On March 15, shortly before Alberta Domonique Wilson needed to get her three children ready for school, she was woken up by the sound of a bullhorn and the brightness of flashing lights.
A Chicago SWAT team and nearly a dozen uniformed and plainclothes police officers were trying to execute a raid at her home.
Over the next two hours, Wilson, her three children ages 6, 8, and 9, and other visiting family members were forced to stand outside in the chilly rain as police tore through the house, at one point handcuffing Wilson’s 8-year-old-son as her other children cried, according to a May 28 report from CBS 2 Chicago.
On Wednesday, Wilson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chicago over the raid. Hers is the fifth suit local attorney Al Hofeld Jr. has filed over raids in the city; each suit has argued that the Chicago Police Department repeatedly conducts raids at the wrong homes and often uses excessive force in homes where black and Latino children are present, leaving children traumatized and suffering from emotional distress.
”As the family exited their home with arms in the air, a semicircle of SWAT and other officers aimed their assault rifles at close range at the family, including at the children, despite Ms. Wilson’s requests that they lower the guns because of the presence of the children,” the latest suit notes.
The family’s ordeal was the result of a search for guns inside their home. Officers said an informant had alerted them to illegal weapons at the residence. But after going through Wilson’s home and tearing a gaping hole in her ceiling, no weapons were found. A search warrant noted that the person suspected of having the alleged guns did not live in Wilson’s house.
As police were inside, Wilson’s anger over the raid — and the fact that adults in the home were handcuffed in front of her young children — intensified further when Royal, her 8-year-old son, was also handcuffed.
In an interview with CBS 2 Chicago, Wilson explained that her son was cuffed for more than 30 minutes. By the time he was released, the boy had bruises on his arms. “They made me stand up straight and hands just behind my back, and they had [the handcuffs] tight,” Royal told the outlet. “My mom and my brother told them, I’m a little kid, can you please take them off?”
Wilson’s lawsuit says that officers swore at the family as they stood outside, pointed guns and assault rifles at them, and did not allow them to move out of the rain. She says her children have continued to show signs of emotional and psychological distress in the months after the raid, and that Royal still struggles with nightmares.
The lawsuit is not seeking a specific amount in damages but calls for the court to compensate the family and enact any other reforms it deems necessary.
Hofeld, the lawyer representing the family, argues that Wilson’s story is just one of several in the past few years involving children of color being traumatized in the wake of aggressive raids by the Chicago Police Department.
And on a broader scale, the details of these raids call attention to the ways that police violence, excessive force, and unnecessary interactions with police officers can negatively affect children of color, often creating a sense of distrust in and anxiety around law enforcement that lingers long after an incident has occurred.
There have been numerous stories of Chicago Police conducting raids in front of children
Chicago police have defended their actions at Alberta Wilson’s home by saying they conducted the raid at the address listed on a department search warrant. The police department has admitted that Royal was handcuffed, but said it was not part of agency protocol to handcuff children and that they didn’t know Royal’s age when he was initially restrained.
But their actions fit into what Chicagoans have called a disturbing pattern of aggressive raids conducted around children. In the past two years, a series of local media reports, including an ongoing investigation by CBS 2 Chicago, have highlighted a number of raids conducted at homes in predominantly black parts of the city.
In roughly a dozen cases, officers have been criticized for carrying out loud, violent, and disruptive raids at the wrong addresses. In at least five incidents, officers have been specifically criticized for conducting raids in homes with young children present.
For example, one month before the raid at Wilson’s home, plainclothes Chicago police officers raided the birthday party of T.J. Jackson Jr., a 4-year-old black boy. During the raid, officers knocked over the child’s birthday cake and damaged beds and other items in the home as they searched for drugs and a suspected ecstasy dealer who had not lived at the residence for years.
In a federal lawsuit, T.J.’s family argued that police made a point of damaging items in the home as children screamed in fear. They accused officers of pouring hydrogen peroxide on several flipped mattresses in the home and damaging several of T.J.’s birthday presents. The raid ended with zero arrests and no apology from the officers.
And in November 2018, Ebony Tate, a black woman, filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department after being subjected to a raid earlier that year. Tate said that police burst into her home and pointed assault rifles at her, her four children, and her 55-year-old mother. The lawsuit noted that police had raided the wrong home, adding that the officers left without giving an apology.
According to Tate’s lawsuit, her children “now suffer severe, emotional and psychological distress and injury as the direct result of their exposure to defendants’ unnecessary and terrifying conduct.”
Hofeld, who also represented Tate, said in a press conference this week that even in cases where police are searching the right home, they should not be pointing guns at children.
Chicago is “still in the dark ages when it comes to policing and children,” Hofeld said. He added that despite a recently implemented court-enforced policing reform agreement placing the police department under federal oversight, Chicago police still have not adopted specific policies that address how they behave around children.
“These cases get little attention because most of the injuries — which are profound and psychological — are invisible,” Hofeld added in a press release. “And because these police raids on the wrong homes are so pervasive in these communities they are, shamefully, accepted as inevitable.”
Exposure to police violence can have harmful effects on black and brown children
Stories of the Chicago raids — and of the young children who were subjected to them — highlight how children of color in the city are often exposed to traumatizing interactions with police officers from a young age.
The issue was previously acknowledged in a 2017 Justice Department report on the practices of the Chicago Police Department. That report found that the police department was regularly “subjecting children to force for non-criminal conduct and minor violations,” and that more than 80 percent of incidents of force against minors involved black youth.
Raids in which children are handcuffed, have guns pointed at them, or witness these things happening to their parents and other family members are just one of many ways children can be negatively affected by aggressive and unnecessary police interactions.
In recent years, a number of media stories have called attention to the ways that black children in particular are exposed to police violence, whether from being directly confronted by police, living in communities where police violence has occurred, or witnessing or directly being subjected to excessive force from law enforcement.
And research has shown that adults often see both black boys and girls as older, more deserving of suspicion, and less innocent than white children, suggesting that when it comes to policing incidents where black children are present, authority figures may not see these children as bystanders needing protection. In some cases, black children may instead be seen as suspects themselves, and are denied the presumption of innocence given to other children.
Witnessing police violence also affects their ability to trust officers and very likely shifts how they perceive themselves in many cases.
Critics of the raids have called for CPD to address the issue, but the department so far has not made any public statements that it intends to significantly change its practices.
That silence has prompted state legislators to address the matter themselves. An amended bill currently moving through the Illinois legislature, House Bill 51, provides guidelines for how officers should adjust their behavior to ensure that they are not traumatizing children. The bill has been called the Peter Mendez Act in honor of a boy diagnosed with PTSD after police pointed guns at him during a home raid in 2017.
The bill unanimously passed the state Senate on May 28 and now heads to the state House for a vote.
As that bill moves forward, Wilson and her family say they hope their lawsuit will put additional pressure on the Chicago Police Department to recognize the harms being inflicted on black and brown children in the city.
”Nobody should get treated the way that me and my family and all these other families got treated,” Wilson told CBS 2 Chicago earlier this week. “These are children that are being traumatized — being woken up out of their sleep to guns pointed at them, thinking that they’re about to get shot down.”