To the editors:
As one of the attorneys representing Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents in a recent federal civil rights class action lawsuit challenging the CHA's "Operation Clean Sweep," I read with great interest your October 5 cover story. There are, however, several matters about the litigation concerning Operation Clean Sweep that were not mentioned in your article. Unfortunately, the author did not contact any of the lawyers for the CHA residents in that case so that these points could have been included.
As originally conceived and carried out, Operation Clean Sweep imposed substantial restrictions on the civil liberties of Chicago's public housing residents. As described in the article, before the ACLU's lawsuit was filed Operation Clean Sweep employed CHA personnel and Chicago police officers to conduct indiscriminate, mass searches of the personal property of CHA tenants, including looking through closets, dresser drawers, handbags, bedclothes, etc. These searches were conducted whether or not there was any suspicion that those tenants had done anything unlawful. With absolutely no legal justification, these government officials also frisked CHA tenants and their guests. Furthermore, the CHA imposed a complete ban on overnight visitors for CHA tenants. This restriction not only violated rights of association protected by the First Amendment, but also was a substantial hardship on CHA tenants, who had to deal with practical problems concerning child care arrangements and out-of-town guests when these restrictions were in effect.
Today, while Operation Clean Sweep continues to exist, it is carried out under strict guidelines that are set forth in a consent decree that was reviewed and approved by the federal district court as part of the settlement of the case.
One of the most significant elements of the consent decree was the CHA's and the City of Chicago's agreement that personal searches of CHA tenants, guests and personal property would no longer be permitted in conducting the sweeps. Accordingly, the types of intrusive searches described in your article are now forbidden, and the CHA and Chicago police are subject to contempt of court if such searches occur. Furthermore, the CHA agreed to lift the ban on overnight visitors. Under the decree, Chicago Police Department officers may no longer participate in the inspection of individual apartments, and may not even enter an apartment unless they have independent legal justification to do so. The inspections may be conducted only for limited purposes, and may not be used as an excuse to carry out investigations of criminal conduct. The CHA has committed itself under the consent decree to carry out these sweeps solely to inspect the physical condition of apartments and to identify and remove trespassers.
The inspections may only be conducted where the Executive Director of the CHA determines that there is "reasonable cause" to believe that there is an immediate threat to the safety and/or welfare of tenants, tenants' guests or CHA employees. What was not reported in your article, however, is that that declaration is subject to monitoring, must be documented in writing and is subject to review under the terms of the consent decree.
The ACLU is continuing to monitor the CHA's compliance with the consent decree and is particularly concerned about the reports of CHA retaliation against tenants who make public complaints or protests about Operation Clean Sweep (or, for that matter, about any matter of public concern). If such retaliation is being carried out, those actions are in violation of the First Amendment. We have been directly involved with the grievance that concerns the visitation restrictions that have been imposed on Sylvester Richmond and his family, as reported in your article. The ACLU is presently attempting to negotiate the formulation of guidelines to ensure that the rights of CHA tenants to engage in association protected by the Constitution are secured. We have also consulted with the attorneys for other tenants mentioned in the article and continue to monitor those cases.
As attorneys for the class, we continue to vigilantly pursue the critical objectives of protecting the individual civil liberties of CHA tenants as well as the security and safety of those members of our community.
Alan K. Chen
American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois