December 17, 2021

Aurora police officer accused of sexual misconduct remains on the job

Illustration of Aurora Police Officer David Brian with a spotlight shining down on him

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

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Aurora, Ill. — Pablo, a Mexican immigrant in his 30s who has lived in Aurora most of his life, parked in front of his downtown Aurora apartment building one night in April after returning from a spiritual retreat in Utah. He had just grabbed his bags from the trunk, when a police squad car pulled up behind him. Pablo saw a familiar face behind the wheel: longtime Aurora police officer David Brian. Fear, anger, and sadness washed over Pablo as he watched Brian step out of the squad car and walk toward him.

“Here we go again,” he thought to himself.

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Pablo, an activist and outspoken critic of the Aurora Police Department, had encountered Brian at least twice before. Each scenario began with Brian stopping Pablo for minor traffic violations and ended with Brian or other officers using force, arresting him outside his apartment building, and charging him with resisting or obstructing a police officer.

Injustice Watch obtained police dashcam footage of the April incident. Brian can be heard telling Pablo that he’s under arrest and warning him, “Don’t make me tase you or pepper-spray you.”

Pablo had two warrants for his arrest at the time. One warrant was for a missed court date tied to an ongoing domestic battery case, and the other was for an outstanding balance of about $3,200 in court fees for a 2018 reckless driving conviction.

Dashcam footage shows Brian starting to handcuff Pablo, who activates the camera on his cellphone with his one free hand and tries passing it to his partner, just outside the camera view.

“You can record it and give it to Black Panthers Aurora,” Brian says before taking the phone. “I already know you’re part of a terrorist organization.”

Brian moves Pablo against the car’s front and pats him down. Pablo remembers police officers frisking him in the past. But he said what Brian did felt entirely different. Pablo alleges that Brian “squeezed his genitals” while whispering threats into his ear. (Pablo is a pseudonym. Injustice Watch does not publish the names of people who come forward with allegations of sexual assault who do not wish to be named.)

“That’s not a pat when you are cupping someone, and you’re grabbing and just trying to feel around,” Pablo said in an interview with Injustice Watch.

Pablo was arrested but was quickly released after paying a bond of almost $1,000. He is still working to resolve cases connected to his encounters with Brian and other legal issues that he worries could put his immigration status at risk. Despite his fears, he decided to raise the alarm about what he alleged that Brian did to him by filing a complaint with the Aurora Police Department.

Pablo’s complaint marks at least the third time that Brian has faced sexual misconduct accusations since 2017, according to police disciplinary records obtained by Injustice Watch.

An investigation by Injustice Watch has shed light on Brian’s troubling history of alleged misconduct. Records show that Brian was named in at least 74 misconduct complaints about a range of issues since he joined the Aurora Police Department in 1995. At least 33 were sustained, meaning that the department found the allegations credible, including claims that he repeatedly sexually harassed a co-worker in 2016 and 2017. That investigation led the department to transfer Brian from the investigations bureau to the patrol division in 2019.

In an interview with Injustice Watch, former Aurora Police Chief William Powell, who served from 2005 to 2008, said an officer with such a large volume of sustained complaints such as Brian should raise a red flag. Powell also acknowledged hearing rumors during his tenure and getting verbal complaints that Brian was argumentative and impatient during his interactions with community members. But he said he was surprised to learn from Injustice Watch that Brian had so many sustained complaints.

“It’s mind-blowing to me,” Powell said.

Injustice Watch began examining Brian’s background as part of a broader investigation into police misconduct in Aurora after dozens of people gathered in Aurora for a rally in May, where many of them called on the department to fire Brian. The people at the rally shared stories of Brian allegedly harassing and abusing them. They characterized Brian as an excessively aggressive and disrespectful cop who flouts department rules and strikes fear in youth and people of color in the community, where more than 40% of the population is Latinx. John Laesch, who ran unsuccessfully to be the mayor of Aurora in April, helped organize the event.

“Currently, the police’s narrative (is) that everything here is fine, it’s all good apples, there are no problems, look somewhere else,” Laesch said at the rally. “I only campaigned for nine months, and I heard officer Brian’s name come up repeatedly.”

