Homan square not so off-the-books

By Metro Editor

An inconspicuous warehouse in Chicago has captured the world’s attention.

Homan Square, 3379 W. Fillmore St., is a former Sears Roebuck & Co. warehouse owned and operated by the Chicago Police Department since 1999. It houses the Evidence and Recovered Property Section and is open to the public. 

Homan Square is the only CPD facility “where members of the public can collect evidence recovered during a now complete criminal investigation, or found property,” according to a March 1 fact sheet issued by CPD. 

Homan Square is also the base of operations for officers working undercover. It houses the SWAT Unit, Evidence Technicians, the Bureau of Organized Crime and the CPD ballistics lab. News conferences are routinely held at the facility to show an immense collection of seized illegal drugs. 

However, according to a series of articles printed by British media outlet The Guardian since Feb. 24, the CPD operates a secretive interrogation compound in the West Side neighborhood of the same name. Sources in the article said Homan Square is akin to a CIA “black site.”

The pieces, written by American journalist Spencer Ackerman, allege that prisoners are taken to the facility, “shackled” for hours, and denied access to legal counsel as their whereabouts are kept secret from their lawyers, family 

and friends. 

It has inspired numerous protests in the subsequent week and captured worldwide attention. 

The story prompted CPD officials to deny The Guardian’s claims, but neither Mayor Rahm Emanuel nor CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy have commented on the allegations.

The reaction in Chicago has been varied—a mix of skepticism, anger at attacks against Chicago press who were characterized as too timid to report the story and frustration among the criminal defense bar that the real story of rampant abuses of suspects’ rights had not been reported. 

For criminal defense attorneys like DePaul University’s College of Law professor Robert Loeb, the claims are hardly news.

“Homan Square is not this secret torture site, certainly not in the general sense, but the idea of interrogations without access to a lawyer is a problem system-wide and citywide,” Loeb said. “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t abuses at Homan Square. It doesn’t mean there aren’t abuses in other police stations. People are held in custody sometimes too long, very often without getting their rights. Sometimes their rights are ignored, but that’s hardly news. It’s been going on for decades.”

The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and Crain’s Chicago Business have addressed The Guardian’s story—not to discredit its claims but to poke legitimate holes in the story, according to Chicago Sun-Times crime reporter and Columbia College alumnus Sam Charles. 

“There may be a story here that police are illegally detaining suspects without contact,” Charles said. “That very well may be happening. If it is, I hope that The Guardian or whatever outlet would aggressively pursue that story. But at the same time, I want that story to be bulletproof.”

Craig Futterman, founder of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago, said the buzz around the term “black site” obscures systemic problems that bar people from obtaining legal counsel. 

He said the CPD routinely violates Chicagoans’ rights.

According to Futterman, one of the most important violations to note is CPD denying detainees’ access to a phone call after they have been brought to the station.

“In every police station around the city, the phones are upstairs in the area where the lockups are, and you don’t go to that area and get access to a phone until after the interrogation,” Futterman said. “The CPD recognizes that issue and hasn’t corrected it. It’s a systemic way in which people are being held incommunicado and being denied access to council.”

Loeb said that although it is somewhat unclear when a detainee has a right to a phone call, the law is clear on when they are entitled to 

a lawyer.

“If somebody has a lawyer and asks for their lawyer, they should be given that phone call,” Loeb said. “If somebody says, ‘I want a lawyer before there’s any questioning,’ there can’t be any questioning without that lawyer. However, if somebody’s just blindly asking for a lawyer during the investigative state, police are under no obligation to go out and find a lawyer for that person. If that person has a lawyer, they have to be allowed to see the person.”

Under the law, barring exceptional circumstances, the police can hold a person in custody for a maximum of 48 hours. The Fourth Amendment requires that arrestees be brought promptly before a judge for arraignment. Futterman said it is inappropriate to delay bringing a person to court for investigative purposes.

“You can’t hold someone and say, ‘I want to investigate further, I want to interrogate more,’” he said.

The Guardian report has attracted criticism from local media outlets that say the account mischaracterizes Homan Square and funnels large claims through a small group of sources. Ackerman does not cite official records or documents and relies entirely on the testimony of criminal defense lawyers and eyewitness accounts.

Futterman said that 20 years ago, the same conversation could have been had about the torture performed by former police Commander Jon Burge. Between 1972–1991, Burge led a torture ring operating out of South and West Side stations that coerced false confessions from more than 100 black men, using methods such as electric shock and suffocation. He was convicted of perjury in 2010, released from federal prison last year, moved to a Florida halfway house and was ultimately freed on Feb. 13.

“Something was going on as an open secret and quite pervasively that wasn’t reported on and wasn’t ultimately uncovered and proven until years and years later,” Futterman said. 

Charles said it is difficult to determine whether or not the events described in Ackerman’s story actually happened at the facility. He said the small group of sources in the story 

is questionable.

The article primarily quotes Brian Jacob Church, a vocal critic of the CPD and one of the so-called “NATO Three,” who also attended a March 5 protest at Homan Square.

“We are here today as American citizens to not only, say, shut this place down, stop the violence against the American people perpetrated by police that are supposed to be protecting and serving us and shut down facilities like this across the country and across the world that we don’t even know about,” Church said at the protest. “This is not humanity right here, this is disgusting.”

In April 2014, Church and his two co-defendants were convicted on two counts: for possession of an incendiary device and for misdemeanor mob action. The three were acquitted of terrorism charges. 

Church said he was handcuffed to the wall of the facility for 17 hours before being booked at the Harrison police station a few blocks away.

“Part of my job is that I look through federal and civil litigation every week [and] people sue the cops for a whole lot less than what’s being alleged in The Guardian,” Charles said. “If it’s legitimate, go crazy, but if you’re chained to a bench for 17 hours and you don’t file a lawsuit, something stinks to me.”