Last week CHA officials held a news conference to announce that major crimes were down 18% in public housing communities across the city during the first quarter of 2001 as compared with the first quarter of 2000. (The rate of decline for the city as a whole was 11%.)
Terry Peterson, the CEO of the CHA, attributed the sharp decline to vigorous community policing efforts by the Chicago Police Department (as opposed to other possible explanations such as the depopulation of CHA developments).
Commander Ernest Brown, who directs the public housing division within the CPD, spoke of changes apparent along the South State Street “corridor” dominated by the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens. “If you ride along the State Street corridor now,” he said, “you’ll find the parks occupied, as opposed to two years ago, [when] nobody could play in the parks.” Then, according to Brown, residents “were afraid of gunfire. Now you find kids in the parks.”
The following article, first published in the June issue of the University of Chicago Free Press, presents a strikingly different view. It describes the impact of police practices on a park facility that is central to the life of the Stateway Gardens community. And it raises important questions about the meaning of “community policing” in the setting of public housing.
When the Cops Step Out of Bounds: A Police Raid at Stateway Gardens and the Question of Accountability
By Larry Schwartztol
At Stateway Gardens, a gloomy but familiar irony of urban life persists: the place where effective policing might be most productive turns out to be exactly the place where tension between citizens and cops seems to be most firmly built into the social dynamic. While residents of Stateway Gardens are in general more likely to encounter illicit activity than those who enjoy more privileged surroundings-—unconcealed drug-dealing occurs only a few feet away from children playing—they are also far more likely to have experienced or witnessed violent and illegal actions perpetrated by officers of the law. This situation, ironic though decidedly unfunny, seems naturally to reinforce itself, with hostility and distrust conspiring against progress.
So most Stateway residents were shocked but not particularly surprised when a small army of Chicago Police interrupted a neighborhood basketball tournament and subjected everyone there to extensive personal searches. The ages and occupations of the approximately 250 people searched varied widely, but everyone there did have two things in common: they were all black, and they were all searched despite the fact that the police lacked a search warrant or any (apparent) probable cause.
This incident has become the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit that is being handled primarily by U of C law professor Craig Futterman and his students in the Law School’s Mandel Legal Clinic. The class action suit, which names eight individual plaintiffs, accuses about twenty police officers—including Ernest Brown, Commander of the Public Housing Unit of the Chicago Police Department—of undertaking illegal searches in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of those attending the game. The suit’s significance, of course, extends beyond compensation for the individuals allegedly wronged at the game; it has become a dramatic centerpiece in the complicated discussion of appropriate police practices in places like Stateway Gardens.
We tend to associate ‘police raids’ with Elliot Ness-era speakeasies or well-fortified militant compounds-the police initiate raids when they need to penetrate a potentially dangerous layer of criminal activity. The events at Stateway, however, seem not to fit this picture. According to the lawsuit and anecdotal reports (the city has yet to file a response and a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department would not comment on the case, so no official rejoinder has been made), police began arriving at the Stateway Gardens Field House sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 p.m. on the evening of February 22nd. The Field House’s gymnasium was packed with spectators for that evening’s event: a pair of basketball games played as part of the Stateway Roundball Classic, an annual tournament which runs from February to April. The game was populated by kids and grandparents, residents and neighbors. Sometime during the first game police started filtering in and positioning themselves by the doors. One resident heard an officer remark, “Damn, there’s a lot of thugs in here tonight.” After the game ended, the police ordered everyone to line up near the outer doors and submit to searches of their person and belongings. No one was permitted to leave without undergoing the required inspection.
The police never obtained a search warrant, and, according to Professor Futterman, tapes of police radio communications from that evening reveal that there was no emergency or other extreme circumstance but, rather, that the police seemed to have planned and coordinated the raid ahead of time. The police say they had a reliable tip that something was about to go down at the game, but it’s not clear how much legal mileage this will get them. Without a warrant to search either the premises or the particular individuals present, the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure require the police to have individuated probable cause for each person they detain and search. “I really can’t imagine a straight-faced response by the Police Department that they had individual probable cause to search everyone there,” Professor Futterman said.
