By Joshua M. Levin, Staff Attorney
On November 29, 2022, Chicagoan Jolanda Blassigame stood in court, before a federal judge, her fellow community members, and Chicago police officials, and described a harrowing experience with Chicago police:
“I thought somebody was trying to break in the house. . . . I heard, boom, boom, boom. . . . I thought [the officers] would have put the guns up once they saw the kids, but they never did. . . . They never took the guns off. . . . I come to find out that they were looking for someone that was already in jail serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder that stayed in my apartment,  years before[.] And [the officers] never apologized or anything about what happened. So I had to sleep with the freezer door . . . put up to the back door. Once they broke the door, everything was tore up in the house.”
Ms. Blassigame was one of dozens of Chicagoans—mostly Black and brown people—who gave searing public testimony in court about terrifying and degrading experiences with Chicago police before the federal judge who oversees the Chicago Police Consent Decree.
The Consent Decree is a 2019 court order that requires the Chicago Police Department (CPD) to make sweeping changes to documented patterns of excessive force and discrimination against Black and Latinx people and people with disabilities. Many who testified are part of a Coalition of 14 civil rights and community organizations, including the ACLU of Illinois, who fought for and enforce the Consent Decree, advocating for safe, constitutional, and effective policing in Chicago.
The hearing came at a pivotal moment. It was the first opportunity for community members to share with a new judge—Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer—their experiences with Chicago police.
One by one, community members answered the question: Nearly four years after the City promised to bring about safe, equitable, and constitutional policing, what has actually changed on the ground for Black and brown people and people with disabilities? The testimony yielded clear, consistent answers:
Chicago police continue to harass, brutalize, racially profile, and abuse people of color and people with disabilities.
Aisha Oliver, a Black community leader in the Westside neighborhood of Austin, recounted multiple incidents of Chicago police harassing, chasing, and pointing guns at young black men who serve the Austin community as violence prevention volunteers. Chicago police “should know that not all young, Black men or women are criminals,” said Oliver.
Darlene Ivory, a Black mother who lives in the Southside neighborhood of Roseland, testified through tears about how two male Chicago police officers pulled her daughter, a disabled rape survivor, out of a parked car as her daughter screamed, “Please don’t rape me”—all because of allegedly expired registration tags on the car. “We all know Chicago police don’t do this to white people in white neighborhoods who have expired tags,” said Ivory.
The Court and the City must grasp the urgent need for change because lives are at stake.
Coalition member Karl Brinson, president of the Chicago Westside Branch of the NAACP, explained: “[B]eing a Black man living in the community, . . . [w]e see no impact from [the Consent Decree]. . . . Our community doesn’t have the luxury of the time that it takes to reform when we are talking about life and death.”
Coalition member Roxanne Smith, the President of the Board of Directors of Communities United, testified: “What’s missing is leadership from the Mayor. . . . She needs to make implementing the Consent Decree a priority. She needs to act like it’s her child whose life is on the line, because our children’s lives are.”
The Chicago police must stop their violent and racially discriminatory home raids.
Five Black women—Ms. Blassingame, Sharon Lyons, Cynthia Eason, Krystal Archie, and Anjanette Young—testified about the terror, humiliation, and danger they suffered at the hands of Chicago police when officers raided their homes based on faulty, incorrect information. While in their homes at night, officers broke down their doors, screamed vulgarities, ransacked rooms, and pointed rifles at them, their children, and their grandchildren, before leaving without explanation or apology—their doors unsecured, their homes in shambles. The home of Ms. Archie was wrongly raided three times in four months. Ms. Lyons recounted feeling “helpless,” “scared,” “disrespected,” and “violated” as officers pointed their guns at her four-year-old granddaughter, who was “hollering and  screaming.” “[H]ow am I supposed to feel safe after what they done to me and my home?” asked Anjanette Young, whose home was wrongfully raided at night by twelve officers, who held Ms. Young at gunpoint while she stood naked and terrified.
The City must dramatically change how police treat people with disabilities.
Several Black men who use wheelchairs testified about Chicago police officers stopping and searching them for no reason, harassing and humiliating them, and then simply walking away without apology or explanation. “I no longer felt safe in my community,” said Tree Brown, a 28-year-old gun violence survivor and community organizer with Communities United, a Coalition member. Eric Wilkins, an organizer with Communities United, recounted how officers recently gave him “a false sobriety test because of the way I walk” and then conducted an unlawful search of his car.
“CPD needs to change its culture,” explained Roxanne Smith, whose son has a developmental disability and was brutalized by Chicago police while suffering a panic attack. “Instead of arrests and police violence,” she implored, “the City needs to invest in mental health providers that can treat people who are in crisis, like my son was.”
The City has failed to live up to its promises in the Consent Decree.
“The core problem is that the City and the CPD have been resisting the changes mandated by the Consent Decree over and over again,” explained Larry Dean, a Black community organizer with Community Renewal Society, a Coalition member. Dean testified, “The mayor and superintendent have tried to block nearly every attempt to overhaul the CPD,” rather than embracing the Consent Decree and the directly impacted community members who are pleading for real change that will make all Chicago neighborhoods safe.
As the hearing ended, Chief Judge Pallmeyer said she heard the “sense of urgency” in the calls for “significant change,” and that she “take[s] that very seriously.” She concluded: “I do intend to do what I can to make sure that a year from now you are seeing some differences and some changes.”
Chief Judge Pallmeyer’s commitment to advancing real change in Chicago policing within one year is critically important. The courageous testimony of so many Black and brown Chicagoans must not be ignored. The Coalition and the ACLU of Illinois intend to hold the City and the Chicago Police Department to the Court’s promise as we continue to advocate for policing that is safe, effective, and equitable, as the Consent Decree—and the U.S. Constitution—require.