Bill Wilen isn’t asking for much. All he wants, he says, is for the police to enforce the law.

Wilen is an attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation, which provides legal services to low-income Chicagoans. About 20 or 25 times a week LAF lawyers get calls from tenants who report that their landlords have locked them out of their homes or are threatening to do so. The current recession is an especially tough time for tenants, because more people have difficulty with rent payments and wind up in disputes with their landlords. “When the General Assistance grants are cut next month,” says Jeff Boulden, an attorney who works in LAF’s Englewood office, “it’s going to get real bad.”

It’s illegal for landlords to lock tenants out of their residences, says Wilen. If a landlord wants to evict a tenant, he or she has to give the tenant notice, go to court, win an eviction order, then wait for the county sheriff to carry out the eviction. Only a sheriff–never a landlord acting on his or her own initiative–can carry out a legal eviction.

It’s no mean feat, however, to make sure landlords stay within the bounds of the law. LAF attorneys don’t always have to sue landlords on behalf of their clients; sometimes they prevent lockouts simply by sending a threatening letter. Still other times they call the police on behalf of their clients.

But Wilen and other tenant advocates say that Chicago cops are not especially diligent about enforcing the law against lockouts. In fact, LAF, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization, and other tenant advocates have been pressing the city for nearly two years to issue a new set of police orders on the subject in order to toughen up enforcement procedures. They’ve recently been told that the new orders are forthcoming, but no one is exactly holding their breath.

Most lockout cases, says Wilen, arise from “the smaller buildings, the ma-and-pa operations, and in SRO facilities,” which don’t want to go through the slow and costly process of legal eviction. So some of them seize furniture, change locks, cut off utilities, and generally make life miserable until their tenants are forced to seek other accommodations.

That’s what happened to Gayle Hull, a single mother with four children, who called the Legal Assistance Foundation last December after being forced out of her apartment in a two-flat on the south side. Hull is currently in the process of filing a lawsuit against her former landlord accusing him of breaking city law by forcing her out.

Her problems started when she left town for a few days at the end of November. When she returned on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, she recalls, “The gal I had watching my apartment said the landlord had broken in and taken my things. He said he was ‘compensating’ my furniture because I hadn’t paid rent.

“I hadn’t paid my rent because I hadn’t picked up my check,” says Hull, who relies on welfare payments as her primary means of support. “On the first day of December, he gave me a five-day notice to move. On the third, he cut the heat off. Then he came over and said that he had court papers for me to move, but he hadn’t given me no papers.” Hull got some space heaters to keep the apartment liveable, but when the landlord cut off water service, she gave up and moved out. “You couldn’t flush the toilets or nothing,” she says.

According to city ordinance and written police procedures, Hull’s former landlord (who couldn’t be reached for comment) should have been ordered to reconnect Hull’s heat and water service. If he refused, he should have been arrested. Hull called the police, but she didn’t get any satisfaction. “They wrote out a thing on a piece of paper, and said call them back if I have more trouble.”

If she wins her lawsuit she could receive money damages of as much as $26,000. What she really needs at the moment, however, is a new living situation. When her apartment was rendered uninhabitable, Hull and her four children moved into the Robert Taylor Homes. “My kids have been fighting every day since I been there,” she says. “It’s too violent. It’s a lockdown building, but there’s still crimes all over.”

Tenants like Gayle Hull, says Wilen, would never be forced to move in the first place if Chicago police did a better job of enforcing the law. Beat officers, he says, often fail to go by the book when dealing with lockout cases–which is even more frustrating because lockouts are one situation in which the book is firmly on the side of tenants. The practice has been illegal under Illinois law since the 1880s, and it was banned by Chicago city ordinance in the early 1970s. The 1986 Tenants’ Bill of Rights imposed criminal fines and penalties on landlords who lock tenants out, and new enforcement procedures were added by the City Council last November.

This small stack of statutes, however, has had only a marginal effect on the behavior of police officers who have to mediate heated landlord-tenant disputes. Faced with two parties shouting out conflicting sets of facts, the typical officer’s reaction is often to tell everyone to calm down and go home. In the case of a lockout, however, one party doesn’t have a home to go to.

“It’s no different than physical abuse between married people,” says Wilen. “It used to be considered a ‘domestic’ matter, but the police have now been sensitized that they have to intervene, and they’re more responsible than they were ten years ago. That hasn’t happened in the lockout area. Some police do what they’re supposed to do, but we see enough cases to know that it’s not a uniform matter. It’s hit or miss–and most of the time it’s miss.”

Gerald Cooper, general counsel for the Chicago Police Department, doesn’t think officers miss all that often. “Lockouts are illegal,” he says. “Whenever we go into one of those situations, our orders are to either issue a summons or make a physical arrest.” Police procedures, Cooper explains, are detailed in documents called “special orders,” which tell officers how to deal with various situations; Special Order 88-13, dated April 15, 1988, deals with lockouts and directs officers to arrest offending landlords.

“Being a police officer is a complicated job, and it gets more complicated every day,” says Cooper. “Our general-order book has at least 120 pages.” Not every officer, he admits, will always be familiar with every page. “With a force as large as ours, I’m sure there are instances where the officer isn’t totally aware,” Cooper concedes. “There will be instances where the procedure isn’t followed. . . . This is not one of our real priority situations. We certainly have sufficient homicides and rapes and robberies to keep us busy.”

Wilen and other tenant advocates understand that police have to make major crimes a high priority, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to do the wrong thing when confronted with minor crimes. “I try to be sympathetic to what police officers face,” says Boulden, “but at times I find that sympathy strained–especially when I hand them a copy of the special order and I still don’t get any results.”

What does a resourceful poverty attorney do when the police won’t follow their own written orders? “I might call the watch commander,” says Boulden. “Sometimes that works, except where the watch commander is also a landlord. A lot of police officers I’ve run into”–he declines to name names–“are also part-time landlords. I have the sense we don’t always get a sympathetic response from them.”

The existing special order, argue the LAF and several tenant-advocacy groups, is unclear on several counts, including imprecise arrest procedures and ambiguous language about whether the antilockout law applies to single-room occupancy hotels. (Many SRO operators view people living in their building as “guests” who are not entitled to the protections of the city’s tenant laws.)

Wilen won a lockout case against an SRO operator in 1989, establishing that the law does apply to SROs. He’s been trying to get the police to issue a new order on lockouts ever since; he first submitted a draft of a new order to the city’s corporation counsel in June 1990, and it sat gathering dust for nearly a year.

But in April 1991, tenant and landlord groups began discussing possible amendments to the Tenants’ Bill of Rights, and one change they agreed to was that the bill require police to actively “investigate” lockout complaints. To the uninitiated, this amendment might seem unnecessary: aren’t police supposed to investigate all alleged violations of the law? But police performance in this area had been so irregular that both tenant and landlord groups–as well as city officials–felt it was worth restating specific enforcement responsibilities.

In November the amendments to the Tenants’ Bill of Rights were finally agreed to by all parties and passed by the City Council. With new language on the books, city lawyers decided it was time to dust off Wilen’s 1990 draft order. Tenant groups met with deputy corporation counsel Marilyn Johnson in January and February of this year, and have been told that a new order will soon be submitted to the Police Department for review.

“We’re awaiting some new materials,” says Cooper. “I heard about it sometime over the last few months, but I haven’t seen anything yet.”

The slowness in issuing a new order was never a question of stalling, says Johnson, but merely a matter of finding “the most opportune time” to issue a new order. Of course, making sure the law is properly enforced will require more than putting new words on paper. “It’s my hope,” Johnson says, “that there will be some trainings and advisories done, at least at the district level, so everyone’s on the same page.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.