Furor hurts, mystifies family

While the alderman himself says that he had not focused on the Harrises as a major problem -- he was more concerned about nearby empty lots and vacant houses -- his office also forwarded to CAPS a complaint letter that had arrived with a photo. In the photo, a little girl stands in the playground staring down at drug paraphernalia.

The CAPS office told the beat officers to be on alert.

Soon afterward, at a beat community meeting, some neighbors expressed similar concerns.

A few days later, an anonymous caller to 911 reported an ailing dog on the sidewalk. The man with the dog was the elder Harrises' son Michael.

According to the police, Michael took the dog to the vet that day, but it was malnourished and had suffered heatstroke and it died; the vet gave his report to a police officer.

From there, the case went to the Animal Crimes Unit, which, after surveillance, felt there was sufficient cause to enter the Harris home and to do it with enough force to protect its officers.

After the raid, a news release about it appeared on the 18th District CAPS website.

The release, noting that citizens had complained of animal cruelty and "gang/drug sales," concluded with the statement: "This is an excellent example of the police and citizens working together."

What the release did not note, however, was that no one was charged with "gang/drug" sales.

It did not note that Michael Harris was arrested only for the largely unknown misdemeanor of being a felon in possession of non-neutered dogs. After he got out of jail, he collected money from neighbors to have one of the dogs, Kiki, spayed and returned to the family.

Meanwhile, the case against one of the Harrises' grandsons, Andrew, 21, remains in court. According to the misdemeanor charges, his two pit bulls were malnourished and mistreated. According to the family, they were fed and watered daily and never used to fight.

As for the dog that died in Michael's care, the family insists there was a misunderstanding. Kiki was treated in July for heatstroke and survived. Around the same time, the family's old dog, Snow, died. They buried her in the side yard.

In the days after the raid, unsubstantiated rumors bubbled through the neighborhood.

Tales of Harris pit bulls attacking neighbors' dogs, of dogfighting, Gangster Disciples filling the house, children who didn't go to school.

Strangers, family members say, drove by and shouted curses, perhaps fueled by a radio news report that had mentioned dogfighting and neglected to report the raid's outcome.

Neighbors who have known the Harrises for a long time were aghast.

"I've petted a couple of those pit bulls," says Wendi Taylor Nations, who is active in animal-rescue causes and whose front window looks out on the tot lot and the Harris homes. "I've never seen abuse. Had there been, I would have been ahead of the police. We're just heartbroken for them."

"They're good people," says neighbor Chris Swindells. "I'm just so sad."

Some neighbors feel the Harrises are the target of a small, unhappy group, but even the family's supporters understand why others might be perturbed. The family's young men hang out in the gangway. Their friends visit. They can be loud. And not every neighbor sees the same things.

"It's not an easy time in this city," says Dorothy Collin, a Harris neighbor and former Tribune reporter distressed by their treatment. "Every time you turn on television you see things about shootings and crime. I also understand people are worried about their property values. What you've got is a different way of life, an old Southern way, or the old South Side of Chicago way. Now it's surrounded by the new way of life. It's a real collision of cultures."