Ithaca College students tell their stories: Lawrence

Editors Note: What follows is the account from an Ithaca College student of his encounter with two public safety officers on the night of May 25. Terri Stewart said she could not comment on the incident, citing Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The records at Ithaca Town Court and the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office have been sealed.

Around 11 p.m. May 25, 2014, Lawrence*, then an Ithaca College sophomore, was tackled by an officer from the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, while another forced his hands behind his back because he did not take his hands out of his pockets.

Lawrence was cuffed, read his rights and placed in the back of a Public Safety vehicle.   

Public Safety transported him to their offices, took his mugshot and fingerprints, and cuffed him to a chair in their holding cell.

Three hours later, a Public Safety supervisor apologized to him for the disturbance.

He was released and issued an appearance ticket listing his charges — obstructing governmental procedure and resisting arrest.

Six months later, all charges against Lawrence were dropped.  

———

It’s a late evening during May, a chillier-than-usual summer evening. Lawrence keeps his hands in the pockets of his shorts to stay warm.

Lawrence is tall, 6 feet 2 inches pushing 6 feet 3 inches, and weighs more than 180 pounds.

He has a scruffy goatee that hides his otherwise boyish face.

He is also black. He was born in Ghana but now lives in the Bronx and is a permanent resident of the U.S.

Lawrence is tall, 6 feet 2 inches pushing 6 feet 3 inches, and weighs more than 180 pounds.

He has a scruffy goatee that hides his otherwise boyish face.

He is also black.

Lawrence is a sophomore at the college, staying in The Circle Apartments with his friend while he looks for employment in Ithaca for the summer.

At about 9 p.m., he orders Chinese food from Apollo Chinese Restaurant. The friend he was living with warns Lawrence that the restaurant’s drivers often attempted to force students to tip drivers.

Lawrence, wearing basketball shorts, a tank top and walking barefoot, answers the door to retrieve his food from the delivery man.

He opens the door and the delivery man holds up the receipt for Lawrence to sign, which he quickly does. While Lawrence reaches for his food, the delivery man quickly points to the receipt and says, “Tip, tip, tip.”

Lawrence then tells the delivery driver he’s not going to tip him and that tips are optional. The delivery driver insists that Lawrence tip him, holding the food out of Lawrence’s reach.

The delivery man continues to argue with Lawrence about the tip, so Lawrence’s friend comes to the door as well.

At that point, Lawrence snatches the food from the driver. Lawrence’s friend also starts arguing with the driver, saying that the restaurant often harasses students for tips.

Lawrence leaves his entryway to place the Chinese food on his kitchen table. Lawrence’s friend and the delivery man continue to argue outside. The friend and the driver are near the driver’s car when Lawrence said the driver claimed his friend struck the delivery car with his hand multiple times.

Paul, the driver, told The Ithacan Lawrence and his friend got aggressive.  

“I worried that those guys attack me,” Paul said.  

“I worried that those guys attack me.”

 

Paul said he feared for his life.  

Lawrence denies his friend ever hit the car.

The driver then proceeds to call 911.

As the delivery man calls 911, Lawrence’s friend tells him he is going inside and that Lawrence should come with him. Lawrence decides to stay outside and wait for the officers.  

“I just want to tell these guys this is actually what’s happening,” Lawrence said. “The reason why this guy is here right now is not because of my friend. The reason this guy is here is because I did not tip him … I was going to tell them actually what’s happening.

“Frankly, at the beginning, I thought it was kind of funny.”  

“Frankly, at the beginning, I thought it was kind of funny.”

Two of the college’s Public Safety officers, Steve Rounds and Eric Willman, who has since taken another job, arrive on the scene shortly after the call is made, which Lawrence estimates was at about 11 p.m.  

Lawrence is standing on the sidewalk, with his hands in his pockets, a couple of yards to the right of the staircase that leads up to the apartment, Circle 211-01, where he was staying. The delivery man is standing near his car parked just a few yards away.

As they arrive, Rounds begins heading toward the apartment as Willman heads toward the delivery man.

Rounds walks past Lawrence, ignoring him, and begins climbing the small set of stairs up to the apartment when Lawrence calls out to him.

Lawrence estimates he was about 2.5 yards away from the officer when he first called out to him.

“Officer, officer, can I speak to you for a second?”

Rounds is past the stairs, a couple of yards from the door, when he turns around and walks purposefully down the hill to the left of the stairs. He makes his way to the sidewalk where Lawrence is standing. He’s about a yard away from Lawrence, when he barks an order.

“Take your hands out of your pocket.”

Lawrence said he was scared, and began to pull them out of his pocket, revealing his thumbs to the officer, but then he questioned the decision.

“Why, why should I do that?” Lawrence responds.

Rounds, standing still, yells at Lawrence again.

“Take your hands out of your pocket.”

Lawrence said he was worried about pulling his hands out of his pocket, worried he would end up like other black men who have put their hands up and been shot by police officers who claim they see a gun. His posture becomes timid.  

Rounds gives Lawrence the order again.

“Take your hands out of your pocket.”

Lawrence questions the officer again, and Rounds responds with force.

Rounds grabs Lawrence’s left hand and pulls it out of his pocket, twisting it behind his back.

Rounds reaches for Lawrence’s other pocket and simultaneously turns Lawrence so he is facing the grassy hill leading up toward the Circle Apartment.

