"He Sprayed Me Like a Bug" 

Darea Seifer caught a faceful of police pepper spray--through her own screen door.

By Neal Pollack

The night of June 14 began happily for Darea Seifer. When the Bulls clinched their sixth championship, she and her neighbor Monica Ivy, who'd been watching the game with her, ran outside to celebrate. The neighborhood was going crazy.

"People started coming out and saying, 'We won!' You know, neighbors hugging each other. We stood there and watched the cars going by. We walked up the street and waved at people. Then a lady came down the street and said, 'They're spraying gas at people.' I said, 'They must be spraying water.' Never thought nothing of it. I came back in the house. Monica came in with me."

Seifer lives in Austin, in a complex of two-story town homes. She locked her screen door and stood in the doorway with her 12-year-old son, Gianni. She says she saw several police cars drive down Lotus Avenue and stop. A few police in riot gear appeared, marching down her sidewalk. One officer, his face obscured by a helmet, came out of a neighbor's house and headed toward Seifer's place.

"Oh, it's nice to see you guys out here," Seifer recalls telling him.

"Get the hell in the house," he replied.

As Seifer later told an investigator for the police department's Office of Professional Standards, "I thought he was talking to someone else. I wasn't outside. When he got right in front, he turned and looked. I saw a can raised, and he just started spraying through the screen of the storm door that I had locked. I was standing right in front of the screen, and the spray soaked my hair and around my neck. After that, I remember trying to get to the bathroom."

"My eyes were burning so bad," she told me four months later. "All of my face was on fire. I thought I was dying, because I didn't know what it was. I pulled down a towel, was wetting my hands. It was crazy."

Seifer tried to keep calm. Then she did what she'd always done when there was trouble. She called the police.

Seifer grew up in Lincoln Park trusting the police. She has an uncle and a sister on the force, and she took the initial exam to become an officer last year. In her job as a social worker for Chicago Commons she often works closely with the police, inviting them to play basketball with kids in the neighborhood. As a community-policing volunteer, she's invited officers over to her house for barbecue. When John Richardson was named commander of the 15th District, she and Alderman Percy Giles gave him a tour of trouble spots in the area.

"I love the police," she says. "Being a police officer is just like being a social service worker. I have always wanted to serve and protect."

The night she got sprayed, Seifer called OPS to file a complaint; she had all the police emergency numbers posted on her refrigerator. She also called 911 repeatedly, desperately asking how to get rid of the pain from the pepper spray.

Four days later, Seifer appeared at a press conference at City Hall organized by Reverend Paul Jakes, who had assembled other residents claiming to have been brutalized by police on the night of the Bulls victory. "They sprayed me like a bug," Seifer said.

The next day she filed an official complaint. In an interview with OPS investigator James Lukas, she testified that on June 16 she had phoned her doctor, who'd recommended Benadryl for the swelling and sleeping pills for the stress. "I keep seeing it happen in my mind," she said. "I haven't been able to sleep because of it."

Seifer told Lukas that the officer who'd sprayed her had been wearing a white shirt with black stripes on the shoulder. He had a "thick black mustache, dark eyes, dark eyebrows." He was white, about five feet eight inches tall, and he weighed between 160 and 170 pounds. "He wasn't overweight," Seifer said. The other officers with him were all white; one was a woman.

At the end of her statement, she said, "There's no answer to my question as to why this would happen. I would like an explanation or apology. It's now a mental thing. Someone should come forth."

Lukas took Seifer into another room and had her look at photographs of police officers.

"They started flashing them five at a time," Seifer told me. "I knew I was looking for a big mustache. I did identify someone. He didn't have on a white shirt, but he didn't have on a blue shirt either. I can still see him now as I'm talking to you. I can visualize this man; if I saw him I would know who he is. I told Lukas, 'That's him.' There was an older black guy showing the pictures, and he said 'special unit.' Lukas wasn't happy that he said it."

