What Was His Crime? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

What Was His Crime? 

Jeffrey Amon didn't expect trouble when he left work on the evening of Tuesday, October 1. Amon is a 25-year-old musician whose specialty is the djembe, a West African drum. He'd just finished accompanying a dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Lincoln and was hurrying to a class he teaches on the near west side.

His '96 Ford Ranger pickup was parked in the lot across the street from the school, in one of the three spaces reserved for Old Town staffers. "I was all set to get going when I saw this cop had pulled right behind my truck," says Amon. "So I took a couple of steps toward the police car and said, 'Can I help you?'" Apparently no one else was close enough to hear their exchange, so what follows is Amon's version of it.

"We were a striking contrast--me and that cop," says Amon, who's 165 pounds and "about five foot nine--on a good day." The cop's "over six feet and at least 200--he has a belly. He was wearing his uniform, and I was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. It was kind of warm that night. I have long hair, which I keep in tight curls that sometimes get mistaken for dreads, and I was wearing a bandanna."

For a moment the officer was silent. "Then he said, 'This is a private spot,'" says Amon. "I said, 'No, I work at the Old Town.' He didn't respond. He just opened his door, got out his ticket book, and started flipping through the pages."

At this point, Amon says, he had two options. He could shut up and take the ticket, or he could plead his case. He decided to plead. There are three spots specifically reserved for Old Town employees, he told the officer. "I had a perfect right to be there. I told him, 'I really do work here. It's not a problem. I can give you a number so you can call the front desk.' He didn't respond. I said, 'How about I get you one of my business cards?' Then the cop said, 'Where's your sticker?' I said, 'We don't have stickers.' Then I said, 'Hey, maybe I have a pay stub in my truck. Will that work?' You know, to prove that I work at Old Town. He didn't respond. Then I was like, 'Can I get somebody? I will get somebody from the front desk.' That's when he said, 'That's fine, but expect to have a ticket and to be towed when you get back.'"

Amon pressed on. "I'm like all the other people who can't stand the parking situation in Chicago, but I pay my tickets," he says. "But here I had done nothing wrong, and I'm still getting a ticket--and now he's talking about towing me! I said, 'Look, I work for Old Town. I've worked there for three years--you can't give me a ticket. I don't think you have the right to give me a ticket.' The cop said, 'Shut up.' I said, 'Look, I'm not going to shut up. This is illegal. I know my rights.' As soon as I said that--as soon as I mentioned the word 'rights'--I could see he was starting to get pissed off. I could tell by his body language. He said, 'All right, you're under arrest.' I said, 'What? For what?' I was flabbergasted. He said, 'Are you resisting?' I said, 'No, I'm not resisting. Why am I under arrest?' He said, 'I will use whatever force is within my power to take you into custody.' I mean, it was absurd. He didn't have to use any force--because I wasn't resisting and I wasn't going to resist. I was merely asking why I was being arrested."

According to Amon, the policeman grabbed his wrists, slapped on some handcuffs, and threw him against the police car. "I started yelling out, 'Help, help, help! I'm being arrested for no reason! Call the Old Town School of Folk Music! Call the police!' I know it sounds absurd to say 'Call the police' when, in fact, I needed protection from a policeman, but it's a natural reaction. Anyway, he whammed my face into the hood. He threw me into his car, smashing my shoulder against the side."

By then, Amon says, at least three other squad cars had pulled up. "I'm sitting there in the back of the car, and my shoulder hurts and my wrists are numb from the handcuffs, which are really tight. I'm trying to move my wrists--as a drummer my wrists are everything--so I can just feel them again, when one of the cops says, 'Look, he's messing with his handcuffs.' They opened up the door, and they dragged me out, and they threw me on the ground. Some cop put his foot on my head, and some other cops--I don't know how many--held me down. I'm flat on the ground, my face against the asphalt, a cop's foot on my head. And I'm saying, 'OK, what do you want me to do?' They said, 'Keep your hands back there.' And I'm like, 'OK, no problem.'"

The police put him back into the squad car and drove him to the lockup at Belmont and Western, where he was fingerprinted, photographed, and locked in a small cell. "It was the first time I was ever arrested, and I hope it's the last," he says. "I was all alone in that cell. There were four guys in the next cell for something to do with prostitution. At one point a cop brings in a couple of young guys, like he's giving them a tour of the cells. As he's walking, he's pointing out the prisoners. He says, 'There's a drunk driver, and these guys are in for prostitution. And this guy'--and he points to me--'is in for parking in the wrong spot.'"

Amon had no watch, so he wasn't sure what time it was. After what seemed like a few hours the police let him out to make a phone call. He phoned his friend Michael Taylor, another musician. "He was upset," says Taylor. "He said he didn't know the charges or how long he'd be in."

After that call Amon was taken back to his cell. Sometime later a sergeant appeared outside his cell. "He was a nice guy," says Amon. "He asked me what had happened. I told him. He didn't say much. But an hour or two later someone came down and said, 'You have a phone call--it's OPS.' I'm thinking, 'What's OPS?' It turns out that that's the Office of Professional Standards--the cops who investigate complaints against other cops. So I went to the phone, and I told the guy from OPS my story. To this day I don't know why they called. I know I had never even thought of contacting them--until then I didn't even know OPS existed."

