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In Chicago suburbs, a college athlete sues police over his injuries

Northern Illinois freshman forced to redshirt after being attacked, but not arrested, at his home

Jyran Mitchell fits nobody’s description of a thug, hoodlum, corner boy, hustler, stickup kid or any other pejorative deployed to justify rough treatment of young black men by police.

He posted a 4.0 GPA at Rich Central High School in Chicago’s South Side suburbs. He is an outstanding athlete who starred in track and field, basketball and football in high school. Yet neither his achievements nor the fact that he lives in a black-run, middle-class town, protected him from police violence, according to a lawsuit brought on his behalf last month.

The suit, filed in Cook County Court, alleges that two Illinois state troopers, accompanied by a police officer who works for the village of Matteson, Mitchell’s hometown, attacked Mitchell without provocation, injuring his right knee and putting his athletic career in jeopardy while taking him into custody. The Feb. 2 incident turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, and Mitchell was let go without any charges or even being transported to a police station.

The confrontation did not happen at a park, on a street corner or by the side of a road during a fraught traffic stop. Instead, it unfolded at the front door of the Mitchell home, where Mitchell was with his grandmother when the cops came calling.

The police said that someone in a black 2013 Jaguar fled a state police traffic stop and that the car was registered to Mitchell’s oldest brother, Shawn Jr., a former semiprofessional football player who is now 24. The only car in the driveway when the police arrived was a Chevrolet Malibu. Carolyn Mitchell, the 67-year-old grandmother of the Mitchell brothers, told the cops that Shawn Jr. was not home. Still, the officers persisted, at times yelling at Mitchell.

Anyone familiar with the often harsh reality of police work could rationalize some of that. The Jaguar could have been hidden nearby. And people, even grandmothers, have been known to lie to police to protect those they love. But why yell at a senior citizen at her own front door? And what happened next also defies explanation.

When Mitchell came to the door to see what was happening, the encounter turned even more hostile, according to the suit. Rather than, say, ask him his name, or for a piece of identification to prove it, one of the state troopers allegedly pointed at Mitchell and said to his grandmother: “You don’t know what your grandson did. … You think he’s an angel, he just ran from the police. Why do you think we’re here?”

When Mitchell tried to move his grandmother inside, he was grabbed by the police and handcuffed. The cops tried to push his face into the ground, the suit says. As that was happening, one of the cops, identified in the suit as Matteson police officer Dominic Bates, allegedly kicked Mitchell in the knee, causing it to buckle.

The police took Mitchell to the car, ran his identification and then realized they had the wrong brother. They then “yanked him out of the car and uncuffed him,” then let him go, the suit says. When the police filed their reports with the state and the village of Matteson, they included no mention of the assault on Mitchell, the suit noted. Interestingly, the police never returned for Shawn Jr. or charged him in connection with the traffic stop.

The Illinois state police have refused comment on the case, citing the pending litigation. Matteson officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Mitchell wound up with a torn meniscus in his right knee, which required surgery, the suit says. That ended his high school basketball season, derailed his hopes of helping to defend his high school’s state championship in the 4 x 100 meter relay last spring and forced him to redshirt during his current freshman season at Northern Illinois University, which he is attending on a football scholarship.

The repercussions of the police encounter did not end there. Mitchell, 18, said he has been traumatized by his first run-in with the police. “I did not know what was going to happen to me, whether I was going to end up dead or alive,” he said after the suit was filed. “Afterwards, I had so much anger inside of me it was hard to even talk about the situation. I was angry at the world for what I went through.”

“I raised my sons to be law-abiding, churchgoing, respectful young men. So it was and still is heartbreaking that the police would go to my home, over the objections of my elderly mother, and break Jyran’s leg.” — Shawn Mitchell Sr.

Like so many incidents involving black men and police, the entire situation would be hard to imagine if Mitchell were white. “The cops would never go to a home in an affluent white suburb and behave that way. He was home with his grandmother,” said Victor P. Henderson, the family’s lawyer in the case. “It just would not have happened. Your home is sacrosanct. If you can’t be safe at home, you can’t be safe anywhere.”

That this happened in Matteson is both baffling and disappointing. It is a place where white flight and a rising African-American middle class have combined to bring dramatic change. The village of 19,000 is now 80 percent black and more upscale. The village president and most other local leaders are black. Back in 1970, the census listed only one African-American in the entire community.

But black political power was not enough to protect Mitchell. His father, Shawn Mitchell Sr., who owns a tutoring business in town, knows many village officials and said that in more than two decades raising his four sons in Matteson, he has had mostly good experiences. But since Mitchell was injured, he said, officials have been unresponsive.

“I raised my sons to be law-abiding, churchgoing, respectful young men,” Shawn Sr. said in a statement. “So it was and still is heartbreaking that the police would go to my home, over the objections of my elderly mother, and break Jyran’s leg. He is devastated. Even worse, when we tried to get the village to compensate Jyran for his injuries, we got the cold shoulder.”

Family members are upset that local officials did not offer satisfactory answers to their questions or show sufficient concern for the pain, both physical and emotional, caused by the incident. “They said it was basically out of their hands,” Henderson said. “And they all but ignored me, until we filed the lawsuit. I think they were hoping to sweep it under the rug.”

The village of Matteson, which was named in the suit along with the officer and two troopers involved, has yet to file a formal response to the suit. Neither has it offered an informal one.

Whatever the village comes up with will not change the facts that Mitchell was injured, his athletic career and dreams of a NFL career were harmed, and his family’s faith in the police and the village they call home has been severely diminished. Now their experience has left them with the bitter refrain that can be heard in black communities around the country.

“Sadly, no matter whether you are a young black man, an older black man, in the city or in the suburbs, a high school dropout or have a college degree, you have to be cautious around and even fearful of the police,” Shawn Sr. said. “Black people everywhere need to be concerned.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.