By: Dave Savini, Michele Youngerman, Samah Assad, Christopher Hacker
CHICAGO (CBS) — A Chicago family sued the city Tuesday, after they say police officers burst into their home and pointed guns at their children in 2019, leaving them traumatized.
Officers burst into Steve Winters and Regina Evans' third floor apartment in the Austin neighborhood on Aug. 7, 2019. It was approximately 9:40 p.m., the lawsuit said, and their daughters, then-5-year-old Reshyla and 9-year-old Savayla, were sleeping.
Police records and body camera video reviewed by CBS 2 show officers were looking for suspects who'd been fighting at a nearby gas station. While in the home, police told the family they believed the suspects ran into their unit.
But in interviews and their lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, the family said those suspects never entered their home. And records show officers did not find the men they were looking for or make any arrests in the apartment.
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Winters said he was eating when he heard banging and yelling at the door. Confused by who was there, he tried to open it. Moments later, his door was kicked open, and he was face-to-face with multiple police officers, including at least one with a gun raised, according to body camera video from the incident. Winters had his hands up.
"The door gets kicked in, I get thrown to the floor, gun put to my head," Winters said in an interview. "I was scared...truthfully, I mean, the gun to my head, I thought it was over."
Once officers burst in, they began searching for the suspects in the apartment, room by room, with guns drawn, the video shows.
This includes the girls' room, and the lawsuit said although the officers could see the girls in their beds, they still pointed their guns.
"Petrified with fear, the girls remained in their bedroom, crying, during the entire time that officers were in plaintiffs' apartment," the lawsuit said.
In the video, Evans, the girls' mother, can be heard telling police that one of the officers "put a gun in the room where my kids are at."
"He went in her room with a gun!" Evans said in the video.
The lawsuit said the officers violated the family's Fourth Amendment rights when they entered the apartment without a warrant and without consent from the family. It also said the officers entered the home "because they recklessly believed" the suspects were in the apartment, and that "the officers were entirely wrong."
"Officers did not find any sign that any suspect had entered," the lawsuit said. "Officers did not arrest anyone. The terror and stress to this family was all for naught."
Coupled with the dispatch audio, there are inconsistencies between what the body camera video shows and what officers wrote in their subsequent police report.
The incident happened after a 911 call came in around 9:33 p.m. about two men — one possibly armed with a gun — fighting at a nearby gas station, according to dispatch audio. Two and a half minutes later, the audio indicates officers are chasing the suspects involved.
"They're running southbound on Lawler, southbound on Lawler," the officer says.
Moments later, the dispatcher asks the officer which building they ran into.
"They ran inside the house, southwest, up the alley," an officer responds.
According to the incident report, when police responded to the gas station they noticed four men standing near an alley "in what appeared to be an attempt to shield themselves" from police.
As officers approached them, the men ran and the officers chased after them, the report said.
Police wrote one of the men matched the description of the suspect in the 911 call and was holding his right side "in what appeared to be bracing a possible weapon."
Police also wrote the four men ran into the apartment unit. The chase can't be seen on the body camera video obtained by CBS 2, and some of the video still hasn't been turned over to the family's attorney, the lawsuit said.
The family repeatedly told the officers the suspects never entered their unit and questioned why police chose their floor, when there are two other units in the apartment. Once it became clear the officers were in the wrong place, they can be heard in the video acknowledging the suspects weren't there and apologizing.
"I understand your frustration," one officer said. "But you have to understand police didn't do this to hurt your feelings, or upset you, or to ruin your night.
"If officers thought they ran into this apartment and made a mistake, I mean, we apologize," the officer continued. "...And we're sorry this happened to you. Our greatest concern was that two people with guns ran into your apartment, possibly."
The girls' 73-year-old grandfather, who was home at the time, told officers the suspects "didn't come up here." An officer replied, "We didn't know that. If we did, the officers wouldn't have done what they did."
While in the home, the sergeant can be heard on body camera video telling the family that, during a pursuit of the suspects, "some individuals that were shooting a gun out here, that had a weapon, he ran in here." Neither the police report, dispatcher, nor officers mentioned shots were fired at any time during the chase in the video and audio reviewed by CBS 2.
"I know you have children," the sergeant said to Evans before officers left. "On behalf of the department, I want to apologize. They thought they were doing a good thing chasing some guy with a gun up here, you know what I'm saying. If they came in, it was because they were expecting someone to be armed."
But the family said the damage was already done.
"My daughter told me she will not call the police if she's in trouble," Evans said. "And she's 7 years old."
Dr. Paula Marie Powe, a child psychiatrist at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital in Pennsylvania, specializes in treating children suffering trauma. She said being suddenly woken up by strangers forcibly entering their apartment would be traumatic enough, triggering a fight or flight response. But for young kids, what happens next is critical.
"When you add the additional layer of these young children seeing guns pointed at them and potentially fearing for their lives, not knowing what was going to happen next, hearing screams, not knowing if mommy and daddy were okay, not knowing who was in the house, that can be incredibly overwhelming," Powe said. "For an adult, but especially for a child."
There are some steps officers can take after an incident like this occurs to help reduce trauma, Powe said.
It's important officers talk to kids after a traumatic event to reassure them, to say things like "'I'm sorry that that happened, I'm sorry that was a really scary event for you, and yes I am here to keep you safe,'" Powe said.
"I'm not a police officer and I can't in any way understand the pressure that they're under in a situation where they're going into a home," she added. "So I can speak more specifically to, once things are settled, once we realize that there is no threat and there is no danger, to be mindful of the impact that can have on a young child."
If not, Powe said, it can impact whether the children trust police moving forward.
"Without a persistent and consistent effort of repairing the relationship, trust is going to be eroded," she said.
The lawsuit aims to put the incident in context with excessive force findings by the U.S. Department of Justice. As a result, lawyers and community groups forced CPD into a federal consent decree to reform how the department polices communities of color, including children.
Al Hofeld, Jr., the attorney representing the family, said officers traumatizing young children "has got to stop."
"You've had a mass traumatization of young children of color that's been going on for decades in Chicago," Hofeld said.
The lawsuit said the family, including Reshyla, now 7, and Savayla, now 11, continue to cope with trauma that lingers two years after the incident happened. Evans said she has regular nightmares of the incident, and Reshyla and Savayla said they can still see the guns when they think about what happened.
"My daughters are forever broken," Evans said.
The family "now suffer severe, long-term, emotional and psychological distress, including symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress disorder," the lawsuit said.
"I was vulnerable, I couldn't even protect my family," Winters said. "[Officers] overpower you, throw you down, kick your door in...it's messed up."
CPD spokesperson Don Terry did not answer specific questions about the incident sent by CBS 2, but he sent the following statement:
"The Chicago Police Department is committed to treating all individuals with dignity and respect. This incident occurred three months prior to the implementation of the Department's Firearm Pointing Incidents directive. The apprehension of fleeing suspects are often active and fluid situations in which officers are balancing public safety and the safety of all individuals involved. At all times, officers are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the law and Department policy."
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