CHICAGO — A week before Christmas, Irene Chavez was at a bar on the South Side when she was arrested for simple battery.
Chavez, 33, ended up in a cell at the Grand Crossing police station. A few hours later, two detectives showed up at the Chavez family home to deliver devastating news: Chavez had been found hanged in that cell, her family says they were told.
On Monday, family gathered outside the police station at 7040 S. Cottage Grove Ave. to set up a makeshift memorial to honor Chavez and to seek answers. They say police have offered few details about the circumstances surrounding Chavez’s death.
“I asked detectives questions, and I hit a red light, a stop sign, a door every single time.” Chavez’s sister, Iris Chavez, told reporters.
Irene and Iris Chavez’s parents stood nearby outside the station. The mother, Cynthia Chavez, dropped to her knees and prayed on the wet pavement.
Iris Chavez said police gave her a heavily redacted report the morning her sister died. She said they told her that her sister had hanged herself with a shirt. Irene Chavez was at the Jeffery Pub on South Jeffery, where she was arrested for simple battery, her sister said.
But the sister said she knows almost nothing about the circumstances of the arrest, including what led to it.
“If you danced with her that night at Jeffery Pub or just bought her a drink or she bought you one, come forward. Nobody is giving me answers,” Iris Chavez said.
Irene Chavez, a U.S. military veteran, had been dealing with PTSD and had been getting treatment, her sister said. She’d been out of the military for about three years and was between jobs after recently moving back to Chicago from Texas, her sister said. She’d had a variety of jobs since leaving the military and hoped to work full time in community farming, friends said.
“What we know is, Irene died in the custody of the Chicago police. What we know is, Irene Chavez was a bright light in this community, serving our country …, loved by her family and friends, loved by the LGBT community,” said Andrew Stroth, a civil rights attorney working with the Chavez family.
Stroth called on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown to help the Chavez family in their search for answers.
“We know there is video that exists,” Stroth said. “We know Iris shouldn’t get a redacted police report. The family wants answers. The family is demanding truth.”
Beneath a tree outside the police station, family and friends set up a temporary memorial, with photographs of a smiling Irene Chavez, Christmas decorations, sports jerseys from her favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers, along with two dozen candles in the Packers colors – green and yellow.
The family walked through the front doors of the police station Monday to see if they could have some of their questions answered. They were politely told by the watch commander to contact the city’s legal affairs department or the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
A Chicago police spokesman referred media questions to COPA. An agency spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Civilian Office of Police Accountability is currently investigating the death of Ms. Irene Chavez, which occurred December 18, 2021, following a medical emergency while in custody at the 3rd District Police Station.
Ms. Chavez was arrested after being involved in an incident which occurred at the Jeffery Pub Tavern located at 7041 S. Jeffery Boulevard.
COPA received notification from the Department of an attempted suicide by Ms. Chavez at a 3rd District Tactical Office on December 18, 2021, at 3:20am. Ms. Chavez was then transported to the University of Chicago Hospital in critical condition. COPA later received an updated notification from the Department that Ms. Chavez was deceased at 11:30am.
COPA immediately began its investigation once notified of the incident. Investigators were present for the autopsy conducted by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. As a result of any death in police custody, COPA will provide notification to the State’s Attorney’s Office and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for possible criminal review.
Although in the early stages of the investigation, COPA Investigators have also obtained and reviewed body worn video and requested POD video of the initial arrest of Ms. Chavez, who was then placed in police custody. At this time, there is no video surveillance of Ms. Chavez in the 3rd Police District Tactical Office where the alleged suicide attempt occurred; however, COPA will continue to conduct its investigation to determine if video captures the alleged suicide attempt and actions by officers in the immediate aftermath.
COPA has made contact with family and will provide updates as the investigation proceeds.