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Chicago Police’s ‘Black Site’: Not Only Have Detainees Been Denied Access to Lawyers But Also Access to Toilets

The Chicago Police Department have denied that they operate a “black site” or secret interrogation facility, where people arrested have been abused and denied access to lawyers. But a previously published account of detention by a 66 year-old grandfather, who was arrested in a raid prior to the NATO summit in May 2012, calls into question this denial.

On February 25, The Guardian published a story by Spencer Ackerman that alleged the Chicago police use a “nondescript warehouse” on the west side of the city called Homan Square to conduct off-the-books interrogations with arrestees. The arrestees are kept out of “official booking databases.” Some are beaten and have suffered head injuries.

Arrestees are left in shackles for long periods and denied access to attorneys. In some cases, people as young as fifteen years-old have been held without legal counsel for twelve to 24 hours.

Chicago police claim, “CPD abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility. If lawyers have a client detained at Homan Square, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them. It also houses CPD’s Evidence Recovered Property Section, where the public is able to claim inventoried property.”

Yet, May 17, 2012, the Organized Crime unit raided an apartment where activists, who were in the city to protest the NATO summit, had been staying. Police rounded up and arrested nine people.

According to one of the people arrested, who contributes diaries to Firedoglake under the name “TarheelDem,” the police took them to the Homan warehouse. There he was shackled for a long period, denied access to a toilet and not asked if he wanted to see a lawyer.

“We went into the back alley and entrance to the lockup, arriving at a garage entrance between two sections of industrial woven wire mesh, like businesses use to create supply areas in industrial plants,” TarheelDem recalled. “After the car in front of us unloaded the first three folks from the apartment, the officers led us through the gate, a door, up a few stairs and down a short hall that had three doors on each side. They took me into the middle room on the left. It was maybe 10 feet by 12 feet, lit by fluorescent tubes on the left and the right and had a metal bench fitted with a round rail on the wall opposite the door.”

“I sat on the bench, and the officers put shackles on my legs. Then the officer asked which hand I wanted handcuffed to the rail on the back of the bench. I told him it didn’t matter to me; he handcuffed my right hand to the rail on the back of the bench. And then he left and locked the door.”

TarheelDem recounts how he informed officers he had to use the bathroom but was entirely ignored. He had no choice but to poop on the cell floor:

“Officer, I have to use the restroom.” The loud sound came from another room. “Officer, I have to use the restroom.” “We are short-staffed. I’ll be there in a minute.” Minutes pass. “Officer, I have to use the restroom now.” “Officer, I have to use the restroom now.” The hollering from another room continued. “You have a black flag by your name,” said an officer in reply. And later, for almost twenty minutes, “Officer, I have to use the toilet.”

I determined that the officers holding us were denying us access to the toilets, and being a quiet sort decided to wait them out in silence. However, the breakfast sandwich was doing its work. It became more difficult to hold it, and I was beginning to feel like I had to pee too. I considered the possibilities. Going directly on the cell floor seemed preferable to being released and having to ride the El back to wherever with soiled clothes. I tried holding onto a ring used to store handcuffs an squatting. Nothing. I struggled with one hand to get my pants back up. I held out some more. I figured out that I might be able to crap between the bar and the bench without soiling either. I waited some more. I struggled to get my pants clear enough and sat up against the bar and let go; the sound of a splat on the floor seemed a major victory. I then peed down the same space. I had positioned myself way at the far end of the bench; that end of the bench became my bathroom. The other end my living room.

TarheelDem was held for over twelve hours before he was asked if he wanted to talk to a National Lawyers Guild lawyer.

In the afternoon, still in shackles, he was granted an opportunity to go to the hospital and receive medical attention. He explained to an officer the shackles were hurting, and his feet were swollen. The officer replied, “That’s what it means to be in custody.

Not until later in the day on May 18, after being police custody for over 24 hours, was TarheelDem finally released without charge.

Another person, Daniel Murphy, who was arrested in the raid, recalled what he described as a horrifying experience where police refused to let them know the time when they asked for it. He claimed he was threatened with felony conspiracy charges by officers and pressured to falsely confess or snitch on other arrestees.

The officers refused to say why there being held in custody, denied him access to a lawyer and the limbo they were in was used to terrify them while they were in shackles.

Police taunted them, saying they were junkies and terrorists. One officer even said, according to Dan, “You don’t be a jackoff, I won’t be a jackoff.”

Dan was released late in the evening on May 18 and was in police custody for well over 36 hours.

Darrin Annussek, also arrested in the raid, was detained for 30 hours and handcuffed and shackled for 18 hours in an “interrogation room,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

During this period, all NLG lawyers could say was that they were in search of people who had been disappeared.

