Black Woman Was Pinned Down and Stripped Naked While Male Officers Watched

Ariel Harrison says she was afraid of being sexually assaulted in jail—and that she shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place.
July 6, 2021, 4:12pm
​Ariel Harrison
Ariel Harrison (image courtesy of source)

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After being arrested for allegedly driving drunk, a 31-year-old mother of three was taken to an Illinois jail, where she was held down and forcibly stripped naked in front of male officers, according to recently obtained videos.

Corrections officers say the woman, Ariel Harrison, was uncooperative and that they only removed her clothes because she wouldn’t comply with their orders to undress. But she says she was afraid of being sexually assaulted—and that she shouldn’t have been detained in the first place.

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“When they pulled me over, they didn’t really explain to me, they just pulled me out of my car,” Harrison told VICE News. She said she hadn’t had any alcohol that day, despite a police report that says she consumed two shots of Fireball whisky before driving.  

Harrison, who’s Black, was driving around Macomb County, Illinois, on October 26, 2019, when police pulled her over after receiving a call about a vehicle driving recklessly. The officers alleged she was driving under the influence, but Harrison, who’s blind in her left eye, says she was never tested and was tased multiple times before being transported to jail in the back of a police vehicle.

Now, after more than a year of fighting for her freedom, Harrison is still facing five to seven years in prison for a variety of charges, including aggravated battery, driving under the influence, resisting a peace officer, and improper lane usage. She says the encounter not only impacted her psyche—she has recurring nightmares—but also caused her to lose custody of her kids. She hasn’t seen them since the night she went to jail.

“I’ve never done wrong. I’ve never messed with the law,” said Harrison, who moved to Macomb in 2015 from Chicago. “I came down here to Macomb to let my kids live and be free. But now my kids have been taken from me, and I have these cases against me.”

Harrison has already been found guilty of four charges, and she’s awaiting sentencing on August 10. McDonough County State Attorney Matthew Kwacala told VICE News that her attorney has filed a standard motion for a new trial but that he could not comment further on the case. 

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In a statement shared with VICE News, the Macomb Police Department says it stands by the officer’s account of what happened after investigating the incident internally.

“The incident was documented by involved personnel. Additionally, the incident was further reviewed by Department Supervisory personnel and documented per Macomb Police Policy and Procedures,” the statement said. “The Macomb Police Department serves our community in a fair and unbiased manner as we report events objectively, impartially, and without bias.”

The McDonough County Sheriff's Office, which runs the county jail where Harrison was held, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I’ve never done wrong. I’ve never messed with the law.”

In one of her initial court appearances, Harrison said her public defender failed to dispute the police’s claims that she was resisting arrest. So the Democratic Women of McDonough County, a local organization fighting racial and social injustice, stepped in to help her make her case. And it has: Within the last two months, the organization has helped Harrison obtain and release two videos of what happened in McDonough County Jail the night she was arrested. 

The first video, obtained from the jail in April through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows security footage of three corrections officers, two males and one female, restraining Harrison by kneeling on her neck and back and holding down her legs. They eventually tase her as they remove her sweater and handcuffs from her, according to police. 

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A second video, which was released last month, takes place hours later. In the footage, Harrison approaches the door of the cell as two officers, one male and one female, enter. While aiming a taser at Harrison, the female officer demands that she take her clothes off, according to Democratic Women of McDonough County founder Heather McMeekan. 

(The video was released without audio to confirm the rights violations in the least traumatizing way possible, McMeekan said.)

Harrison said she refused over fears of being sexually assaulted, as a male officer was also in the room at the time.

“I had told her that it’s not right. That he wasn’t supposed to be there while I changed,” Harrison said. “She told me, ‘Well, he’s here with me.’ Basically, she didn’t really care. I felt like she violated my rights.”

Instead of giving Harrison privacy to follow the orders, the video shows the female officer with the taser beginning to remove Harrison’s top as the male officer watches. Eventually he joins in on removing Harrison’s clothing as a third officer, another male, walks into the cell. The third officer restrains Harrison’s legs by kneeling on them as the first two officers remove the rest of her garments. 

The three officers then exit the cell, leaving Harrison naked and alone before returning to hand her a cloak to cover herself.

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“That stuff happened so fast,” Harrison said, recounting the events of that night. “When I watch the video of them doing that stuff to me, I’m in shock. It’s like I look at them and say ‘That couldn’t be me.’”