Then he was sent back to his cell, where he waited out the night. "I didn't sleep," he says. "I couldn't. It was too cold, maybe 50 degrees, and I was only wearing the shorts and the T-shirt and the sandals. There was a hard metal bench in the cell. I sat on it, but after a while the bench got too cold. I found it was better on the floor. So I sat on the floor in lotus, or I did my yoga. I was in the standing-corpse position. You can produce a lot of heat internally doing that."

Finally, at about 8 AM--12 or so hours after his arrest--he was taken from his cell. Outside the lockup he was given back his belongings--$3.44 and the pocketknife he uses to tighten the djembe. "It was raining and it was cold," says Amon. "I walked along Western for a while, and then I caught the bus. I was never so happy to be on a CTA bus in my life."

He went back to the parking lot and found his car right where he'd left it. "After all that, they hadn't towed it," he says. "I later learned that they don't even have the right to tow it--towing out of that lot has to be initiated by the Old Town School."

He did have a ticket. "They hit me for having an expired state sticker. You see, the state had counted my truck as a passenger car, and when I tried to get my tags renewed they said, 'You don't have a truck, you have a car.' And then--oh, forget it. It's another long story."

He paid the $50 ticket. And he hired a lawyer, "a criminal defense attorney named John Cutrone." On Monday, October 21, he went to court for his first hearing. "I thought they would just drop the whole thing, but no, the arresting cop was there," he says. "It was all hush-hush and quiet with the prosecutors and my lawyer gathered around the judge's bench whispering. Then my lawyer gave me the details."

According to Amon, the arresting officer says that Amon attacked him: "He says I ran up to him and punched him in the chest and then threw an unnamed liquid on his face, then bit him in the hand while he was handcuffing me. After my lawyer told me all of this my jaw dropped to the ground. I couldn't believe it. It's completely fabricated." He insists he had nothing in his hand.

The arrest report filed by the arresting officer says, "While victim [officer] was writing offenders vehicle a parking ticket, [Amon] with a closed fist, punched victim in the chest and splashed unk substance, liquid, in victim's face. Victim attempting to place offender in custody, using handcuffs, was then bitten on Rt. hand. Protective patdown revealed [Amon] to be in possession of a knife with blade more than 2-1/2."

Police spokesman David Bayless says the arresting officer was treated for his bite wound at Illinois Masonic. He doesn't know whether stitches were required.

The arrest report also states that Amon is charged with battery, having an expired sticker on his license plates, carrying a dangerous weapon, and resisting arrest. He faces a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $25,000 fine. Bayless says that while Amon's criminal case proceeds, his OPS complaint remains under investigation. "I can't get into specifics about that investigation," says Bayless. "Of course we're going to investigate the allegation that he was mistreated and come to a conclusion as soon as we can. If there's a finding that this took place the officer will be held accountable."

Amon says his next hearing will be on January 9. "That was the day I was supposed to go to West Africa to study drumming--a trip I obviously had to cancel," he says. "I have to stay and fight these charges. I'll answer them with my own testimony, and I will produce character witnesses from all over the city. I'm basically a nonviolent person. I look for peaceful ways to defuse hostile situations. I work at a shelter for domestic violence, teaching the women how they can use West African percussion as a way to express themselves. I also teach percussion in the high schools. There are people who will testify to my character."

Friends and colleagues have quickly rallied to his defense. "He's absolutely the last guy you'd expect to get into a hassle with the cops," says Taylor. "I believe Amon's version of events. The police version is--well, I don't know what it is. This thing about the unnamed liquid. Where did they get that? What, Amon's going to be carrying around a cup of acid or something?"

Gail Tyler, Old Town's operations director, says Amon violated no rules by parking in the lot. "He was in one of three spaces that are clearly marked for Old Town employees," she says. "I'm not sure of exactly what happened resulting in his arrest. But it wasn't because he was parking where he wasn't supposed to be."

Amon says he thought long and hard before deciding to go public with his story. "The thing is, I don't hold any resentment toward the police," he says. "I generally respect them. I've worked with many fine police at the schools. But I'm getting a little paranoid now. I'm out on an I-bond. If I have any infractions they can throw me into jail for violating my bond. So it's sort of scary. When I see a cop I wonder, Is he trying to set me up? I don't want my picture in the paper. I don't even want you to mention the name of the arresting officer. I'm going public because I think we have to stand up against this kind of bullying. But I'm feeling very vulnerable these days."

He also says he's learned a practical lesson about surviving in Chicago--never argue with a cop, especially if you have shoulder-length hair. "I think if I had short hair and was dressed in a business suit this whole thing wouldn't have happened," he says. "I guess I shouldn't have argued with that cop. I should have just taken the ticket for the nonexistent crime. I still wonder what he was going to write on that ticket. I guess I'm guilty of pleading my case with a Chicago cop. But whatever I did, it didn't warrant a night in jail and getting beat up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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