Surprise Police Searches Questioned in Chicago

Civil liberty groups oppose warrantless sweeps in neighborhoods

A RECENT rash of fatal shootings in Chicago highlights how gangs threaten to deprive liberty from citizens whom they don't deprive of life.

Since a truce apparently lapsed between rival drug-dealing gangs on March 24, gunmen have shot at least eight youths around the Robert Taylor Homes public-housing project.

For four days last month, police received some 300 reports of gunfire incidents around the trash-strewn, graffiti-sprayed area of the South Side project. The carnage has put City Hall and civil-liberty groups at odds over how to protect Taylor residents without defying their Fourth Amendment right against ``unreasonable'' searches.

Other parts of the nation could see an increase of conflicts between champions of tough policing and defenders of constitutional rights, say civil-liberties activists. Anxiety among voters over crime has compelled officials to legislate and enforce strict measures. ``There is always a danger that, in moments of deep public concern, various civil liberties will be tossed to the side,'' says Phil Gutis, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spokesman in Washington.

Yet many Taylor residents seem willing to briefly set aside liberties to safeguard lives. They welcome searches as part of a response to gang shooting. ``The police sweeps are necessary and, even though some people feel they're unreasonable, the sweeps might save a life, and so they should be tolerated,'' says Lulu Ford, principal of the Beethoven School, a public school where children from the project go.

Last month, as murders for 1994's first quarter rose near a record figure, Mayor Richard Daley ordered police to search, without warrants, project apartments. On March 30, however, the ACLU won a restraining order against ``emergency sweeps.''

[A United States district judge was to decide after press time yesterday whether to maintain an injunction against the searches.]

THE mayor's office has denounced the ACLU for putting constitutional principles above life and death. ``The Taylor homes people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and, right now, they are being deprived of that right,'' says Peter Cunningham, a mayor's office spokesman.

Ms. Ford is more blunt. The ACLU is ``totally out of touch; they are not living in the real world at all,'' she says.

Under the restraining order, police have curbed violence with ``vertical sweeps'' of hallways and vestibules. But short-term patrolling just briefly curtails crime, says Mr. Cunningham. ``You make some arrests, those arrests contribute to a calmer state, but then things change: People get out of jail, turf wars begin, and, all of a sudden, you have a problem on your hands again.

After police have searched each apartment and removed unauthorized tenants, guns, and other goods, outlaws risk arrest if they smuggle guns past metal detectors at entrances.

``We need sweeps,'' Cunningham says. ``The judge should recognize the severity of the violence; the ACLU should find something else to do.''

The ACLU says the mayor is obligated to deter crime by fielding a larger, better police force, not by trampling the right to protection against ``unreasonable searches and seizures.'' ``Whenever violence escalates to the point where there is grave danger, then the [Chicago Housing Authority] always wants to take unconstitutional measures,'' says Valerie Phillips, Chicago spokeswoman for the ACLU.

Several project residents described the CHA security force as timid and paltry. ``My children, they don't think the CHA police are real police. If they want anybody to come to the buildings, they want the Chicago police,'' Ford says. The CHA did not respond to requests for comment.

The mayor's office says a plan to put 470 more officers on streets by the summer of 1995 should help improve security at the project. The city lacks money to expand the police force beyond current plans, Cunningham says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.