Champaign Police Officer Remains On Patrol, Despite Lawsuits & Attempt To Dismiss Him
The announcement Friday of the tentative settlement of a lawsuit filed by Benjamin Mann against the Champaign Police Department is the second settlement this month in a case involving Officer Matt Rush. The department had tried to fire Rush, but he’s back on patrol, thanks to a police union arbitrator.
Update on Friday, Dec. 11: Pending Champaign City Council Approval, the city settles another of Matt Rush's cases for $250,000.
Matt Rush has been named in three use of force cases against the Champaign Police Department. One of those cases was settled earlier this month.
On December 1st, the Champaign City Council approved a $25,000 settlement for Champaign resident William Brown, who was hurt while being arrested in June of 2013.
Officer Rush and another Champaign policeman contend their use of force on Brown, including punching him in the face, was justified, as Brown was resisting arrest.
Brown, on the other hand, says by the time the officers made contact with him, he'd already given himself up and was complying with the police.
But instead of letting the case go to trial, Brown opted to settle with the city. Champaign officials say the settlement doesn't mean an admission of guilt by the city.
"It's important to distinguish that complaints, whether they be citizen complaints or complaints filed in court, they present one side of sometimes a complex issue," said Champaign city attorney Fred Stavins.
It's a complex issue Officer Rush has found himself mired in on at least a dozen occasions. In the officer's nearly six-year tenure with the Champaign Police Department, Rush has been a subject of three lawsuits, five internal investigations and six citizen complaints.
One of those citizen complaints stemmed from an incident involving Benjamin Mann, which occurred in the middle of the night in March of 2014.
According to police records, an unidentified Champaign woman called 911 in the early hours of March 16th, asking for officers to be dispatched to her residence. The woman said she and her boyfriend had just broken up, and she wanted police to be present while they gave each other's keys back, just to be safe.
In the dashcam video of a police officer who arrived later than Rush and his colleague, a police car blocks the view of the altercation with the boyfriend, Benjamin Mann. But Mann can be heard wailing, while the girlfriend is yelling, “Stop hitting him! Stop hitting him! He’s not doing anything!”
Mann’s wailing continues, as do the pleas from the girlfriend: “He’s just one man, he’s just one man. Please stop!”
After a period of time, the dashcam video shows Rush and a second police officer leading Mann away.
Mann’s official complaint letter alleges Officer Rush pinned him on the ground, pepper sprayed him and hit him repeatedly in the abdomen.
The unnamed girlfriend’s official complaint letter details what she calls unnecessary use of force by Rush and his colleague.
But Officer Rush's account is different. Rush says he had to detain Mann because right from the start, Mann refused to remove his hand from his pocket. Officer Rush says that led him to believe Mann had an object in there.
Rush says Mann also fought back; it took four minutes to get Mann into handcuffs.
Two months later, Officer Rush's actions that night were officially declared justified by police internal investigators, and the complaints of Mann and his girlfriend unfounded.
But in another two months, Officer Rush would be fired.
The three incidents cited in Rush's termination case were two uses of force, and one instance of missing paperwork.
Rush had apparently neglected to file a ticket a few days before the Mann incident in March, 2014.
Then, in April, 2014, Rush used excessive force to get control of a woman he was attempting to detain. Police records show Rush pushed her unnecessarily and used his knees to force her into a squad car.
In May, 2014 Rush apparently punched a woman while trying to contain her. The released video from that incident shows the altercation, which involved the woman scratching Rush in the face. But the only sound heard is that of the squad car and the sound of a local country station playing on the radio.
So how did Matt Rush get reinstated to the Champaign Police department after being fired last summer?
In short, Rush is still employed because of his union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
The FOP's collective bargaining contract with the city provides for an arbitrator, who blocked Rush's firing.
The arbitrator then conducted his own investigation into Rush's conduct. While the arbitrator finds Rush at fault many times, the FOP ultimately won Rush back his job by defending the officer's account of events as confused by the heat of the moment, not flat-out untruthful.
Instead of being fired, Rush was ultimately suspended for 34 days. Then, he returned to work.
"Officer Rush has been a model employee since he's come back to work,” said Cobb. “When he came back in, he came back in humbled, he came back in contrite, and he came back in ready to put this behind him and move forward and that's what we did together as an agency."
Cobb says Rush underwent special de-escalation training, something the union arbitrator noted the officer struggled with. Rush is now back on patrol under increased scrutiny for the time being. The scrutiny includes intense review of any use of force, something Chief Cobb says is important.
But on the other side of the coin, Cobb says, “I can't tie our officers' hands. Our officers have to be able to function and do their jobs and we'll hold them accountable for the decisions they make."
The latest development in the Benjamin Mann case came Friday afternoon, with the city of Champaign’s announcement that it was settling a lawsuit filed by Mann for $225,000, pending city council approval.
Stavins says a third lawsuit against the city involving Officer Rush is still outstanding.
Champaign Police dashcam video of the March 16, 2014 arrest of Benjamin Mann: