Those Chicago Police Sweeps

April 25, 1994

U.S. District Court Judge Wayne Anderson ruled early this month that warrantless searches for weapons and drugs by law enforcement officers in Chicago housing projects could not continue. The police had been "sweeping" through the projects searching for contraband and criminals. The judge said that without warrants for "probable cause" that a crime had been committed, such sweeps were unconstitutional. He said sweeps were "a greater evil than the danger of criminal activity."

Go tell that to the residents of the Robert Taylor Homes. They asked for the searches. On a recent typical weekend, there were over 100 shootings and three homicides in their community -- a community whose total population is only about 13,000. If Baltimore County as a whole had the same ratio of homicides, its yearly murder total would top 8,000!

You can bet the public -- and the courts -- would find that an extraordinary enough circumstance to insist on cutting some constitutional corners to stop the carnage.

Cutting corners is not the same thing as violating the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches and seizures" and its insistence on search warrants based on probable cause, except in extreme situations, are bedrock protection against the police state and should never be abandoned. But the situation in many public housing projects is so extreme that even many civil libertarians feel the need to overcome such unrealistic, academic interpretations of the Fourth Amendment as Judge Anderson's and the American Civil Liberties Union's (which took the matter to court despite the opposition of many Taylor tenants).

Among the civil libertarians who support the police activities are President Clinton and members of his cabinet, including Attorney General Janet Reno. The president reacted to Judge Anderson's decision by quickly approving new rules for anti-crime activity in and around Taylor Homes. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros described the rules as "constitutionally valid, at least in the extraordinary circumstances present in Chicago."

Good way to put it. Specifically, the plan calls for expediting the issuance of warrants, very aggressive stop and frisk patrols in and around the Robert Taylor Homes, leases in which tenants give police broad authority to enter apartments without warrants, metal detectors, more money for "vertical patrols" and other anti-crime and anti-drug efforts. (The ACLU has already objected.) Maybe not as good as sweeps, but good enough if Judge Anderson's decision is not stayed or overruled.

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