Story by Brad Wong for Equal Voice News:
Similar to community outreach workers across the country in late March, Kevin Tapia and Felipe Hernandez lent their knuckles, shoe-leather skills and commitment to help others to an important task in Chicago.
They knocked on doors to raise awareness about the Affordable Care Act, the most sweeping health law in decades. It was March 25. The coverage enrollment deadline of March 31 was approaching – and the rush was on.
Tapia and Hernandez were in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge, a predominantly White neighborhood with older, retired residents. Tapia had just finished talking to a resident, when they were walking down the street. A Chicago police SUV with two officers rolled up next to them and stopped.
“Come here,” Tapia, 19, said, recalling commands from police. “Take your hands out of your pockets.”
Tapia and Hernandez, both Latino outreach workers for the community coalition Grassroots Collaborative, complied. Tapia watched police search his book bag. The officers frisked the two men.
It turns out that Tapia and Hernandez had been drawn into the process of when police officers do their work to protect the public. There was a catch, though: The men had set out that day to knock on doors of Chicago homes and talk with residents about healthy living, insurance costs and options under the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, under a clear sky on that afternoon, they faced questions from police: Who are you? Why are you here? Could you give contact information for your boss?
The officers put the young men, who answered the questions and gave the phone number of their supervisor, in the back of the white-and-blue police SUV. A police car – this one carried detectives – arrived on the scene. More questions followed.
Minutes after the detectives arrived, Tapia and Hernandez found themselves in handcuffs and sitting in the SUV. “I was telling them everything that I knew. They didn’t care that we were doing something good,” Tapia said.
Other thoughts entered his mind: “This is all insane. There was no reason for me to be in this situation.”
The police officers who responded to the scene that day are White, according to Grassroots Collaborative, an alliance that works on social justice issues.
From the Chicago police perspective, the city’s southwest side, which includes Garfield Ridge, had numerous door-to-door scams in previous weeks. Residents were on edge.
A person called 911, Chicago police said in a statement, to inform dispatchers of two men, knocking on doors and “possibly scamming elderly people.” The caller gave the location for Tapia and Hernandez and described their clothing. Tapia said he had a windbreaker and a black jacket.
“Police responded and found two men matching the exact descriptions,” Chicago police said. “The men could not provide any identification to show what organization they worked for, nor could they tell officers who their supervisor was.”
The officers – with the knowledge they had at the time – kept the handcuffs on Tapia and Hernandez.
Tapia recalled that at one point, inside the SUV, Hernandez asked: “Why were we arrested?”
The answer from police: Unlawful soliciting.
“They just said that. They did not mention anything else,” Tapia said.
As defined under the Chicago municipal code, “soliciting unlawful business” occurs when a person uses public space for such illegal activities as prostitution or selling drugs.
Inside the police SUV, subtle shock started to sink in for Tapia.
“It was the first time I had this type of encounter with the police,” he recalled. “I was at a loss of words. It was a loss of power. They had everything.”
The drive from Garfield Ridge to a Chicago police station took about 15 minutes. When they arrived, the young men were placed in a holding cell.
An officer who was involved in the arrest, Tapia recalled, told them that he understood that what they were doing was right.
“He even mentioned that this is a misdemeanor and he said, ‘You can get this misdemeanor taken off your record,’” Tapia said.
About an hour later, Tapia and Hernandez were sent to individual holding cells. At some point, their fingerprints were recorded. A Miranda warning was never issued to them on that day by police, Tapia said.
The two were allowed to make phone calls. Hernandez called his brother, who contacted someone at Grassroots Collaborative.
Then, about four or five hours after police arrested them, they were released. It was about 10 p.m.
“They just said, ‘You’ve been here long enough and we’re going to let you go,’” Tapia said. “That was the attitude.”
The two walked for about 45 minutes to a main street with bus service. Tapia needed to fetch his car, which he parked in Garfield Ridge.
He drove Hernandez home and finally walked through the door of his family’s home in the Logan Square neighborhood.
Tapia’s mom, as he recalled, was filled with worry: Are you OK? What happened?
“She was trying to figure out why I was missing for so many hours,” he said.
Though the outreach workers were released from police custody, they still had a court hearing.
On May 16, about 40 people, including Grassroots Collaborative members, showed up at a municipal court building, clutched signs and rallied to support the two men.
By then, they had consulted with an attorney.
Community members called on the Chicago police to collect more comprehensive information in cases when officers use “stop-and-frisk” methods.
They added that New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy requires specific information about the incident, including having the officer note the race of the person arrested.
Inside the court on that Friday, the outreach workers looked around and noticed that no prosecutor, city official or Chicago police officer was present.
The judge dismissed the police assertion that “soliciting unlawful business” applied to these health care outreach workers.
Hernandez believes his arrest is part of the larger issue of racial profiling in Chicago.
“Since I was arrested, how many other Chicagoans have been profiled and criminalized by the Chicago Police Department because they aren’t White?” he said in a statement.
Even Chicago police used time after the arrests to process more information that had arrived.
“A day after the arrest, CPD received information confirming that the two men arrested earlier in the week were employees of a community organization,” the department said in a statement.
“What we said in March was that the information, which was not available to officers at the time of the arrest, would surely be presented when the matter goes before a judge and the case should be disposed of at that time.”
Tapia said one next task that he will deal with is clearing – or “expunging” – his police record. “There is a fee for this,” he said, referring to the $85 cost. “I’m not going to pay that.”
He is concerned that if his criminal background is checked, it will show a misdemeanor. And after he expunges it, that might show, too, and it could prompt the question: “What do you have to hide?”
As of May 20, no Chicago police official or city representative has apologized to Tapia for the false arrest. “This has real world consequences for me,” he said.
He has not ruled out legal action against the city of Chicago. One request he has for the city: Pay the fee to expunge his record.
The closest Chicago police officials have come to a full acknowledgement of the incident is this laudatory statement: “CPD has great respect for community organizations and the valuable services they provide residents.”
And so, on March 25, just how many Garfield Ridge residents did Tapia talk with about the health care law?
About 40 people. Many are senior citizens, he said, and they’re already covered under Medicaid or Medicare.
“But two or three were interested in the Affordable Care Act,” he said.