An ex-cop is suing UIC Law School for discrimination

In the summer of 2020, then-Chicago police lieutenant John M. Cannon was attending law school at UIC part time when a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. As thousands of people gathered downtown to protest, Cannon and most of the police department worked overtime. Cannon worked as a lieutenant in the 18th District, policing some of the city’s wealthiest areas in the Near North Side: the Gold Coast, the Mag Mile, and parts of Lincoln Park. These were also parts of the city that saw some of the most brazen acts by protesters during the uprising and some of the most violent responses from the Chicago Police Department. 

Cannon worked the night shift, 8:30 PM until 5 AM, and in addition to overseeing the lockup and release of protesters at Division and Larabee, he also patrolled the streets. A Tactical Response Report, which officers are required to complete whenever they use force, documents that he pepper-sprayed a group of people who he reported as having been looting a Binny’s Beverage Depot in the early morning hours of May 31. 

A few weeks after the riots subsided, one of the deans of UIC Law (formerly John Marshall Law School) emailed the entire student body to affirm the institution’s anti-racist values, stating the school’s broad support for the nationwide movement against police brutality. It included an attachment titled “Pledge Denouncing Racism,” and it outlined steps the administration would take to steer their students—future attorneys and lawmakers—to be better allies against systemic racism while acknowledging the role the legal system plays in perpetuating racism. 

Cannon wrote back to the dean, “Please immediately remove me from this and any other similar email blasts. I do not have time to respond as I am busy fighting against terrorists and anarchists.”  

Cannon graduated from UIC in August 2021 and soon became the subject of an investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) into bigoted social media posts he made since 2018 that disparaged immigrants, women, and queer people. One of the posts depicted Obama in a turban with the text, “Obama is ISIS.” Another post suggested that Minnesota congressperson Ilhan Omar would bring Sharia Law to America. 

An anonymous tipster emailed COPA in late June of 2020. It was at least the sixty-third time a complaint had been filed against Cannon, according to records obtained from the CPD. It was the first time such a complaint was sustained against Cannon. It took COPA nearly a year and a half to complete its investigation. 

One post Cannon wrote read, “Brave young warriors face to face with an urban terrorist and the better trained professional Police Officer won the day. Excellent work by all the new batch of warriors. Love it,” in regards to body cam footage of the police killing of Harith Augustus in 2018. The shooting set off weeks of protests that summer as well as its own investigation

COPA’s investigators concluded that Cannon had violated the police department’s social media policy, which prohibits cops, either on or off duty, from posting content that is disparaging to a person or group based on being a member of any legally protected class, or content which “brings discredit upon the Department.” COPA found Cannon was unfit to be a cop and recommended he be fired. 

In the midst of the COPA investigation, Cannon filed a lawsuit against UIC and a former classmate, which is still ongoing. The lawsuit alleges that the university and three of the school’s deans discriminated against him for being white and a cop, violated his civil rights, and defamed his reputation. He also alleged that a former classmate hacked his Facebook, referring to the posts in question. He is seeking more than $50,000 in damages. 

Throughout the COPA investigation, however, Cannon admitted to investigators that by “hack” he meant that someone accessed his social media without permission, took screenshots of things he admitted he posted himself, and shared them on an anonymous, and now suspended, account on Twitter. An attorney for the former classmate said the lawsuit is an attack on free speech and an attempt to silence people for speaking out against white supremacy and violence within policing.

Via a text message, Cannon declined to speak to the Reader for this story.

Cannon’s lawsuit alleges that his reputation was sullied by the COPA investigation. As a result of the investigation, his lawyer wrote, the police department rescinded a job offer for a position supervising cops on desk duty at the city’s “alternate response unit,” or non-emergency 311 call center. “Desk duty” is the colloquial term used when cops are removed from street work and assigned an array of administrative roles while awaiting judgment over alleged misconduct.

Instead of commanding the call center, however, Cannon surrendered his star, shield, and ID card and found himself on desk duty in the Alternate Response Section, Unit 376 for the last seven months of his career. He quit the police department in October 2022, two weeks before COPA released the findings and recommendations from its investigation.

The campaign to kick cops off campus 

According to several past and current UIC law students who spoke with the Reader, uniformed, on-duty beat cops used to use the UIC Law building like a break room.