Lukas told Seifer that she'd soon be hearing from OPS. Six months later, she was still waiting.

"The director of OPS has the unilateral power to nix any findings by a police investigator," says Chris Geovanis, a member of the group Neighbors Against Police Brutality. "And that's if you're lucky enough to get an investigator who has the time and the inclination to take your complaint seriously. Then on those rare occasions you get something out of OPS, you've got the superintendent's office's ability to can anything it wants. There is no system of police accountability in this city. It absolutely doesn't exist"

Months passed without Seifer hearing anything from OPS. Geovanis then put her in touch with James Finnerty, an attorney who occasionally handles police brutality cases. But Finnerty was reluctant to sue the city, because Seifer hadn't been permanently harmed and he couldn't round up enough willing plaintiffs to make a class action case worthwhile.

"The problem with small cases is that you have to put them in suit, which means you spend a lot of time and a lot of money," Finnerty says. "The city knows that. It's sort of like most medical malpractice cases. Your damages aren't big enough to justify filing suit."

On December 14, Seifer called James Lukas at OPS to ask about the status of her case. He told her the investigation had been completed, and he apologized for not informing her sooner. She was told to expect a letter from OPS, and on December 23 that letter finally arrived, saying her complaint had not been sustained. "A finding of not sustained means that the evidence was not sufficient to either prove or disprove the allegations made," read the letter. "It is not a finding of guilt or innocence on the part of anyone involved in the incident."

According to Pat Camden, the police department's deputy director of news affairs, Seifer's complaint wasn't sustained because she couldn't positively identify the officer who'd sprayed her. She chose a photo of a sergeant who wasn't working that night, Camden says. "She didn't pick out any for certain. She picked out one and said, 'That looks a lot like him.' She was shown pictures of officers who were working that night. But if you can't identify an officer, how can we pursue a complaint?"

Seifer didn't understand. The man who sprayed her was wearing a helmet--he would have been hard to identify--and if the officer she picked out wasn't on duty, why didn't they tell her that months ago? She had appeared at the press conference with a swollen face. She'd taken photographs the day after the incident showing evidence of spray residue on her screen door. Why hadn't the department asked to see her photos, and why hadn't they come to her house to interview her neighbors? Didn't they have any other way of finding out who was on her block that night?

Seifer's neighbors told her they hadn't bothered with OPS because they thought no one would take them seriously. But they all say they'll never forget the night of June 14.

Lily McCollough, who lives several doors down from Seifer, recalls, "Three of them came in my house and they sprayed my floor. I have a six-month-old granddaughter. I've got asthma. I was coughing up, throwing up. All that day, I couldn't keep my breath. My asthma was real bad. They didn't care. My door was propped open, and they came in. My grandbaby was sitting there. He just sprayed the floor. Everybody was coughing and crying and everything else."

Another neighbor, Ann Jones, says, "Across the alley here there was this elderly guy. He went to his car because the alarm went off. They wouldn't even let him put his key in the door. They just sprayed him like he was taking a shower. He just fell to his knees, coughing and crying. I'm standing inside the door like this, and I'm saying, 'Is that really called for?' 'Just close the fucking door,' the cop said. 'You niggers are the ones causing this shit.' I said, 'Excuse me? All we're doing is celebrating in our own houses.' We were told to stay in and that's what we've done.

"Back in the day with Martin Luther King and the riots, I saw that on TV. But I have never seen no police like that. They've got on their vests and their helmets. It wasn't like we were coming out with nine-millimeters or whatever. We were just standing in our doors, but it was like a war zone."

Seifer still wants justice, but she has no idea how to go about getting it. She recently read that Mayor Daley pushed for a new state law that equates assaulting a representative of the city's community-policing program with assaulting a police officer. She was struck by the irony.

"If you're brutalized by the police and you're a community representative, that means that something should happen to them too," she says. "The police department may or may not know who the officer was. But they do know it was done. It did happen. Witnesses know that it happened. And the police are wrong."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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