Family of veteran who killed herself in Chicago police holding cell could get $1.75M settlement

The family of an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who killed herself in a police holding cell is on track to settle with the city for nearly $2 million.

The City Council’s Finance Committee approved the proposed $1,750,000 payout along with three other costly police settlements Monday. Irene Chavez, the woman who died at the Woodlawn station in December 2021, had tried to warn officers about her mental health issues as they detained her, city attorney Caroline Fronczak told aldermen.

Chavez had been arrested earlier that night after a Jeffery Pub security guard reported being hit in the head by her. At the time of her arrest, Chavez told police about her mental health struggles, including a PTSD diagnosis. She served two tours overseas in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Korea, Fronczak said.

When officers brought her back to the Woodlawn station, they placed her in a holding cell. The one-way mirror to the cell offered only 15% visibility from Chavez’s side outward, but officers should have been able to clearly see inside. However, the window was covered in paper in an apparent effort to give officers more privacy — which Chavez’s family says prevented them from monitoring her.

Chavez was crying as soon as she was placed inside. One officer asked if she was all right, Fronczak said.

“No I am not,” she said, according to Fronczak. She asked them to call her therapist.

She threw items — quarters, a shoe — at the wall.

“This isn’t funny,” she yelled.

Later, she again yelled at officers that she was making a “final cry for help.”

About 47 minutes after she had been placed in the cell, she strangled herself using a T-shirt. An officer checked on her after she had been quiet for about five minutes and found her incapacitated. Police successfully revived her, but she died a day later at a hospital, according to Fronczak.

Chavez’s family alleged the Police Department does not have adequate policies to accommodate people with mental disabilities and subjected the woman to conditions of unreasonable confinement. The $1.75 million settlement will go before the full City Council on May 22.

Three more approved settlements — each rooted in alleged police misconduct involving cars — totaled $1,655,000.

A $525,000 settlement was passed in committee Monday in response to a CPD officer running over a 15-year-old girl by mistakenly leaving his car in reverse. The officer was responding to a scene of “civil unrest” amid protests over the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, city attorney Margaret Mendenhall Casey said.

The teen and her family had with them a trash can full of new clothes. An unidentified officer ordered the teen to the ground. Another officer who had parked nearby got out of his car, but failed to place the car in park, Mendenhall Casey said.

“In fact, the car was in reverse with the keys in the ignition,” she said.

The police car rolled over the teen’s legs and torso. She was hospitalized with markings from the crash and later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In yet another settlement, an officer tried to pull over a Cadillac with a broken tail light. When the driver pulled away and fled, the officer chased for a mile at around 50 mph before the Cadillac struck another driver’s car at East 76th Street and South Chicago Avenue, according to Mendenhall Casey.

The man hit by the evading driver suffered broken bones, had a breathing device placed in his throat and was hospitalized for over a month.

Aldermen approved his settlement for $940,000 after the man claimed the police chase violated CPD’s vehicle pursuit policies by engaging in a pursuit over a minor traffic offense and again by continuing the chase when he could not see the car he was chasing, Mendenhall Casey said.

Committee members also approved a $190,000 settlement for a car crash involving a police officer who drove through a red light without using his sirens or emergency lights. The man whose car was hit by police has lasting back pain and suffered a bulging disc and a tear to his spine, Mendenhall Casey said.