UIC Law has traditionally been a place for working-class people and police officers to earn a law degree. (The school offers part-time options and evening classes.) On-duty cops using the space became a contentious issue in 2019, when the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) chapter at the school started a campaign to get them off campus. 

The NLG is an association of legal students, attorneys, and volunteers focused on social justice, who use the tagline “Human rights over property interests” on their Facebook page. 

“CPD officers would come in off their beat right there on Jackson on the Red Line,” said Bryan Higgins, an attorney and former UIC NLG. “Come inside, use our restrooms, sit in the student lounge. Some of them would even take naps in the student lounges. They would eat leftover food from student events, and the security guards would just let them come in.”

UIC has a strictly enforced visitor policy, according to Higgins, and whenever a student group such as the NLG wanted to host an event open to the public, they were required to provide security with a full list of attendees the day before. Each attendee was required to provide ID in order to enter the school. 

“Whereas if a CPD officer just wants to come have an on-the-clock nap, they can just be let in,” they said. 

By 2018, they said that the security guards at the school were “almost week by week, enhancing their appearance.” The guards got body armor, new uniforms, handcuffs, and even batons.

The tipping point, Higgins said, was when security guards started wearing large “Blue Lives Matter” pins on their uniforms. “And so we said ‘hey, no, no, no, that’s just way too far,’” they said. “‘And by the way, where’s all this money for body armor, and why are y’all turning into these robocops?’”  

Members of the NLG chapter began to question how the presence of cops affects students who are victims of police brutality, taking into account that many Black, Brown, and working-class students at the law school may have had distressing experiences with cops. 

“The police can really trigger certain responses from [students] and just make it harder for them overall to be able to study and do their work peacefully,” said Antoinette Bolz, the former president of the UIC NLG chapter who now works as a staff attorney at a nonprofit. “I don’t even know what the purpose of them being there was, but it was very common to see two or three officers just walking around the school.” 

The NLG drafted a letter to school administrators in 2019, and eventually two members, Bolz and Micheal Drake, secured a meeting with the deans. They were surprised to find the school’s lawyers were present at the meeting, along with the head of security and the deans.

The meeting was tense, said Drake, who is now a staff attorney at a nonprofit. Not much changed afterward. The school started sending out more emails to students about leftover food from events, he said, and campus groups continued to meet about the issue. Uniformed cops, however, still roamed the campus.

“There really shouldn’t be this mixture of surveillance and policing at the school,” Drake said. “Firefighters aren’t coming into UIC to use the bathroom. It’s just cops.”

Via a text message, Cannon declined to speak to the Reader for this story.

According to the Citizens Police Data Project, between 1998 and 2022 Cannon was accused of misconduct more times than 90 percent of CPD officers. Cannon has been under investigation by COPA or its predecessor, IPRA, more than 63 times during his 27 years on the force. The complaint that preceded his resignation was the first one ever to be sustained.

Explore the complaints here. 

These documents were attained through the Freedom of Information Act. The pages you will see are Complaint Registers, and consist of the case files of the investigation into complaints and allegations made by civilians or other cops against an individual or group of cops.

As president of the UIC chapter of the NLG at that time, Townsend sent a collectively drafted demand letter in response to Dean Dickerson’s email—the one Cannon said he was too “busy fighting terrorists and anarchists” to respond to. 

The letter begins, “The John Marshall NLG Chapter actively supports and stands in solidarity with the protests against police brutality in America. We take this opportunity to publicly reaffirm our belief in police and prison abolition as the only true solution to this problem and renew our fight to remove Chicago police from JMLS.” Cannon called the letter “hate speech” in his lawsuit.

The NLG statement also demanded that the administration offer a class on prison abolition for students to learn about viable alternatives to incarceration. And while it emphasized the systemic role that cops play in perpetuating white supremacy, the letter never mentions Cannon or any other cop specifically. 

“None of the authors, I can confidently say this, none of the authors of that letter knew who Cannon was when we wrote it,” said Jacqueline Spreadbury, a current UIC law student and NLG member.  

Townsend is represented by Brad Thomson, an attorney with the People’s Law Office. Thomson filed a motion to correct his client’s name and pronouns—Cannon consistently misgendered and misnamed her throughout his complaint and also falsely labeled her as a professor at the school. 

