Given the treacherous tradition of torture within the Chicago Police Department detailed in Parts I and II, the public has good reason to worry about the most recent reports concerning the CPD’s “black site.” The building is home to the department’s Organized Crime Bureau, the Evidence and Recovered Property Section, its ballistics lab, the SWAT unit, and, according to interviews conducted by Spencer Ackerman at the Guardian, holding cells that resemble “kennels” where police officers disappear suspects, denying them access to a phone call and their lawyers. Kory Wright, Deandre Hutcherson, and David Smith were held there in 2005, and claim to have been cuffed in a crucifixion style with their arms spread wide. Hutcherson claims an officer punched him in the face two or three times, kicked his groin “like he was putting a cigarette out,” and made the room excessively hot. Similarly, Brock Terry claims he was held for three days in 2011 without access to his phone call or a lawyer. His family was unable to find him, he was given only restricted access to a bathroom, and they fed him just twice. All of the accounts ended with the suspects being taken to a separate police station for regular processing.
Again in 2011, police took into custody John Vergara and Jose Garcia, along with three other men, under suspicion of drug distribution. They were held for roughly eight hours without being read their rights. The police did not give public notice, and they denied the men access to their phone calls and lawyers. As the police were pushing for confessions, Garcia and Vergara mentioned the name of attorney Blake Horwitz, and all of the sudden, they were told that they could leave if they promised to remain quiet about the whole incident. A deal was made, and they were released back to the sandwich shop from which they were “kidnapped.” For weeks afterwards, Garcia claims, officers would drive past the sandwich shop where they work and were taken from and yell warnings at him. Despite this intimidation and encouraged by the articles published in the Guardian, the men have decided to file a federal lawsuit, some basic facts of which can be found here. As of March 11, a total of eleven individuals have come forward claiming they were denied basic rights and not processed normally when detained by police at Homan Square.
Lawyers have expressed concerns about this station for years. According to local lawyer Julia Bartmes, “It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make police station visits, this place – if you can’t find a client in the system, odds are they’re there.” Bartmes says she was denied access to the station while looking for a fifteen-year-old whose worried mother called. He was returned after thirteen hours without charges. Similarly, lawyer Cliff Nellis claims police outside the station told him, “this isn’t a police station, we don’t hold people here,” as he was looking for a client who was detained inside. Eliza Solowiej, executive director of Chicago First-Defense Legal Aid, said that in 2013, she was only able to find her client when he appeared in the hospital with a head injury. He claims the police were responsible.
The same predictable strains of racism and militarization on display today at Homan Square have been present over the past four decades within the department. As the case studies above reveal, police still target black and Hispanic minorities. Jose Garcia told the Guardian, “[the police] probably thought we was some dumbass Ricans.” Moreover, he initially thought a robbery was taking place because “[the police] looked like ISIS” and they came with masks, machine guns, and rifles. According to the same Guardian report, Cook County has recently received 1,700 pieces of military equipment through a Pentagon program. Victims recount stories of chain-link cells in which they were held and a method of cuffing prisoners to one another. Finally, a sinister air of secrecy surrounds the station, which some have compared to that of Guantanamo Bay. For instance, the Guardian is currently suing the CPD under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for arrest records that it has neglected to produce, and the department handled the case of suspect John Hubbard in tight-lipped manner after he reportedly died of a heroin overdose while in police custody at Homan Square in 2013. Finally, the chief of the Organized Crime Bureau at the station, Nicholas Roti, resigned right after the stories become public, though he is reported to have had plans to do so prior to their release.
The indifference and complicity of the majority of the police department and those in City Hall have enabled these abuses to persist for years. The CPD released a brief statement categorically denying all claims of abuse. It also released a factsheet that professes to set the record straight; ironically, however, in the section entitled “What Experts Are Saying About Homan Square,” the department parses quotes from the Chicago Tribune by citing only the first half of sentences and paragraphs that end in sharp criticism. Rahm Emanuel also flatly denied all of the allegations, and reporters who have gone to the site have received brusque requests to evacuate the premises.
This scandal came in the midst of racially motivated unrest throughout the United States, most recently triggered by the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It is part of larger trend of police abuse not just in Chicago, but across the United States. Many lawyers who described the term “black site” used in the Guardian articles as a mischaracterization later went on to argue that this term is inaccurate because these same police abuses are present at stations across the entire city. As Professor Craig Futterman from the University of Chicago said, using the term “[blacksite] mak[es] it look like there’s a problem in one particular station, as opposed to… a broader systemic problem to people who are very vulnerable who are denied their basic fundamental constitutional right.”
This is part III of a series. Part I can be found here, and Part II can be found here. Amnesty International’s UChicago Chapter is proud to present a column focused important human rights developments globally, nationally, and locally. If you are interested in contributing to this column, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The image featured in this article was taken by Bob Simpson. The original image can be found here.