Beyond the technical questions of whether the police satisfied all the relevant constitutional constraints there is the less tangible but, from the perspective of Professor Futterman and his allies, nonetheless significant issue of the manner in which cops treat citizens. The stories of the individual plaintiffs highlight this point—the issues at stake cannot be reduced to a mechanical insistence on adherence to formal protocols, they revolve fundamentally around the expectations imposed on police officers in their interaction with citizens. Brenda Williams, for example, was forced to put her one-year-old daughter, Breshontae, on the floor in order to facilitate the inspection demanded of her; after Ms. Williams was searched, the police proceeded to search Breshontae. Anthony Jackson was slated to play in the second game that night. When police searching his gym bag carelessly threw his belongings around, words were exchanged. Then, when police demanded that his two young sons submit to searches, Mr. Jackson objected more vigorously. He was handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct. (Unsurprisingly perhaps, these charges were later dropped.) According to Andre Williams, another plaintiff, the police were preparing to leave with Mr. Jackson, who was wearing only his basketball uniform until Mr. Williams insisted that Mr. Jackson be allowed to put on warmer clothes (remember, it was February). Mr. Williams, who has lived at Stateway for all of his 27 years, perceives a fundamental insult in the systematic and indiscriminate searches: “Everyone’s not a criminal. They’re not supposed to be treating us like this.” He was also supposed to play in the evening’s second game, but said that after the raid ended the demoralized players and spectators mostly left, and the teams had to recruit onlookers in order to play the game.
The raid on the basketball tournament takes on obvious weight—both legal and moral—by virtue of the fact that it was such a large-scale operation. But the impact of this police action seems to exceed the multiplicative effect of having involved so many people. The fact that the police entered one of these basketball games seems to have struck many residents as a particularly violent offense. Professor Futterman and his students are fond of referring to the basketball games as a “sacred” institution at Stateway Gardens; while this vaguely theistic formulation probably overstates the point, it seems hard to deny that the games have a special significance and that this disruption thus caused extraordinary distress.
Francine Washington, the President of the Local Advisory Council at Stateway, explains that Stateway’s basketball tournaments—the Roundball Classic as well as midnight leagues—have functioned as a progressive community institution for years. The games essentially displace destructive activities: rather than inhabit the streets and encounter violence and drugs, kids from Stateway and the surrounding neighborhood would choose to pass their time at the games, venues everyone knew were drug- and gun-free. She says there has never been any incident of significant violence at these games. Stateway resident Pete Haywood describes the “sense of peace” prevailing at the games, due largely, he says, to the pacifying effect the events had on members of otherwise-rival gangs who would interact amiably in the Field House. “But that night,” says Ms. Washington, “the police probably didn’t have nothing to do. So they wanted to come to Stateway and make an example out of people for no reason at all….It was distasteful and disrespectful.”
But the sanctity of these events and the indignities suffered by the eight named plaintiffs is not the whole story. The February raid might best be regarded as the most overt and public display of a usually subtle but pernicious trend. The mass-search highlights what many Stateway residents and activists see as a systematically oppressive police presence.
Jamie Kalven is the Adviser to the Resident Council at Stateway Gardens and the director of a community-organizing group called the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC). While careful to emphasize the desire of most Stateway residents to have cooperative and productive relations with the police, he discusses at length the “abusive, disrespectful, and predatory police conduct” that prevails throughout the neighborhood.