Brian did not respond to multiple calls and a letter seeking comment for this story. And the department did not comment on Brian’s history of alleged misconduct, including the complaint that Pablo filed in April. A spokesperson would only say the department takes every allegation seriously, thoroughly investigates every complaint, and “has created a culture of holding our own accountable.”

Community organizers in Aurora say the department hasn’t done enough, and they are trying to bring more attention to problems at the police department, which serves a diverse community of about 200,000 people. Bigger cities such as Chicago, an hour northeast of Aurora, frequently make headlines for allegations of police violence and efforts to reform the city’s troubled police department. But policing and civil rights issues tend to fly under the radar in suburbs such as Aurora, Illinois’ second-largest city, where census data and police records show that about two-thirds of residents are people of color, but more than 70% of the department’s nearly 300 sworn officers are white.

William Stancil, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said suburbs are no longer the picture-perfect, homogenous white communities that many people imagine. Diverse suburbs are starting to resemble the cities they surround, especially when it comes to policing. He said people of color and other groups disproportionately affected by police abuse in many of these communities see police as an occupying force.

“What happens in Aurora isn’t really about Aurora,” Stancil said. “These are problems probably in your community, too.”

Brian’s history of misconduct and praise

Illustration of a worried citizen with Aurora Police Officer David Brian behind him standing next to a police cruiser

Illustration by Veronica Martinez for Injustice Watch

Injustice Watch reviewed Brian’s personnel file and found a career full of accolades — and consistent complaints about his conduct in the workplace and in the community, including two sustained allegations of sexual misconduct.

Brian grew up in Naperville, Illinois, Aurora’s much whiter, more affluent neighbor to the east. He graduated from Naperville Central High School and was inspired to be a police officer from an early age by an uncle who worked at the Naperville Police Department, according to a 1999 profile in the Chicago Tribune.

Before joining the Aurora Police Department in 1995, Brian served as a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force and had stints as a Naperville Park District officer and as a community service officer in Naperville.

Police records show that Brian received six complaints in 1998, including one that the department sustained, but the police department redacted information about the nature of the allegations. But in 1998, the Aurora Police Department also named Brian its employee of the year at age 26, praising his “aggressive patrol skills,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The article mentioned Brian’s role apprehending suspects in an armed robbery and a shooting case and noted that he’d made 53 DUI arrests that year, the second-most in the department. Brian became a detective in 2015.

Injustice Watch requested a complete list of complaints against Brian since he joined the Aurora police force. The department provided us with 74 complaints against Brian since 1996. Nearly half the complaints were sustained after department investigations.

The complaint records that the department provided to Injustice Watch lacked essential details. The department excluded critical information about cases from before 2016, including the nature of the complaints and the action taken when Aurora officials imposed discipline.

But more recent records show that Brian received seven complaints between 2016 and 2020, more than three times as many as the average officer during that period, according to an Injustice Watch analysis of data provided by the department. The complaints against Brian included allegations of excessive force, pursuit policy violations, and at least two sustained complaints of sexual harassment.

In November 2017, a police department employee filed an allegation of sexual harassment against Brian claiming that he created a “hostile work environment” by making “inappropriate” and “offensive” comments about another department employee. The case was sustained, and Brian received a written reprimand.

In May 2018, a police department supervisor was having a conversation with a department employee who revealed that Brian had sent her a text message asking whether she knew what a Fleshlight sex toy was, according to police records. While investigating that complaint, a police sergeant interviewed another department employee who said in 2016 and 2017, Brian had grabbed their buttocks “approximately six times in the office.” The investigation into the allegations found the accusations against Brian sustained.

Then-Aurora Police Chief Kristen Zimen suspended Brian for five days and transferred him out of the investigations unit, where he had been a detective. In her letter announcing his suspension in September 2018, she wrote: “I sincerely hope that this action on my part will cause you to adhere to all department rules and regulations.”

But that didn’t happen.

The following year, Brian was cited twice for violating the department’s vehicle pursuit policy. In one case, he allegedly pursued a vehicle for “a minor traffic violation” at more than 100 miles per hour on wet roads. Both allegations were sustained and resulted in written reprimands.

