Our Clinic students continue to make a difference in the community, while learning all that it means to be a lawyer. As a result of their seminal achievements in winning two historic consent decrees in Chicago, the Clinic has placed greater emphasis on policy advocacy, while continuing our commitment to excellence in our representation of individual clients in need who have been abused by the police.
The Chicago Police Consent Decrees
Years of advocacy by Clinic students resulted in the 2019 federal civil rights Consent Decree that seeks to remedy the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD’s) pattern and practice of excessive and discriminatory violence targeted disproportionately against Black people. During the last academic year, the Clinic participated in two full-day public hearings in federal court that dramatized CPD’s ongoing civil and human rights violations, and the human harm caused by the Police Department’s machinery of denial and resistance to change. Having won our community-based clients’ historic power to enforce the Decree, Clinic students are fighting to strengthen the Decree and make our clients—people who have been most impacted by CPD’s civil rights violations—full and equal partners in the process.
Through our persistent efforts to afford our clients a seat at the table, the Clinic has made significant progress toward ending CPD’s practice of violent, dehumanizing, and discriminatory home raids that have targeted Black and Brown families in Chicago—raids in which officers have routinely pointed guns at young children. Since we initiated enforcement efforts to address this pernicious practice, student advocacy, led by Stella Park, ’23, Tyler Lawson, ’24, and Ben Postone, ’24, reduced the number of home raids tenfold, preventing the unnecessary traumatization of thousands of children. Because of the inherent danger in and harm caused by unnecessary and abusive raids of family homes in the dead of night, the Clinic is fighting to restrict home raids to limited circumstances where the benefits outweigh the risk of harm, such as when they are necessary to prevent physical injury to people or solve violent crime. We are also working to change procedures to prevent the raids of the wrong homes, eliminate police abuse when executing raids, and require officers to use tactics that are designed to minimize harm to people, their homes, and their property. Clinic students have worked with our clients to research best practices and apply them to the kinds of raids experienced by our clients in Chicago. Court supervised settlement negotiations led by Clinic students and our clients have already resulted in meaningful changes in policy, training, and experience on the ground. Settlement negotiations continue.
The Clinic also published two major reports with Chicago’s Use of Force Community Working Group established under the Decree. The Reports can be accessed at law.uchicago.edu/clinics/mandel/police. The first Report, authored in part by Clinic members Vatsala Kumar, ’23, and Martin Martinez, ’23, describes transformative changes to the CPD’s Use of Force policies won by the Clinic. It also sheds light on continuing deficiencies in CPD force policies. For example, CPD policy permits officers to point their guns at people who do not pose any immediate threat to anyone’s life; it lacks any provision that instructs officers when they are allowed to draw their guns; it allows officers to spray chemical weapons into groups of people despite serious risks of harm to innocent people; it authorizes police to discharge chemical weapons into enclosed cars even when the person in the car poses no threat of physical harm to anyone; and more. The Clinic is engaged in ongoing advocacy in court and in the policy arena to address these deficiencies. The Clinic published a second Report—this one focused on CPD Training—that also commanded public attention. Clinic students Natalie Cohn-Aronoff, ’24, Tyler Lawson, ’24, and Ben Postone, ’24, made substantial contributions to the Report. In addition to specifying serious structural problems, the Report documents that CPD training: (1) teaches officers that their lives are worth more than the lives of community members; (2) reinforces an “us against them” mentality that pits police officers against community members; (3) fails to teach officers to minimize police violence; (4) shows officers how to justify and even cover up unnecessary police violence; (5) fails to address racial bias; and (6) excludes any perspective from community members. We offered concrete recommendations to address each of these shortcomings. Our critical feedback is causing wholesale changes to CPD training.
Providing additional hope for progress in our struggle to end CPD’s pattern and practice of civil rights violations, Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, campaigned on a platform to reimagine public safety and prioritize the federal civil rights Consent Decree as the path to change. Clinic Director, Professor Craig Futterman served as Senior Advisor to Mayor-Elect Johnson during his transition into office.