The spectrum of behavior he describes stretches from thinly-veiled disregard to naked criminality. It is not uncommon, according to Mr. Kalven, for police to employ the following tactics against drug dealers: “Grabbing guys who are involved in the drug trade, often beating them up, taking drugs, money, and/or guns off them, and not making arrests. Residents sometimes joke about the area [where this takes place] as being the policemen’s ATM machine.” Other activists in Mr. Kalven’s office report that a resident had recently come home to find her apartment ransacked—door off the hinges, belongings strewn about—and learned that the warrant authorizing the raid had her address, but someone else’s name. Mr. Haywood tells stories about police officers engaging in gratuitously sadistic games in which neighborhood kids are made to stand next to puddles so that the cops can speed by in their car, splashing their victim as they enjoy a good laugh. “The disaffection between police and the population here is so pronounced,” Mr. Kalven says, “that people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Who are you gonna call, the police?'”
Kenya Richmond, a 26-year old former Stateway resident and NCC activist recently had a run-in with the police. In the late afternoon of March 19th he was at work when a fellow NCC worker came into the office and reported that the police had just hit a kid with their car and were taking him to jail. Apparently the police had been pursuing him—they ultimately found drugs on him—and ended the chase by smacking him with their moving car. When Mr. Richmond arrived, he observed the police dragging their suspect out from under the car and promptly placing handcuffs on him. A crowd had formed, and many onlookers were urging to police to bring their prisoner to the hospital.
Mr. Richmond also asked the police to take their suspect to the hospital. His suggestion prompted four plainclothed officers to immediately place him under arrest. He was not told why he was being arrested, though one officer did give him the familiar admonishment of authority, “Mind your own business.” The car ride to the police station consisted of relentless verbal abuse. The officers assaulted Mr. Richmond with racial slurs—the worst you can think of, which I’d prefer not to print—and derided “children of the ghetto.”
Then the ride got even wilder. As they cruised down State Street they saw another young man who, it turned out, was running away from some gambling buddies he had upset. The police car screeched to a stop and sped backwards. One of the officers jumped out of the car and ran toward the unlucky gambler. The kid saw that he was cornered and stopped running, but that didn’t stop the officer from delivering “a football tackle” right on the concrete. The newcomer was quickly cuffed and arrested and the three prisoners were taken to the station. The officers exchanged a round of high-fives in celebration of the tackler’s performance.
Professor Futterman has been working with Mr. Richmond and is considering bringing a civil rights lawsuit on his behalf. He thinks the case raises relevant First as well as Fourth Amendment issues, as Mr. Richmond was arrested for speaking out against what he considered callous policing. But the cowboy bravado of the fast-driving, hard-hitting cops also exemplifies what Professor Futterman characterizes as a “pervasive attitude of disregard for the lives of African American people” among many inner-city police.
The primary issue is clearly not one disrupted basketball game. The larger project for Professor Futterman and his students concerns fundamental questions of how police function in areas like Chicago’s South Side-areas populated by poor people and people of color. This fall he started the Police Accountability Project at the Mandel Clinic. The Project’s goal—aside, of course, from its pedagogical priorities with respect to its students—is through litigation and community work to limit the ability of police to abuse their authority. “We want a police force that will patrol the neighborhood effectively but will also protect people’s dignity,” Professor Futterman said.
Even before the Stateway Gardens raid the Project was working with Kalven’s office at Stateway to establish an infrastructure for community-based responses to improper police behavior. The goal is to document police conduct, foster the right habits in residents, and institutionalize systems of recourse within places like Stateway Gardens. This has a lot to do with the attitudes of the people police have conditioned for mistreatment. Mr. Haywood laments a self-perpetuating complacency among many Stateway residents: “People think there’s nothing to stop whatever the police do. People think because the police do that, that’s just the way it is and we’ve just got to accept it.”
One of the points emphasized by the folks working on the Stateway raid lawsuit is that a comparable event in a richer (or whiter) area is unthinkable. Could similar police tactics ever be implemented in, say, Lake Park? Methods of policing are, no doubt, intimately tied to a complex of other social factors; but it seems possible that well-crafted litigation and activism could rattle the perverse irony of inner-city policing.