Thomson also motioned to dismiss the case against his client on November 11, immediately after COPA went public with their recommendation to fire him, on the grounds that it’s frivolous, meritless, and meant solely to silence his defendant’s First Amendment right to free speech. 

“Anyone who’s concerned about free speech principles in this country, specifically about freedom of speech on college campuses, should be concerned by actions like this,” Thomson said. “Anyone who has concerns around police violence and white supremacy within the legal system should be paying attention to situations like this where individual police officers are attempting to use the law to silence their opposition.”

Townsend was one of many students at UIC who spoke out against police brutality and the anti-Black racism endemic in the criminal legal system during 2020 and before. Thomson says that he believes Cannon’s lawsuit is an attack on all students who organize against white supremacy in the legal system and that it is meant to intimidate those who speak out. 

Not only that, but it wastes people’s time, he said. 

“It forces people to have to defend these meritless claims and have to defend themselves when their activity and their actions are protected by the First Amendment [rights] guaranteed by the Constitution,” he said.

Townsend was the co-president of the UIC NLG in 2020. The previous year, she and others in the group drafted a letter asking the administration to get cops off campus. 

In March 2020, this new cohort of NLG students met virtually with one of the school’s deans about the issue. They reached a compromise, according to NLG members, where the administration said that they would tell visiting police that they’re limited to the lobby, the restrooms, and the first-floor cafe.

Then classes went remote indefinitely. 

“And then George Floyd happened, and [the administration] was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to make so many changes,’” said Jacqueline Spreadbury, a current student at UIC Law and member of the NLG.  

After the uprising in Minneapolis had spread to Chicago and beyond, the NLG chapter drafted a letter urging the administration at UIC to add an elective prison and police abolition course.

“Law students have a duty to the people we will serve to understand the effects of prisons and consider viable alternatives to incarceration,” the letter says. “Having an elective course on mass incarceration . . . is not enough.  We need to have an ongoing, campus-wide conversation that all students can engage in.”

Spreadbury said that while the letter touched on the systemic role that cops play in perpetuating white supremacy, it didn’t name Cannon or any other cop individually. 

The people who wrote the letter had no clue who Cannon was, she said, until weeks later when they saw screenshots of his racist Facebook posts, which COPA deemed racist, on an anonymous Twitter account called @sugaronmitongue. 

“None of the authors of that letter knew who Cannon was when we wrote it,” Spreadbury said. 

The fall 2022 semester was the first time that everyone was back on campus full time since the pandemic began. Spreadbury said she’s seen cops come in and use the restroom on the first floor and leave, and hasn’t seen them go anywhere else, which was the compromise they reached during the meeting in March of 2020. 

“I can’t say if this is an official policy change or it’s because of this letter [or if it’s] because of the meeting or because of the George Floyd movement,” Spreadbury said. “But somewhere along the way, it does seem like something changed.”

There’s now an entire first-year, anti-racist curriculum woven throughout much of the curriculum at JMLS, according to Spreadbury. The material usually consists of brief videos about how certain aspects of the law are rooted in racism, and students are asked to complete a set of questions. 

The administration never directly addressed the NLG’s demands to create an elective police or prison abolition curriculum, Spreadbury said. One of the deans did guide her through the steps to propose a new elective curriculum, however, which she submitted last summer. “And the school’s actually been really receptive to it. They said it’ll likely be a class for fall of [2023].”

Her goal is to make sure that the prison abolition course happens. She says that a course on alternatives to policing and prisons is the next logical step after the gains of the uprising. 

As of publication, the judge presiding over Cannon’s lawsuit has not posted a hearing to dismiss or hear the case. Cannon’s lawyer, Dan Herbert, did not respond to a request for an interview.  

When asked whether he’s ever seen a lawsuit like this, attorney Brad Thomson said no. “The specific facts here are just so unusual and so far afield that I can’t think of any instance where I’ve seen anything quite like this.” 

Lawsuits like Cannon’s may be part of a larger reactionary backlash towards attempts by institutions to implement equity and inclusion policies, said Thomson. 

“But targeting another student for speaking out . . . is particularly egregious,” Thomson said, “because it’s clearly targeting speech and organizing that is constitutionally protected.” 

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