The second recent Consent Decree won by the Clinic—this one to end the practice of incommunicado detention in CPD stations that has facilitated torture, coerced confessions, and wrongful convictions—went into effect in February 2023. This Decree of the Cook County Circuit Court holds the power to finally make the 57-year-old promise of Miranda v. Arizona a reality in Chicago. It requires CPD to install phones in every interrogation room and create private meeting rooms with phones in every station for people in custody to meet with their attorneys. Chicago police must allow everyone in custody the public defender’s free 24-hour hotline number, prompt access to a phone, and private and confidential meetings with their lawyers. Clinic students Vatsala Kumar, ’23, Tyler Lawson, ’24, and Martin Martinez, ’23, developed systems to monitor and enforce the Decree with our clients. Students have inspected CPD stations for the required signage, visiting rooms, and operational phones. We have obtained CPD data about phone and attorney access for every arrest since February 2023 and won the right to continue to do so for at least the next two years. We have worked with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office to create systems for data collection on phone and attorney access. Students are working closely with law professor and economist Kyle Rozema to analyze CPD and Public Defender data. We plan to draft regular reports to the Court and public on CPD compliance with the Decree. Clinic students have also led trainings for the criminal defense bar and broader community to teach people how to exercise and enforce their rights under the Decree and report violations to the Clinic.
At the same time, the Clinic has continued its tradition of excellence in serving individuals and families in need. We worked in partnership with Professor Herschella Conyers and the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic to defend a teenage boy against attempt murder charges for which he was in dire risk of spending the bulk of his adult life in prison. Our client had participated in our Clinic’s Youth/Police Project, a collaborative project with the Invisible Institute in which Clinic students have worked with Chicago public high school students to improve their experiences with police and address violations of their rights. However, after he left high school, our client was shot by a police officer in the back while attempting to run away. Clinic students Gabrielle Dohmen, ’23, and Isaiah Beaton, ’23, and Clinic Youth/Police alums Carly Owens, ’20, and Rebecca Boorstein, ’20, took great care in building a relationship with our client. They learned that he had been subjected to repeated violence and trauma throughout his childhood and adolescence. He had been abused by a family member; he was shot and severely injured on two separate occasions as a young teenager; he witnessed his best friend get killed. Students interviewed family members, friends, teachers, youth program leaders, and mentors. They developed a mitigation package, which included a beautifully crafted video of a montage of interviews, an expert psychiatric report, and a host of personal letters. Together, they made palpable our client’s kindness, his promise, the hardships he has overcome, his talent and intelligence, his dreams, and the contributions he can make to society. The judge and veteran prosecutor assigned to his case remarked that the Clinic’s mitigation package was the best that they had ever seen in their careers. Our students’ work product and our advocacy in multiple conferences with the court persuaded the judge to issue a sentence that he had never contemplated in an attempted murder case of this gravity. Thanks to our students’ brilliant advocacy, our client will be home within the next three years.
We represent another client, Christopher Ellis, in partnership with the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic in post-conviction proceedings in Cook County Criminal Court. We are fighting to vacate his conviction. Two Chicago police officers pulled Mr. Ellis out of his car, beat and tased him, and then falsely accused Mr. Ellis of aggravated battery against the police officers to cover up their abuse. Mr. Ellis was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. After the court gave us leave to appear in Mr. Ellis’s case, we located, interviewed, and prepared the affidavit of an independent witness who confirmed that the police officers battered Mr. Ellis, and that he did not batter them. In addition, Clinic students Hannah V.L. George, ’24, and Becky Marvin, ’24, uncovered evidence that the prosecution’s sole witnesses at trial had engaged in a pattern of police misconduct similar to their abuse of Mr. Ellis. Both officers had shot and killed Black men and had been subject to repeated complaints of excessive force, false arrest, and racist conduct against Black people. Hannah and Becky documented that one of the two officers relied upon by the prosecutor to convict Mr. Ellis is on the Cook County State’s Attorney’s “Do-Not-Call List,” because the Office has found him to be so unreliable that it will not call him to support any criminal prosecution. Hannah and Becky also secured official documents that show that the Police Department has moved to fire him for his repeated misconduct. The court has scheduled a hearing based upon the Clinic’s legal and evidentiary submissions.
