January 16, 2004

Legal clinic settles with city over civil rights infringement

In one of the largest civil rights lawsuits in recent city history, the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, a training program for students at the Law School, reached a $500,000 settlement with the city of Chicago.

The lawsuit, Williams v. Brown, concerns the events of February 22, 2001 when over 40 City of Chicago police officers raided the Stateway Gardens Field House, a Chicago Park District facility. The Field House serves as a recreational area for the Stateway Gardens public housing development. At the time of the raid, the field house was hosting the Stateway Roundball Classic, a community basketball tournament held yearly that attracted hundreds of residents.

Even though the Field House is viewed as a safe haven for community members, the police officers interrupted the basketball tournament under the suspicion that gang violence might break out. They refused to let anyone leave until everyone was searched individually.

The tournament is designed to combat violence by encouraging members of different communities—and even different gangs—to come together for sports rather than violence.

Before the raid, no violent incidents had ever been reported at the Field House.

The Mandel Legal Aid Clinic was established in 1957 to provide legal aid to the poor, and includes the Civil Rights Police Accountability Project. It worked with several Stateway Gardens residents to file a lawsuit against the city for violating the residents' rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

A portion of the $500,000 will be awarded to the residents, the civil rights lawyers who worked on the case, and the Mandel Clinic. The Clinic will also donate $85,000 to the Stateway Civil Rights Project, an organization that addresses similar civil rights volitions in the public housing community.

"This is a fantastic victory for the clinic as a whole, as well as for the community," said Craig Futterman, Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago and lead counsel for the Plaintiff class and director of the Police Accountability Project.

The settlement is one of the largest in the history of the Mandel Clinic, and a hallmark for civil rights. For those who cannot afford legal service, the Williams v. Brown decision symbolizes the continuing efforts to improve relations between law enforcement and public housing residents.

"This particular case is an example, on a community level, of what many individuals experience on a daily basis," Futterman said.

While some residents have positive relations with the police, other residents experience "abusive, disrespectful, and predatory police conduct," according to Jamie Kalven, an Adviser to the Resident Council at Stateway Gardens and director of the Neighborhood Conservation Corps.

The two-an-a-half years of work included the effort of more than 20 University Law School students as well as those of several students from the School of Social Service Administration. "The victory is quite significant in that the city of Chicago hardly ever settles such suits," said Marcus Fruchter, a third-year law student who has worked on the case for over two years.

"The residents of public housing lack the resources to fight a lawsuit in which the defendants are spending millions of dollars," Futterman said. The residents of Stateway Gardens took a prominent role in pushing the case forward. In particular, Brenda Williams, a volunteer dance instructor working in the Field House at the time of the raid, helped lead the fight against the City. During the raid, police searched Williams, her diaper bag, and her then 1 year-old daughter.

Since the basketball tournament was not finished after the raid, a portion of the settlement will go to resuming the competition.