In March 2019, police misconduct investigators “received information that Ofc. Brian had been sending unprofessional text messages to a female citizen he had contact with through a call for service,” according to police records provided to Injustice Watch. The complaint was categorized in police records as “conduct unbecoming.”

The records did not provide more details about the nature of the text messages or the previous sexual harassment allegations sustained against Brian. The department declined to turn over more in-depth investigative files, despite several requests by Injustice Watch.

The allegation was sustained, and Brian was given a 20-day suspension. The letter contained the same admonition from the police chief that she hoped the discipline that she imposed would lead Brian to follow the department’s rules in the future.

‘The person who experiences it can tell the difference’

When reviewing footage of his April encounter with Brian, Pablo was surprised at how calm he appeared in the moments when, as he claimed in his complaint, Brian was allegedly assaulting him during a pat-down. He remembers feeling a mix of emotions, among them resignation.

After Injustice Watch informed Pablo about the previous sexual harassment complaints against Brian, he said it was “disgusting” that the city would continue to employ Brian.

“He should be fired,” Pablo said. “He should lose his pension, and he should be called out as an abuser, so that he can never in his capacity as a police officer do this to anyone else.”

Josephine Ross is a professor at Howard University School of Law and an expert on policing, the Constitution, and criminal procedure. She’s also the author of “A Feminist Critique of Police Stops,” which examines the parallels between stop-and-frisk policing and sexual harassment.

Ross said the difference between an appropriate frisk to search for weapons or drugs and sexual assault can be very subtle.

“Is it a flat hand? Is he using just the palm to feel around? Or is he physically holding and groping?” Ross asked. She said unless a witness sees what happens or the abuse is caught on camera, it’s difficult to prove sexual assault in court, and it becomes a credibility contest between the officer and the alleged victim.

But, she added, “I think the person who experiences it can tell the difference.”

Ross said police frisks can be a way for police to exert dominance or control over a person. Even if police stops don’t end in sexual assault or violence, the psychological toll of repeated stops can ripple through over-policed neighborhoods, Ross said.

A 2014 study of young men in New York City found that being stopped by police can lead to a trauma response and can cause lasting anxiety. The more intrusive the police stops were, the more symptoms researchers found of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pablo said he has PTSD from his encounters with police, and that whenever he sees police officers nearby, images of police murdering people of color flood his mind.

“I always find it really funny when you get pulled over or there’s any police encounter and the police ask you why you seem nervous,” Pablo said. “I’m nervous because you’re a cop with a gun who has the power to hurt and get away with it.”

‘You’re going to hurt me again’

The April stop in which Pablo alleged Brian sexually assaulted him was his third interaction with the officer in less than six months.

Pablo’s first encounter with Brian happened one rainy night in mid-December 2020. Pablo said he had left his unattended car running outside his apartment building while taking an ill friend inside. Brian and several other cops confronted him when he returned to move the vehicle, he said. Pablo said he invited the cops to talk inside his lobby, away from the rain. Instead, he claimed they threw him against the glass doors outside the building and arrested him.

Police reports allege that Pablo was belligerent and yelling profanities, and that cops worried that he would flee. Prosecutors initially charged Pablo for leaving his car running and unattended, having an old address on his driver’s license and expired plates, and for resisting an officer. They dropped all but the latter charge, which he’s fighting in court.

The second encounter between Brian and Pablo happened two days later. Brian wrote in a report that he started following Pablo when he noticed that he was speeding and then turned on his lights when Pablo took a risky left turn. Pablo said he didn’t feel safe pulling over immediately. Dashcam footage obtained by Injustice Watch shows Pablo driving with his emergency lights on for about 30 seconds before parking in front of his apartment building. Brian exits his vehicle, tries to open Pablo’s car door, and orders him out of the car.

“You’re going to hurt me again,” Pablo cries, refusing to comply. Five other officers arrive on the scene.

