A Championship Victory

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Public housing residents of the Stateway Gardens complex recently scored a slam-dunk victory over the Chicago Police Department in a one-half million dollar over illegal police searches at a basketball game in February 2001.

The Lawsuit
On Feb. 4, 2003, in the case of Williams v. Brown, the City of Chicago and attorneys representing residents of Stateway Gardens entered into a written agreement to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. The attorneys for the residents from the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School settled with the city for the amount of roughly $500,000.

On the night of February 22, 2001, as players and spectators from across public housing communities on the city’s South Side cheered and rooted for their teams playing basketball in a local tournament, more than 40 police officers allegedly raided the field house. The officers then blocked off exits to stop people from leaving the area, according to the suit. They then searched approximately 300 men and women with children, including babies in diapers, the suit said. The police officers were hired by the Chicago Housing Authority, according to the class action lawsuit against the city.

The night-time basketball tournaments that ran each winter for two months every year were part of a anti-violence strategy that was designed “To reduce violence and crime in the community by getting youth off of the street and engaging them in constructive, organized recreational activities,” according to information provided by the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

CHA is currently paying the Chicago Police Department $13.6 million to provide security and “above baseline services” to its public housing tenants, as reported by Residents’ Journal in Nov. /Dec. 2002 [“Residents Deny Security Improvement Reports,” pg. 7].

The City Defends its Actions
Advocates in the case said that not only were babies’ pampers removed by police officers, but pregnant women were also among those searched and detained.

I asked City of Chicago Law Department spokesperson Jennifer Hoyle if the city thinks that the searches and detention was an infringement of the residents’ civil rights.

“That was the basis for the lawsuit, and we didn’t concede that there was any wrongdoing on the part of the police officers or the police department as a whole,” she said during an interview in mid-February.

Hoyle said that the police officers had due cause to search all the people at the basketball game.

“We disagree that there was not undue cause. There was a credible tip that there would be a violent altercation between rival gang members, and they dispatched police officers to the scene to respond to that,” she said.

Hoyle said the police officers were just looking for secret weapons that could be even hidden in the babies’ pampers.

“Well, they were looking for places where guns might be hidden.

“The officers did recover two loaded semi-automatic guns at the field house,” Hoyle declared.

Hoyle said the only reason why the city settled was purely because the case was too costly.

“From our standpoint, the lawsuit was protracted and it was expensive to defend against. There were a large number of plaintiffs, and a large number of defendants named, which necessitated a very lengthy and expensive discovery. We had to hire outside counsel because of the large number of parties involved. That was the only reason,” she said.

Hoyle added that the city agreed to pay close to $500,000 in total to resolve the civil rights class action lawsuit. She said $99,000 will be divided between the people who filed the case and those claiming to be searched and detained at the basketball tournament. The remaining $400,000 will go towards the attorneys’ fees.

“The named plaintiffs will get $2,000 a piece, and then after that it really just depends on how many other people file claims for this case,” she said.

Stateway Gardens Residents Speak Out
Andre Williams, a Stateway Gardens resident, was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Williams said he sued the city’s police department for two reasons. First, because their civil rights were violated, and secondly, to bring about police reform.

Stateway Gardens resident Andre WIlliams was the lead plantiff in the lawsuit against the city of Chicago's police force.

“If you think about it, it was a violation of our civil rights. This has been a tournament that has been going on 10 or 12 years without incident. And to have the police come in and destroy that sense of community by violating everybody’s civil rights, takes the sense of community away from them,” said Williams during an interview at the Local Advisory Council office in February.

“We won’t tolerate this kind of madness in our community. And if it happens again, we will definitely bring this lawsuit about again,” he declared.

Williams, an African-American man, who has been a member of the resident leadership council for the past 2 years, said being searched and detained against his will was a very unsettling experience for him.

“It’s definitely disturbing. I have never really been in trouble but I have been searched by police before. And to have that done publicly in a place where there’s close to 300 people is definitely disturbing,” he said.

Williams added that money he will receive from the case settlement does not really matter to him. It’s the principle that matters.

“It’s just the fact that we were able to bring something back to the Stateway community. It’s not about the money. It’s about doing what is right,” he said.

The city said that the police raided the basketball game because of a tip that something was about to go down between rival gang members.

Francine Washington, the Local Advisory Council president for Stateway Gardens, who was on her way home from the movies while the incident was in progress, said the police rarely come out to the public housing site when she calls to inform them of gang and drug activity.

“[The police] are talking about they went because they had a suspicious phone call. I give them phone calls every day talking about suspicious activities that I know are going on and they never come. Talking about they can’t come without a warrant. But yet and still, they can go raid a whole tenement full of people,” she exclaimed.

There were seven occupied high-rise buildings at the time of the raid. Six have since been demolished under the CHA’s Plan for Transformation.

Washington, who currently lives in the last building remaining at 3651-53 S. Federal St., said the police should consider respecting the rights of public housing residents as well as any other citizen of Chicago.

“One thing that they’ll learn is that they just can’t be gun-toting, coming in doing what they want to do, when they want to. Because they’re licensed to kill, they’ve got to respect us, our rights and our property,” she said.

The Lead Attorney’s Response
Craig Futterman, an associate clinical professor of law at the U of C Law School and the lead counsel for the Stateway Gardens residents, said the settlement made history.

“It certainly makes history in the Stateway community,” he said during an interview on Feb. 6.

“And it’s an important victory. It was residents that started this. It was residents that brought us in, that brought us down and that started documenting and reporting what’s going on in their own community with the eye of ‘we need to change this,’” said Futterman.

The so-called “Stateway Roundball Classic” basketball tournament that was held annually at the public housing site for thirteen years before the raid has been dormant since the raid. Futterman said a portion of the money will assist in getting the sports game started up and running again.

“We hope that one of the results that come out of this is a way to keep people connected to the community through the field house that has been an important institution. And we’re going to keep things going in the field house. We’re going to keep those positive programs that have existed for many years that have been great for people,” he said.

The “final fairness” hearing date for the city to pay out is scheduled for April 22. And most of the money to the Mandel Clinic will support the provision of free legal services to indigent people who otherwise would lack access to counsel, according to Futterman.

In addition, the Mandel Clinic will make a donation of $85,000 to the Stateway Civil Rights Project–formally known as the Neighborhood Conservation Council–to assist the organization with continual monitoring of the police activities at the public housing site. The organization is based at the public housing site and run and overseen by Jamie Kalven, a long-time community activist for the residents of Stateway Gardens and We The People Media board member.

The basketball Tournament was in the process of establishing a relationship with Mandel Legal Aid Clinic for a police accountability project when the incident happened.

Futterman added that claims will be processed at the Stateway Gardens Park for all those involved to determine who will be able to get a part of the settlement agreement.

A Sad Note
Brenda Williams–no association to Andre Williams–one of the lead plaintiffs, who brought about the case, did not get the opportunity to participate in the victory celebration. Williams died in July 2003 of breast cancer.

According to the lawsuit, police searched Williams, her diaper bag, and her then 1-year-old daughter in the Field House.

Futterman said that $4,000 will be given to the beneficiary of her children for her and her child who was searched and detained at the basketball tournament.

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