Jail staff typically have the ability to conduct searches of individuals, but they must be done reasonably and comply with federal standards, like the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act, according to Sarah Grady, a partner at Loevy & Loevy in Chicago and head of the law firm's Prisoner Rights Project.

“They shouldn't be done in view of, or by members of, the opposite gender, unless there is an exigency. There has to be a justification for why there would be a cross-gender strip search because there is a recognition of the fact that cross-gender strip searches are particularly intrusive, they're particularly harmful, especially for women,” Grady told VICE News.

Another video provided to VICE News shows Harrison putting a piece of clothing around her neck and standing on the toilet, although she says she has no memory of trying to harm herself. It's unclear if the incident contributed to the jail's decision to search her.

Harrison, who is currently staying in Chicago to avoid further harassment from police in Macomb County, says she spent a total of six days in jail before she was released on bond.

‘I couldn’t really see’

Harrison’s encounter with the Macomb police began after she dropped off her kids—ages 6, 12, and 13— at the local YMCA. She then stopped to offer a ride to a stranger caught in the rain when she saw the police behind her with their lights on. Believing that the officers were trying to move ahead of her in pursuit of someone else, Harrison pulled over to the left side of the road and kept moving. 

Police followed Harrison for just over two minutes before she realized she was the one being pulled over.

When two officers approached her car, Harrison said she struggled to inform them that the driver’s-side window couldn’t be rolled down. She instead unlocked her door, after which the situation escalated. She said the officers then pulled the door open and began to bark orders at her.

“Ariel's being given multiple, simultaneous, and even contradictory instructions as a disabled driver who is blind in her left eye,” McMeekan told VICE News. “She’s being told, ‘Put it in park, open the door, unbuckle your seatbelt, give me your driver's license, give me your vehicle registration.’ They literally give her just a few seconds.”

Harrison was intoxicated during the encounter, according to the arrest report, which VICE News reviewed. Officers say they smelled booze from the car and observed her with bloodshot, watery eyes and slurred speech. They also say her passenger later told them at the station that she watched Harrison take two shots of Fireball whisky.

But Harrision says she simply froze up while being given the flurry of orders.

“I was in shock mode, I guess. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was still trying to process why I was being pulled over exactly when they snatched me up out of their car.”

“When I watch the video of them doing that stuff to me, I’m in shock. It’s like I look at them and say ‘that couldn’t be me.’”

Harrison also says the officers never told her why she was being pulled over, nor did they use a breathalyzer or conduct any other sobriety tests.  In the state of Illinois, however, police can arrest someone on probable cause if they have reason to believe that they’d had a drink.

“As a former paramedic and trained health educator, I can tell you that was not enough time for anybody to be able to process all those commands at once,” McMeekan said. "Even under the best conditions, let alone at night, when you're already exhausted from taking care of kids all day, running errands, and then you've got a frightened person who you were just trying to help.”

Harrison was handcuffed and transported to the McDonough County Jail. Outside of the building, the abuse would continue, according to Harrision. Terrified and still not understanding why she was being arrested, she admits that she failed to comply with commands to get out of the police vehicle.

That’s when one of the corrections officers allegedly approached the police vehicle and removed Harrison by force and slammed her to the ground. She said she unknowingly grabbed the collar of an officer on her blindside in hopes of breaking the fall. That contact led to the aggravated battery charge.

Another corrections officer, who maintains that Harrison was resisting arrest, then tased her multiple times, according to the police booking report. The mother of three says she passed out during the interaction and later woke up in her cell.

The officer’s account of what happened only states that Harrison was placed in a holding cell and makes no mention that Harrison passed out. It also says that officers asked Harrison if she would comply with a sobriety test and refused.

Harrison outright denies that.

“I didn’t refuse nothing because they never asked me to take anything in the first place,” she said.

Since becoming involved with her case, the Democratic Women of McDonough County started a petition to have all of the charges against Harrison dropped. It now has more than 48,300 signatures—just about 1,700 short of its goal. The group also started a GoFundMe to help pay for Harrison’s legal costs and to hire legal counsel. The fund has yet to meet its $1,100 goal.

“What Ariel was given was brutality and no apparent adaptations or understanding that she was blind in her left eye,” McMeekan said. “Why are they assuming she's a hardened criminal? Why are they assuming they have to take that heavy-handedness with her? Why the urgency in this interaction with a petite disabled woman?”

Correction 7/7/21 12:40 pm: This story has been updated to correct that the county has not launched an investigation into Ariel Harrison’s treatment in jail. We regret the error.