CHICAGO - A woman who filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging she was yanked from her car by Chicago police at a shopping mall amid unrest following the 2020 killing of George Floyd moved a step closer Thursday to settling her case with the city for nearly $1.7 million.
The City Council’s Finance Committee voted to approve the $1.67 million settlement with Mia Wright on Thursday, sending the matter to the full City Council for a vote next week. The council routinely follows the recommendations of the committee, but the Finance Committee’s 13-7 vote was unusually close, which could possibly signal a close vote by the Council.
Wright claims the violent actions by police on May 31, 2020 left her blind in her right eye, potentially ending her dream of becoming a paramedic.
Video of that incident sparked controversy from the start. Chicago police surrounded a red car at the Brickyard mall, breaking windows, then pulling five people out, including Wright who was dragged by her hair and taken into custody.
"The officer pulled Wright by her hair and took her to the ground," described Caroline Fronczak, the City of Chicago's Assistant Corporation Counsel.
Fronczak showed videos to the finance committee, including a bodycam view of the incident. She recommended paying a settlement of $1.67 million to the five people who sued for emotional distress, including Wright who says she went blind in one eye.
But since this happened in May 2020 when widespread looting was underway in Chicago, a few alderman questioned why the group was at the Brickyard mall and not a Target store in their neighborhood. That led to some tense back and forth.
"They came all the way from Pulaski and 22nd to go shopping on a day like that?" questioned 38th ward Alderman Nicholas Sposato.
According to a federal lawsuit filed against the city and Chicago police, Wright was in the front passenger seat of her cousin’s car when police, for no apparent reason, smashed the windows with batons and ordered everyone out.
Wright and three family members have said they were trying to exit the mall parking lot after realizing the Target they wanted to go to was closed.
The city says there's no evidence the group was involved in looting. Eight officers were disciplined for their actions that day. But 15th Ward Alderman Ray Lopez suggested this opens Pandora's box.
"Because I'm sure this will not be the last lawsuit for excessive abuse from people who are trying to loot, pillage and destroy the city of Chicago," said Lopez.
"These people were treated this way because they were Black. And I’m hearing from my colleagues some very disturbing comments," countered 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston.
In the end, the committee voted 13 to 7 to approve the settlement, sending this controversial case to the full council next week.
The hair-dragging incident occurred during a tumultuous weekend that saw demonstrations and looting that started in downtown and River North and spread to Chicago neighborhoods. The protests were sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Although she was complying with police commands, Wright claims an officer grabbed her hair, which had been wound into a bun, and yanked her from the car, then knelt on her back and neck while she was on ground.
"All I thought about was what happened to George Floyd and it could have been another situation like that," Wright has said of the incident.
Wright and the other women were arrested and brought to a nearby police station. Only Wright was held overnight and charged with a misdemeanor, a charge that was later dropped.
While at the police station, a processing sergeant called Wright a "savage b—-,’ the lawsuit contends.
Police had been staking out the Brickyard because several businesses at the outdoor mall were ransacked during the looting.
Wright’s allegations of excessive force were aided by video recorded by bystanders as police used batons to smash the windows of the car Wright was in, which belonged to her cousin.
Police initially said she "was observed by responding officers assembled with 3 or more persons for the purpose of using force or violence to disturb the peace" a claim Wright has said, "makes no sense."
Two officers were stripped of their police powers pending the outcome of an investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
COPA closed the case in September and sent it to Chicago Police Department Supt. David Brown, who had 60 days to review COPA’s recommendation, with the option of a 30-day extension, according to spokesperson Jennifer Rottner. The recommendation is now before the Department of Law.
Only after the Law Department has made a final decision will COPA be free to "share the summary report, which will detail what, if any, discipline" was recommended, Rottner said.
The Brickyard video was roundly condemned — by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and others — as an example of excessive force.
But Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara argued at the time that those officers had "valid reasons" for their actions. He filed a complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board to protest the police department’s decision to strip those and dozens of other officers of their police powers while investigations into the complaints filed against them were pending.
"They absolutely were looting. There is confirmation that the subject who was seen breaking the window was in the car. The hammer was in the car that was used. They were stopping that vehicle for a reason. … It almost ran over officers who attempted to initially stop it and got cornered at the other end of the parking lot. And that’s where the video picks up," Catanzara told the Sun-Times then.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) whose ward includes the shopping center, was among those condemning the behavior seen in video. But Villegas changed his tune after hearing Catanzara’s version of events.
"If they were, indeed, looting, obviously the police officers had every right to pull ‘em over and do what they had to do as it relates to making sure there is law and order," Villegas said then.
Wednesday, Villegas said he supports the $1.67 million settlement — whether or not Catanzara’s version of the incident was correct.
"No one deserves to be treated that way. If someone does something wrong, we would like to treat them the same way that we would like our family to be treated," Villegas said.
"Apprehending them, questioning them or whatever — we’ve got to do it in a way that respects people. With dignity."
Villegas urged CPD to use the incident "as an opportunity to train officers so this doesn’t occur again."
The Associated Press and Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.