insisted, he did so.
“It scared the crap out of me. The last thing I wanted to do is handle a gun in front of a police officer,” he said.
In 2013, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation allowing the carrying of concealed firearms after someone is issued a permit. To receive a permit, a person must take a 16-hour class, pass a marksmanship test and a criminal background check.
All of these things Tarver has done. After Tarver safely handed the firearm to the officer, Tarver was told his CCL was revoked or expired.
“I told them, ‘No it’s not.’ I offered to call the State Police to prove to them that it was valid. They wouldn’t let me. I asked to call a lawyer. They wouldn’t let me.”
In a Chicago police video reviewed by Tarver, officers can be heard discussing the status of the CCL; one said he is going to call his lieutenant about it. The video also makes clear that the responding officers knew Tarver held elective office.
“He’s a, uh, congressman,” one cop is heard saying.
When contacted Monday, CPD spokeswoman Sally Brown declined to discuss the case because of potential litigation. Tarver is contemplating filing a lawsuit against the department.
“It wasn’t until 2 a.m. when my sister, who is also an attorney, told them I was a lawyer and also formerly worked for the department that investigates police misconduct that they finally allowed me to speak with anyone after being denied a proper phone call,” Tarver said.
Shortly thereafter he was released.
The misdemeanor charge of failing to surrender a concealed carry license was dismissed on Aug. 4.
“Experiences such as these show the fallacies within the conduct of CPD. As a Black man from the south side of Chicago, I am not looked at as an Illinois state representative during these interactions with law enforcement. I hate to imagine what could have happened that day if I was not fully knowledgeable of my constitutional rights, and what many of my constituents may be coerced with while interacting with law enforcement.”
Regular readers of this column will note this is the second time in less than a month that I have written about a Black man elected to the Legislature being wrongly arrested.
Why do I focus on these cases? Because if someone with prominence receives this treatment, how much worse will others fare?
From my years as a reporter covering law enforcement, I can tell you that overt racism is an overwhelming problem in law enforcement. No, not all cops are bigots. But enough are that fear of law enforcement is pervasive in African American communities.
It’s sad that 57 years after Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream of a nation where individuals are judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” we have a justice system that has one standard for Blacks and another for whites.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.