Lawrence calls out in pain.

“I was screaming, ‘Ah! Ah! My wrist, my wrist.’”

Lawrence calls out in pain.

“I was screaming, ‘Ah! Ah! My wrist, my wrist.’”

Lawrence is then tackled at full force by Willman, whose shoulder and chest crash into his back, and both officers topple him to the ground.

They both shuffle with Lawrence’s arms and put him in handcuffs. He said he was in no way resisting.  

Lawrence is then sat on the curb by one of the officers as the other goes to speak to the delivery driver.

At this point Lawrence’s friend comes out and begins recording the interaction between Lawrence and the officer. Below is a transcript of their interactions.

Lawrence: I should stay down?

Rounds: Yes.

L: Take, take a video. I haven’t done anything.

R: I asked you to take your hands out of your pockets, and you didn’t.

L: I asked you why you asked me to take my hands out of my pockets.

R: Because I don’t know you.

L: I don’t know you either. I’m from New York City, do you know what cops do to me?

R: Do you have any weapons on you?

L: Do I look like I have weapons on me?

R: I’m asking you.

L: You guys tackled me to the ground and put my hands on my back and cuffed me. I asked you what you did to me and you didn’t tell me anything. You told me nothing. You told me nothing.

Lawrence sits on the curb for what he estimates is about 10 more minutes. The officers then read him his Miranda rights and put him in the back of their vehicle.  

Lawrence is then taken to the Public Safety office.

They take his mugshot and fingerprints.  

Medical personnel from the college check Lawrence’s wrist that was twisted behind his back by Rounds. They ask him if he wants to go to the clinic. He says no.  

They then handcuff him to a chair.

After an estimated three hours, Lawrence says, a Public Safety supervisor comes in and apologizes.

“He said ‘Sorry for the disruption.’”

It’s around 2 a.m., and Lawrence doesn’t want to talk.

Lawrence is released soon after and given two sheets of paper detailing his charges: obstruction of governmental administration and resisting arrest.

Lawrence goes to court multiple times over the next month with his public defender. He is never written up by judicial affairs and never speaks to anyone on campus about the actions of the officers.  

He is still allowed to live on campus during the summer while he works at Wegmans.

In December 2014, the charges against Lawrence are dropped.

Meanwhile, both Rounds and Willman continue their jobs as patrol officers at the college.

———

Lawrence said he thinks the officers’ actions toward him were racially motivated.

When he asked if he thought this would happen to him if he were a white student, Lawrence said no.

“No, maybe if I was drunk or maybe if I was shouting at the cop,” he said. “I’m not even sure if it would have happened if I was [a] smaller, shorter black student.”

Lawrence said his identity as a minority student on the college campus led to the incident.  

“I feel like I’m a certain image that people on this campus aren’t necessarily familiar with,” he said.

According to a LinkedIn profile with the name Eric Willman attached, Willman spent two years and three months as a Public Safety officer at the college.

In May 2015, Willman’s profile indicates, he started as a deputy sheriff at the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, where he is currently employed.

Willman did not respond to a request for a comment left on his voicemail at the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment either.  

Terri Stewart, the director of Public Safety, said from an estimated 1,300 case reports in the 2014 fiscal year, there were fewer than 10 cases in which Public Safety officers reported they used force, which includes any time officers use their hands to control the subject, not just for arresting the subject.

Stewart said the office would not share how many of those cases involved students of color but that conversations will be had at the college regarding what data to release in the future.

Public Safety has begun manually tracking the data on the demographics of students who are judicially referred or have an encounter with Public Safety, Stewart said, but their system is not yet set up to comprehensively track this data.

Public Safety hasn’t disclosed any of the data they currently have collected, Stewart said.

Stewart also said every time force is used she reviews it.

“Every use of force application requires a form and review on the administrative level,” she said. “So I see every use of force that we have. And the applications range from mental health to ambulance.”

In December 2014, Lawrence said the judge offered him an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

The ACD stipulated the case would be adjourned for six months if Lawrence stayed out of legal trouble. If six months passed without an incident, the case would be dismissed, and the record of the arrest would be sealed.

Six months passed, and the arrest records were sealed.

When The Ithacan requested the documents from the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, the Ithaca Town Court and the Office of Public Safety all said there is no record currently on file.  

Incident reports produced by the Office of Public Safety are not public records, Stewart said.

The only public record that exists of that event is in the Ithaca College Public Safety Activity Log.  

Below is the log of the event.

“OBSTRUCTION OF GOVERNMENT ADMINISTRATION 140614

Location: CIRCLE LOT

Summary: Tompkins County 911 Center Advised Ithaca College Public Safety about a reported dispute over a food delivery. One person arrested for obstructing governmental procedure and resisting arrest. Officer issued the person an appearance ticket for the town of Ithaca Court person was referred judicially. Patrol Officer Steve Rounds.”

———

Lawrence said he believes his main mistake was initiating the conversation with the officer.

“I shouldn’t have asked him anything,” he said, and then he plays through the event as it would ideally go.  

“This shouldn’t happen here,” Lawrence said. “This shouldn’t happen on a college campus.”

Lawrence looks away. He’s tearing up. He slowly rotates his wrist as he has throughout the entire conversation about the incident.

“It hurts still.”

 

 

* Names have been altered to protect anonymity.

Max Denning can be reached at mdenning@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @TheMaxDenning