Editor’s note: This article includes details of a suicide death. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the National Suicide Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
The family of a military veteran who hanged herself in a Chicago police lockup is suing the city, claiming police failed to get her required mental health assistance and then ignored her pleas for help before she died.
The lawsuit also says the December 2021 death of Irene Chavez in a South Side police station is part of the Chicago Police Department’s long standing failure to help people suffering from mental illness.
A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday says the police officers who arrested Chavez were repeatedly made aware that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and was in the middle of an alcoholic relapse. Instead of following Chicago Police Department policy and the law, the officers failed get medical help for Chavez, locked her in a cell alone with multiple suicide dangers and allowed her to take her own life, the lawsuit claims.
“The Chicago Police Department had every opportunity to provide Irene Chavez with the care and access to mental health services that she was entitled to under the law. And at every decision point, the police department made the wrong decision,” said attorney Sheila Bedi, who is representing the family. “It really is a narrative of the department failing her at every level from the moment they came in contact with her. Irene Chavez’s death is a death that was tragic and that was preventable.”
Iris Chavez, Irene Chavez’s sister, speaking at a press conference announcing the lawsuit on Tuesday, said that while watching the videos of her sister’s encounter with officers she was struck by the fact that not one of the seven officers who were at the scene of the arrest raised the idea of taking Irene Chavez to the hospital instead of to jail. She said based on what her sister said and the way she was acting, it should have been “common sense” to the officers that she needed help.
“There was no care there,” Iris Chavez said about the officers. “I saw neglect.”
A spokesperson for the city’s law department said it would not be commenting on the litigation.
‘I have PTSD, I’m a veteran and they don’t care’
Chavez was 33 when she died. She had joined the army in 2006 and completed two tours of duty overseas, including in Afghanistan and Kuwait, according to the complaint. Her life after leaving the military was difficult. The complaint paints a picture of a life in disarray because of her severe PTSD and alcoholism both caused by her time in the Army. Still, the “decorated military veteran” was a “beloved daughter, sister, aunt and friend.”
“Her friends remember her as smart, funny and loving with a commitment to making the world a better place,” the federal complaint reads. “As a result of the actions and inactions of Chicago Police Department (CPD) Officers and the City of Chicago, Irene’s life was cut tragically short.”
Iris Chavez said she remembers her sister as someone dedicated to helping others, it’s why she joined the Army and why she became a paramedic after leaving the military.
“She believed in life entirely,” Iris Chavez said. “She believed that everyone deserves a second, third and even fourth chance at life.”
Chavez was arrested on Dec. 18, 2021 outside of the Jeffrey Pub in the South Shore neighborhood. She had gotten into an altercation with the bouncer over the jukebox and police body camera footage released by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability shows the bouncer telling officers Chavez had hit another bouncer and spat on him.
In the video footage, Chavez and her friend can be heard repeatedly telling police she is a veteran and has PTSD.
“I have PTSD, I’m a veteran and they don’t care!” Chavez yells.
Chavez is combative and insulting to the officers who responded to the bar’s 911 call, shouting that they do not care about her because they are white cops. Most of the officers remain calm.
She calls one officer a “fat f***” and a “p****.”
He angrily shouts, “I don’t know who the f*** you think I am” before backing away as Chavez laughs.
Chavez’s friend also tells an officer that Chavez is an alcoholic and that this is her first night drinking after 45 days sober. She asks officers to “put her in a hospital” and that she will be better in the morning.
The lawsuit claims that with this information about her mental state and alcoholism, police had an obligation to get Chavez medical help.
“The CPD officers involved in Irene’s arrest should have accommodated her disability by … providing her with access to immediate mental health services and de-escalating the situation instead of ignoring her needs,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit points to CPD policy that instructs officers to transport arrestees in need of mental health treatment to the nearest mental health intake facility as long as the person is facing only misdemeanor charges, which Chavez was.
But officers instead transported Chavez to a holding cell in the 3rd Police District which, according to the complaint, “created a significant risk to her safety.”
“The cell had at leat two obvious suicide hazards. First, the cell had two metal bars that formed a secure protrusion from which a person could attempt self harm. Second, the cell’s large observation window was covered in paper,” the complaint reads.
A police report states that, once inside the cell, Chavez repeatedly yelled over 45 minutes that she was a veteran with PTSD and that they should talk to her therapist.
Chavez went quiet for about five minutes, prompting an officer to check on her by looking over the paper covering the cell’s observation window. He saw Chavez slumped on the floor.
CPD policy directs officers to take arrestees to the hospital if they exhibit “obvious signs of severe mental illness,” and to monitor and supervise prisoners who are under the influence of alcohol.
The complaint states that Chavez’s death is part of CPD’s pattern of mistreating people who struggle with mental health issues.
“[The] refusal to accommodate, care for and protect Irene does not stand in isolation,” the complaint reads. “Instead, it is part of the Chicago Police Department’s widespread policy and practice of failing to establish adequate policies and procedures regarding CPD’s interactions with people who live with mental illness and failures to appropriately supervise and hold accountable officers who violate the rights of people who live with mental illness.”
The lawsuit claims that the police handling of Chavez violates the U.S. Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. It says Chavez’s death was wrongful death under Illinois law because of the “willful and wanton denial of medical care.”
Iris Chavez said she still can’t believe her sister, who she said was a bright shining star, is gone.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready, even after all of this is over, to just face the fact that I’ll never see such a star again.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misnamed the sister of Irene Chavez. Her name is Iris Chavez.