“My sister… she was the sun, she was the shine that we have that goes right through all those clouds,” said Iris Chavez.

On Tuesday, the family of Irene Chavez and civil rights attorneys Andrew M. Stroth, Sheila Bedi, and Kara Crutcher filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the city of Chicago, citing the department’s repeated failures at helping people who are in mental distress. 

“Police violence is often thought of as a gun or a punch. But Irene [Chavez] died from police violence. It is an act of violence to arrest someone who is no threat to public safety and who is begging for mental health services,” Attorney Sheila Bedi told reporters Tuesday during a morning press conference at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic. 

Bedi is a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University and is the director of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic. She’s also one of the attorneys that is representing the Chavez family. 

“It is an act of violence to house someone in crisis alone in a jail cell that practically invites self-harm. It is an act of violence to ignore someone who was in that cell and who was repeatedly crying out for help,” she added. 

Through the lawsuit, Chavez’s family and attorneys seek to “vindicate the constitutional rights Irene fought for and to hold accountable the Chicago Police Department and the officers who should have protected Irene the way she tried to protect us,” Bedi said. Chavez was a U.S. Army Veteran. 

Chavez died in Chicago police custody on the morning of Dec. 18, 2021. Also named in the lawsuit are Chicago police officers Ricardo Mendez, Jose Guiterrez, Stephanie Jimenez, Bryant Chow, Jesse Lopez, Servando Gomez, police lieutenant Michael Murzyn, and Sergeant Anthony McGowan, Officer Wood, and one police officer who was identified as “John Doe.”  

“The CPD officers involved in Irene’s arrest should have accommodated her disability by taking actions that would have addressed the manifestations of her PTSD including, but not limited to, providing her with access to immediate mental health services and de-escalating the situation instead of ignoring her needs and further antagonizing and taunting Irene,” wrote Chavez’s attorneys in the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit announcement follows the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA)’s recent release of footage from the night of Dec. 17 and the morning of Dec. 18, when Chavez died in CPD custody. 

The footage was collected from CPD officers’ Body-Worn Cameras (BWC) and Police Observation Devices (PODs). Chavez was found unconscious in a holding cell at the 3rd District Tactical Office at 3:20 a.m. She was discovered with her shirt tied around her neck, hanging from a metal bar sticking out of the wall about three feet off the ground.

Chavez was arrested on Dec. 17 at Jeffery Pub, one of the oldest Black-owned gay bars in the nation.

According to the lawsuit, Chavez got into a dispute with the bar’s bouncer. He alleged that Chavez hit and spat on him because she wanted to play music on the jukebox while the DJ was playing a set; she got upset when she was told that she could not play music. The bouncer also told one CPD officer that she’d accused him of inappropriate sexual conduct. 

According to court documents, Chavez repeatedly asked officers to hear her side of the story and alleged that the bouncer had harmed her. However, the officers on the scene refused to talk with her about what happened at the bar. 

Additionally, Chavez told police officers that she was a veteran, had PTSD, and needed help on more than one occasion. The suit claims police officers ignored those pleas and followed standard arrest procedures. 

Before being arrested, Chavez’s attorneys said she repeatedly asked that a female police officer search her and expressed her discomfort with male officers on the scene. 

A friend with Chavez that night told officers that she’d recently relapsed and needed professional medical care and did not need to be arrested. Instead, police arrested her on a charge of misdemeanor battery. 

CPD footage shows Chavez’s arrest and transport to Grand Crossing police station at 7040 S. Cottage Grove. It also shows the officers’ attempts to resuscitate her after discovering her body at 3:20 a.m. on Dec. 18. She was pronounced dead later that day at the University of Chicago Hospital at 11:30 a.m.

“My sister Irene was tough as nails on the outside, so cool, so strong, she made everyone feel so comfortable no matter what anyone was getting into when you’re around her,” her sister Iris Chavez said at the press conference.  

The complaint also alleges that the department fails to discipline officers who violate the rights of people who live with mental illness. 

Also present at the conference were local leaders, including Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Church, along with organizers and activists from Black Lives Matter Chicago, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, the American Activist Justice League, and the west side branch of the NACCP who drew parallels to the deaths of London Marquez, a 31-year-old Black woman who died in police custody last month, Rekia Boyd, and Sandra Bland. 

“This is the 10th anniversary of the death of Rekia Boyd, and we’re standing here still dealing with the deaths of black women,” said Crista Noel. 

Noel is the founder and CEO of the Women’s All Points Bulletin, a nonprofit that provides services, education, and training to eradicate all forms of violence against women during police encounters.

Currently, Noel is in the planning stages for a new law, the Bland Chavez Act, that would eliminate arrests for traffic violations and is calling for protections in custody, monitored camera systems in and around police stations, mental health evaluations, on-site clinical workers similar to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Ore and more. She plans to introduce this to lawmakers in Springfield in June. 

“How long do you want to keep paying for this,” asked Amika Tendaji, referring to the multi-million dollar payouts from the city resulting from lawsuits filed against CPD for police misconduct. She’s the director of Black Lives Matter Chicago. “[It’s] more than we pay for schools, more than we pay for parks, more than we pay for productive activities for communities to be built on.” 

Nearly $67 million in CPD misconduct settlements were made in 2021, according to an ABC Chicago news report. Between 2009 and 2019, the city has paid more than $524 million to settle lawsuits against the police, which taxpayers fund. 

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.