The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She was arrested at a bar, then found hanging in a cell. Police haven’t given her family answers.

The family of Irene Chavez, an Army veteran, has received a redacted report and been told there’s no video in the prison facility

An officer keeps watch in Chicago during a June 2020 march calling for an all-elected Civilian Office of Police Accountability. That group is handling the case of Irene Chavez, who was found dead in Chicago police custody this month. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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CHICAGO — The family of a woman who a police oversight organization says hanged herself while in custody claims that there are inconsistencies in the police account and that the department is “hiding” facts. Ten days after the incident, the administration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Police Department have yet to release any public statement.

Irene Chavez, 33, was arrested in the early morning hours of Dec. 18 at Jeffery Pub, a gay bar on Chicago’s South Side. She was pronounced dead at the University of Chicago Medical Center at 11:30 a.m., after police said they found her nearly eight hours earlier, hanging by her shirt while in custody. Late Monday, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), an agency investigating Chavez’s death, said that it was reviewing body cameras of officers who made the arrest but that there were no cameras installed in the police facility where Chavez was held. Officers wear body cameras, but it was not clear whether any were on when they found her body.

Friends and relatives of Chavez suggest the lack of building cameras is intentional.

“There is no video anywhere in the district office, nowhere — nothing in the room, nothing at the entrance, nowhere in the office,” said Crista Noel, a family friend. “So we’ll never know what happened. It’s the police narrative against someone who is dead.”

The Chicago Police Department directed all inquiries about the incident to COPA.

Chavez, a Black and Puerto Rican woman who her family said identified as queer, served a combined six years in Army tours of Kuwait and Afghanistan before returning to Chicago, where she worked for Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Iris Chavez, her sister, said that they had discussed post-traumatic stress disorder but that Irene Chavez had never received a diagnosis and that her case manager at the local veterans hospital told the family she “had no signs of any struggle.” Iris Chavez said the sisters talked around Thanksgiving, when Irene told her she would be with the family for Christmas.

The family said its distrust of the police grew within hours of receiving notification of the death.

The responding officer was inconsistent in his story about Irene Chavez’s arrest, her sister said. At first, the sister said, he told the family that Chavez was not handcuffed while in custody “because she was a veteran.” The next day, he reportedly said she was handcuffed. “That was the first red flag. It made even less sense for someone to hang themselves while bound,” Iris Chavez said.

The three-page incident report police gave to the family is heavily redacted, specifying little more than the nine officers involved in Irene Chavez’s arrest and detention. The family had not received her possessions, including a cellphone, as of Monday night.

Jamal Junior, owner and manager of Jeffery Pub, said he is “just finding out about the details” of the case and would not comment further.

The family is comparing the case to that of Sandra Bland, the Black woman found hanging in a Texas jail cell in 2015 after she was arrested in an investigation of a minor traffic violation.

“We have strong suspicion this is another Sandra Bland situation,” said Jessica Disu, Chavez’s friend. The police “have nothing to corroborate their narrative that she kills herself.”

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Ephraim Eaddy, a COPA spokesman, said the incident details are being shared with the state attorney’s office and the FBI for possible criminal review.

Unlike in officer-involved shootings, Eaddy said, the Chicago Police Department is not required to notify the public of deaths that occur while the person is in custody. Though COPA is under no obligation, he said, “we will review [that policy] because we understand it is part of the public interest.”

Noel, the family friend, said Illinois needs its own version of the Sandra Bland Act, which became law in Texas in 2017 and mandates that law enforcement ensure the safety and security of inmates who may have mental illness.

“How is it that, if I’m shot by a police officer, everyone knows it, but if I die while in custody in a police station with a bunch of police officers around me, no one is notified? No one,” Noel said.

According to a 2019 report by the Illinois Deaths in Custody Project, prisons in the state have a reported suicide rate of 16 per 100,000 incarcerated people, which is nearly double the suicide rate for the general public.

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Eaddy said COPA had “no discussion” about the incident with the mayor’s office.

A spokesman for Lightfoot (D) did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about whether the mayor’s office was aware of Chavez’s death.

On Dec. 16, two days before Chavez’s death, a law firm hired by the city released a report that found “failures in oversight and accountability” by the mayor’s office, the Chicago Police Department, the city’s law department and COPA in their combined response to a botched police raid of the home of Anjanette Young, a Black social worker who was handcuffed while naked in front of 15 male police officers in 2019. On Dec. 15, the City Council approved a $2.9 million settlement with Young. The investigation said there was no evidence that the mayor or the police tried to conceal evidence of the raid.

Sheila Bedi, a professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said Chavez’s death demands action from the mayor’s office because of the police department’s “history of using violence on people who are noncompliant.”

The Chicago Police Department continues to be under a federal consent decree established in early 2019. The outlined changes cover how the department handles training, use of force, accountability, and the relationship between officers and the community. Bedi said a Justice Department report from 2017 showed the department’s systemic shortcomings in treating gay people fairly, particularly when they come from communities of color.

“You can’t read that investigation and not walk away with the sense that the CPD has a deep-seated problem with misogyny and gender-based violence,” she said. Being a Black and Puerto Rican woman who identified as queer made Chavez “incredibly vulnerable when interacting with the police,” Bedi said.

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