“When they pulled me over, they didn’t really explain to me, they just pulled me out of my car,” Ariel Harrison said.
The McDonough County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois is facing fierce criticism after a 31-year-old Black mother of three was held down inside a jail cell and forcibly stripped naked in front of male officers.
Ariel Harrison, who is partially blind, had just left a liquor store and was driving around Macomb County on Oct. 26, 2019, when she was pulled over by police for allegedly driving recklessly. The officers accused her of driving under the influence, but Harrison insisted she had not been drinking. She was put into a squad car but was not handcuffed.
“When they pulled me over, they didn’t really explain to me, they just pulled me out of my car,” Harrison told VICE News.
Harrison said she pleaded with the officers to explain what she did wrong. She claims her alcohol level was never tested and she was tased multiple times before being transported to the McDonough County Jail.
Recently released video shows two corrections officers and a sheriff pointing a taser at her and stripping Harrison after she allegedly refused to undress. Per the report, Harrison continuously asked for privacy and expressed fears of being sexually assaulted.
“I had told her that it’s not right. That he wasn’t supposed to be there while I changed,” Harrison said about the female officer. “She told me, ‘Well, he’s here with me.’ Basically, she didn’t really care. I felt like she violated my rights.”
McDonough County Corrections officers said they removed Harrison’s clothes because she was uncooperative. Instead of giving her the privacy that she requested, the two officers removed her clothes. A third officer restrained her legs by kneeling on them. They left her naked in the cell before returning to give her a cloak to wear.
“That stuff happened so fast,” Harrison said of the incident. “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 is now facing five to seven years in prison for charges including aggravated battery, driving under the influence, resisting a peace officer, and improper lane usage. The arrest caused her to lose custody of her kids (ages 6, 12, and 13). She reportedly hasn’t seen them in more than a year — since the night she went to jail.
“I’ve never done wrong. I’ve never messed with the law,” said Harrison, who relocated to Macomb from Chicago in 2015. “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.”
In a statement to VICE News, the Macomb Police Department makes clear that they’re in full support of the officers.
“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 video of Harrison’s jailhouse encounter was obtained by the Democratic Women of Mcdonough County (DWMC) via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“Ariel’s being given multiple, simultaneous, and even contradictory instructions as a disabled driver who is blind in her left eye,” DWMC founder Heather 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 said the flurry of commands left her shocked and speechless.
“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.”
“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.”
Sarah Grady, a partner at Loevy & Loevy in Chicago and head of the law firm’s Prisoner Rights Project, said jail staff must comply with federal standards when conducting searches of individuals.
“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.
“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?”
According to reports, a judge found her guilty of the charges during a bench trial. Harrison will be sentenced on Aug. 10.
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