Clinic Wins Half Million Dollar Settlement for Police Raid of Stateway Basketball Tournament

The City of Chicago and the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School have reached a preliminary agreement to settle a major federal civil rights law suit, Williams v. Brown, brought by the Mandel Clinic against the Chicago Police Department. The case arose out of a police raid on a basketball tournament on the evening of February 22, 2001 at the Stateway Gardens Field House, a Chicago Park District facility serving the Stateway Gardens public housing development on South State Street.

On behalf of the approximately 250 to 300 men, women and children present in the Field House at the time of the raid, the Mandel Clinic brought a class action suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that the police had violated their constitutional rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

For three years, lawyers and law students associated with the Mandel Clinic have collaborated with members of the Stateway Gardens community in a human rights initiative known as the Stateway Civil Rights Project. The aims of the initiative are to improve police accountability and services to Stateway Gardens residents. Craig B. Futterman, an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Chicago and lead counsel for the Plaintiff class, indicated that “The reasons Plaintiffs brought this suit are twofold. First, we hoped to reform police practices in the Stateway community to foster respect for the human dignity and rights of public housing residents. My clients believe that this fundamental respect will improve police/community relations and trust to enable a true partnership around all too real public safety issues in the community. Second, we sought to address the harm caused by the police raid to a beloved community center and tradition that was widely regarded as a safe haven from crime and violence in the surrounding neighborhood. This settlement provides my clients with the opportunity to accomplish both of these goals.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreed to in principle yesterday, the City will pay out $500,000, according to Mr. Futterman. Of this amount, approximately $100,000 will be distributed to the adults and children detained and searched during the raid; $2,000 will be distributed to each of the seven named plaintiffs who brought the case on behalf of the community; and the Mandel Clinic and civil rights attorney Tom Peters will recover $400,000 in lawyer's fees and costs incurred in the course of the 2-year litigation. Most of the money to the Clinic will support the provision of free legal services to indigent people who otherwise would lack access to counsel. In addition, the Clinic will make a donation of $85,000 to the Stateway Civil Rights Project.

“From the plaintiffs’ perspective, this is an essential part of the settlement,” said Jamie Kalven of the Stateway Civil Rights Project. “It’s at once an acknowledgement of the contributions of Stateway residents and an investment in the capacity of community human rights activists on the ground to continue monitoring the police. It also provides resources to help repair the damage done by the raid.”

The basketball tournament “the Stateway Roundball Classic” was a longstanding community institution. It ran each winter for two months and was attended by players and spectators from across the South Side. In the tradition of “midnight basketball,” organizers saw the tournament as an anti-violence strategy an occasion for members of different communities to come together and for gang members to transcend their divisions by competing together on the basketball court.

“These night-time tournaments were designed to reduce violence and crime in the community by getting youth off of the street and engaging them in constructive, organized recreational activities,” said Clyde Johnson of the Park District. “They were also established to build community, by bringing people from different CHA buildings and the greater neighborhood together in a community-based, family-oriented setting.”

According to Mr. Johnson, in the thirteen-year history of the tournament – in the course of which hundreds of organized basketball games had taken place in the field house – “there had never been a significant episode of violence at a tournament game prior to the police raid on February 22, 2001.”

On the night of February 22, more than 40 Chicago police officers, acting under orders from Commander Ernest Brown, raided the field house while the tournament was in progress. The police encircled the field house and blocked each possible exit, while other officers walked across the gym floor, ending the game in progress. Police announced to the spectators that the game was over and that everyone needed to leave the gym. Officers lined the spectators up and directed them to the lobby to be searched.

“Over the next two hours,” said Mr. Futterman, “the police methodically subjected nearly all of the people present – from babies and young children with their mothers watching the games to basketball players in full uniform – to invasive, warrantless searches of their bodies and personal effects. Parents were searched in front of their children. Children were searched in front of their parents.”

The police claimed to be acting on a tip from an informant that gang violence was imminent at the tournament, a claim vigorously contested by the plaintiffs and their attorneys. Mr. Futterman stated, “This was an indiscriminate and mass search. On the one hand, Chicago police Commander Ernest Brown claimed that he received dire information that several carloads of gang members loaded with guns were en route to the Field House for the purposes of an imminent gun battle with a rival gang in a place where hundreds of innocent children and adults had gathered. On the other hand, Brown did not dispatch a single officer to the Field House until more than two hours after Brown claimed he received the tip. Indeed, Brown testified that he did not post any police officers outside the Field House because such police presence would have stopped any would-be armed gangsters from entering the Field House. It is simply unbelievable that any police commander would be so callous as to let armed gangsters bent on gun violence into a facility alone with so many innocent children for more than two hours because the police would then have a better chance of catching the bad guys. Did these supposed armed gangbangers include women and young children? Babies in pampers?”

The lawsuit charged that in the end, the raid netted only one arrest – for disorderly conduct of one of the players who protested the police search of his nine- and ten-year-old sons whom he brought to see their dad play ball.

The police raid brought an abrupt end to community basketball tournaments at Stateway Gardens. The Stateway Roundball Classic has not been held in the years since.

“This police raid undermined our many years of hard work to make the field house a safe haven for the community,” said Clyde Johnson. “It put to an end an important community tradition.”

During the years this case has been working its way through the courts, the Stateway community has undergone dramatic changes as part of the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation.” When the raid occurred, there were seven occupied high-rise buildings at Stateway. Today there are two buildings left; only one of which is occupied. The rest have been demolished.

Yet the Field House still stands. It is alive with activity and continues to play a vital role in the life of the community.

Brenda Williams was one of the lead plaintiffs who championed this case. The lawsuit stated that police searched Ms. Williams, her diaper bag, and her then 1-year-old daughter in the Field House. Ms. Williams did not live to see the results of her efforts. She died of breast cancer on July 31, 2003. “I’m especially proud that we were able to make real one of Ms. Williams’ final wishes,” Futterman said. “Brenda will always be remembered as having stood up for justice.”

Hailing the settlement as “a major victory for the community,” Andre Williams, lead plaintiff in the case, looked to the future.

“The first thing we’re going to do,” he said, “is start up the Stateway Roundball Classic again.”