Clinic students led investigations into instances of Chicago police torture for the Illinois Torture Commission. Alex Bright, ’22, investigated the individual claim of Edward Traywick, a man who has been imprisoned for nearly twenty years. As a result of Alex’s outstanding work, the Commission referred Mr. Traywick’s case for a full evidentiary hearing that can result in vacating his conviction. Dylan Salzman, ’23, presented the claim of Jose Vidaurri in a public hearing before the Torture Commission in June 2023, shortly after Dylan graduated from the Law School. Mr. Vidaurri, who also been in prison for approximately twenty years, alleges that he was tortured and threatened by Chicago police detectives to coerce a false confession that resulted in his conviction. Like Alex, Dylan led the investigation, analyzed thousands of pages of records, interviewed witnesses, conducted legal research, investigated patterns of Chicago police abuse, and drafted a recommended disposition and opinion for the Commission. The Commission voted four to one in support of Dylan’s recommendation to refer Mr. Vidaurri’s case for an evidentiary hearing in court to test the integrity of his conviction. Three Commissioners were absent. Because Illinois law requires five votes to win court referral and four votes to deny referral, the hearing has been continued so that the other Commission members can be present and weigh in on Dylan’s recommendation.
New Policy Projects
The Clinic also launched two new major policy-based projects this year. First, Clinic students are engaged in a collaborative project with trauma surgeons, UChicago medical students, and the Violence Recovery Project at the University of Chicago’s Trauma Center and pro bono attorneys from the Akerman law firm. This groundbreaking legal-medical partnership with our Law School Clinic may be the first of its kind in the U.S. to address civil and human rights issues in hospital settings. A Clinic team led by Vatsala Kumar, ’23, Martin Martinez, ’23, and Natalie Cohn-Aronoff, ’24, are working alongside medical students to prevent police from committing civil rights violations and interfering with critical patient care in the Trauma Center. Issues include police abuse of patients who have suffered gunshot injuries; coercive interrogations of people who are being treated for serious injuries; interference with medical care and patient autonomy over medical decisions; searches and seizures of patients’ personal property; invasions of patient privacy and personal health information; shackling and physical abuse of patients; and forcing medical personal to perform invasive tests on patients. Students have already conducted more than twenty interviews with medical staff, hospital security, and patients about their experiences with law enforcement. They are also coordinating with medical students on legal and medical research in consultation with national experts in the field. We are working to publish our research and develop model policies that govern police interactions in medical settings that can be implemented in the Trauma Center and other medical institutions throughout the country.
Second, we have formed an innovative partnership with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and Zealous, a national non-profit dedicated to supporting public defender offices, to identify and address systemic issues in the criminal legal system that deprive public defender and Clinic clients access to justice. Clinic students interviewed nearly 50 people who work in the Public Defender’s Office to identify systemic barriers to justice and explore ways that the Public Defender can support their clients in policy advocacy outside the courtroom, while improving the quality of representation to clients in individual cases. Students authored an outstanding report that offered recommendations to institutionalize an expansive view of public defense that optimizes zealous individual advocacy inside of court and systemic advocacy outside court to realize better outcomes for their clients. Students presented our report to leadership in the Public Defender’s Office and are now working with the Public Defender and Zealous to implement the Clinic’s recommendations.
Based on that work, Clinic students worked with the Public Defender and the Coalition to End Money Bond to enact and defend the Illinois Pretrial Fairness Act, a new law that will abolish cash bail to ensure that people are not held in jail simply because they cannot afford to buy their freedom. The Illinois statute is recognized as the most protective law of the rights of criminal defendants in the United States. Clinic students Darius Diamond, ’24, and Gabbie Zook, ’24, took the lead in drafting a letter signed by criminal law faculty throughout the state of Illinois and a powerful op-ed to prevent the Illinois General Assembly from adopting amendments proposed by the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association that would have gutted the law. Clinic students have also participated in the defense of the Pretrial Fairness Act in the Illinois Supreme Court.
Jeffe Yang, ’23, has taken the lead for the Clinic in supporting the Public Defender’s work to create holistic community defender offices in Chicago. Jeffe has participated in community-led planning circles in Roseland, the planned site of the first office, and circles comprised of people incarcerated in Cook County Jail to formulate and implement the vision for the first community defender office. In response to questions of planning circle members, Jeffe and Darius Diamond wrote a comprehensive memo about ways that the Community Defender Office can prevent and offer services to ameliorate collateral consequences of criminal convictions that can pose barriers to employment, housing, education, business, public aid, and immigration. Jeffe’s outstanding work helped them secure a position as a trial attorney for the Cook County Public Defender after graduating from the Law School.