Brian then shatters Pablo’s window with a police baton. Some of the other officers help open the door, pull Pablo out, throw him on the ground, and handcuff him as Pablo screams for them to stop. Pablo was charged with failure to yield turning left, failure to yield to an emergency vehicle, illegal transportation of cannabis in a vehicle, and resisting an officer.

Afterward, Brian is joking and laughing with the other officers. He tells them he saw Pablo hiding something as he pulled him over, and that he thinks Pablo is a “sovereign citizen” — an extremist anti-government group — and that he led one of the marches against police violence in downtown Aurora in summer 2020.

Pablo adamantly denied being a sovereign citizen. He said he thought that Brian and other Aurora police officers were targeting him because of his activism around dismantling and abolishing the police.

“Well, that was fun; thanks, guys,” Brian says to his colleagues before they leave the scene. “If anybody was bored, you’re not now.”

Community members demand police accountability

In May, more than 50 people gathered in front of the Aurora Police Department headquarters for a rally about police abuse, where speakers called on the department to fire Brian.

A handful of residents spoke about their interactions with Brian, while others sent anonymous letters that were read aloud, describing how their fear of police in Aurora drove them to move to other cities and states.

Longtime Aurora resident Jabari Walker described Brian as “a tyrant” who belittles community members when he interacts with them. Walker was arrested in June 2020 by Aurora police because his children were playing outside with snaps, which are small, harmless noisemakers that are not considered fireworks in Illinois. Brian was one of the officers on the scene, Walker said.

Police dropped charges of child endangerment and resisting arrest after Walker’s wife publicized a video of his arrest. Walker said while he’s not afraid to speak out about Brian and other cops, he understands that not everybody in his community thinks that it’s safe to raise their voices about misconduct.

“I want to let you know that you’re not alone,” he said at the rally. “I will say something. I am going to say something anytime I see them do something wrong.”

Powell, the former police chief, said changing the mindset of some officers from using heavy-handed tactics to an approach of community policing is difficult. But he said the Aurora Police Department should establish a better system to address officers with many complaints.

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They should “indoctrinate them to the proper ways of policing,” Powell said. Officers who aren’t willing to change their approach should be fired, he said.

After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, protests over police violence erupted in Aurora, as in many cities across the country.

The city responded with an initiative called the Community Helping Aurora’s Necessary Growth and Empowerment Reform Initiative, which included a series of community listening sessions, the rollout of body cameras for police officers, a review of the Aurora Police Department’s use of force and training policies, and the creation of a Civilian Review Board that will review civilian complaints against the police and evaluate the disciplinary actions taken against officers.

Residents will be able to file misconduct complaints directly with the board, which hosted its first meeting in August, and the board will have the authority to review the department’s disciplinary recommendations. But the Civilian Review Board is still developing the process for how it will review cases, and it’s unclear whether it’ll have the authority to overrule the department.

Brandy Gilliam, an organizer with the Aurora Grassroots Alliance, a collective of progressive organizations, said the city’s community listening sessions were “cosmetic,” and that nothing came from the meetings. While he hoped that leaders would hear the community’s cries for police accountability, instead he thought that city officials were defensive when answering questions from the public.

“In the eyes of the Aurora Police Department, they always boast that they’re ahead of the curve,” Gilliam said. “But you can’t be ahead of the curve if you have officers like Brian in the police force that have been doing the same ridiculous thing and terrorizing Blacks and Latinos for the past 25 years.”

On Dec. 1, the Aurora Grassroots Alliance hosted its own community meeting and educational session, with the goal of providing a safe space without city officials for people to talk about their experiences with police.

About 15 people showed up at the Aurora Prisco Community Center, and a few stood to share their stories about encounters with the Aurora police and other issues in the city. Lily Rocha, a member of the Civilian Review Board and the Midwest regional director for the Young Invincibles, a progressive advocacy group, taught those in attendance how to contact their elected officials.

When Gilliam took the microphone, he said he’s been going to listening sessions for more than two decades, and it was “crazy” how little has changed in that time. Still, he said, “Aurora can be a beacon of hope. It can be one of the best cities.”

But it’s only possible if city officials get serious about addressing police misconduct, he added.

This article was produced in partnership with Report for America.

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