“Truth is the police in the city have told us absolutely nothing,” NLG legal worker Kris Hermes said. “We heard about the raid in the early morning hours on Thursday and had been trying for the entire day and afternoon of Thursday to figure out where these folks were being held. The police would not divulge this information. In fact, police at all levels – even the superintendent’s office – refused to acknowledge that they were even holding people and they refused to acknowledge that the house had been raided the previous night.”

What was learned later was that three of the activists in the house — Brian Jacob Church, Jared Chase and Brent Betterly — had been targeted by two undercover Chicago cops. They were in the apartment and involved in trying to get Church, Chase and Betterly to make Molotov cocktails that could be thrown at police. After the cops were able to get a few Molotov cocktails made, the police raided the apartment and the three activists were charged with state terrorism offenses.

A jury acquitted the “NATO 3” of all terrorism offenses but they were convicted of lesser charges of “mob action” and charges stemming from accusations of possessing an incendiary device to commit arson. They were each sentenced to jail.

Church, who has since been released, was one of the primary sources for The Guardian story. He recounted how he was shackled for around 17 hours and denied access to an attorney before being booked and charged at a nearby police station.

“Homan Square is definitely an unusual place,” Church told the Guardian. “It brings to mind the interrogation facilities they use in the Middle East. The CIA calls them black sites. It’s a domestic black site. When you go in, no one knows what’s happened to you.”

It took National Lawyers Guild lawyers making a “major stink” to finally obtain some kind of access to individuals who had been arrested in the raid. This access was an exception to the rule and likely because of media attention the raid in Chicago received ahead of the NATO summit.

***

Local press in Chicago mostly panned the sensational allegations against the CPD in The Guardian story. Particularly, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, the city’s two major newspapers, printed CPD statements without questioning their denial at all.

The Tribune printed comments from CPD spokesperson Martin Maloney, who claimed there were no facts to support any of the allegations. The Sun-Times went further and printed a rather disturbing sentence.

“Unlike other Chicago Police facilities over the years, no allegations of torture have been reported in the media in connection with Homan Square.”

First off, what that sentence essentially says is if establishment press have not reported it, it did not happen. The Sun-Times does not know of any instances so they are not sure there is any truth to The Guardian story.

The statement also is not true because in The Guardian story there is, in fact, what one would probably consider an allegation of torture:

One man in January 2013 had his name changed in the Chicago central bookings database and then taken to Homan Square without a record of his transfer being kept, according to Eliza Solowiej of Chicago’s First Defense Legal Aid. (The man, the Guardian understands, wishes to be anonymous; his current attorney declined to confirm Solowiej’s account.) She found out where he was after he was taken to the hospital with a head injury.

“He said that the officers caused his head injuries in an interrogation room at Homan Square. I had been looking for him for six to eight hours, and every department member I talked to said they had never heard of him,” Solowiej said. “He sent me a phone pic of his head injuries because I had seen him in a police station right before he was transferred to Homan Square without any.”

Being held incommunicado and in shackles for a long period is torture, especially when the shackling makes it next to impossible for someone to sleep when they are being kept in a cell for over 24 hours.

But let’s focus on the most alarming part of the sentence: “unlike other Chicago Police facilities over the years.” In other words, police have tortured people in Chicago before. There is no public record of police using Homan Square to torture people, according to the Sun-Times. But that does not signify anything meaningful at all or disprove the allegations. It merely reminds everyone that the police have a dark history of torture and, perhaps, it is possible they still abuse people in custody.

The local CBS affiliate in Chicago chose to not merely print a press release given to them by the Chicago Police Department and asked one of the NLG lawyers quoted in the story if this denial persuaded them that all is well at Homan Square.

CPD claimed that reporters have been allowed in to view “displays of confiscated drugs and other contraband” so this is not a secret facility or “black site.” NLG lawyer Sarah Gelsomino, who represented Church, said, “Sure, hold your marijuana there and talk about it; but to actually hold human beings, you know, there’s no media access there. There’s no access to anybody there.”

Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, told The Atlantic in an interview that the “police-accountability community” knew about Homan Square for a while. They “couldn’t get the press in Chicago to cover the story.” Siska argued press did not bother to cover it because they “tend to agree about the tactics needed by the police.” Often they hold the “same racist views” many police officers in the city tend to have toward black or brown communities.

For the most part, activists are not the ones being taken and held incommunicado at Homan Square. Young black and brown people, who cannot afford access to counsel while being held in custody, are the ones who have ended up at the warehouse.

The Guardian story, which is part of a series of stories on Chicago police, has rekindled attention for a reparations ordinance police torture survivors have been fighting to get passed by the City Council.

As new allegations of abuse and torture surface in followups to the Guardian story, community residents still fight for those who were victims of past CPD torture. Commander Jon Burge ran a torture ring between 1972 and 1991 and brutalized hundreds of detained suspects.

Survivors and activists demand a formal apology from the city and have pressured Mayor Rahm Emanuel to push for the passage of an ordinance now.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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