Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin (1st), who chairs the Human Rights Committee, called a public hearing on Dec. 15 into the alleged improper practices at the Chicago Police Department’s controversial detention facility known as Homan Square in North Lawndale.
After the release of the Laquan McDonald murder tapes, Boykin has bundled within a range of demands made by various activists and community leaders a call for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the facility.
This month, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced her department’s plans to launch an in-depth civil rights investigation into CPD as the city still reels from the Nov. 24 McDonald video release.
“The scope of allegations means that the abuse is horrifyingly broad,” said Chicago activist Jonathan Terrasi of the secretive facility, which he described as a city-owned building controlled for nearly 20 years by CPD, which maintains that the site isn’t a secret.
As with many others, Terrasi said he first learned about the facility through a report published last February by The Guardian, an international daily newspaper based in Britain that also maintains an American website.
Terrarsi said CPD has acknowledged that it conducts police work at the facility in publicly accessible sections. In March, Boykin even went on a tour of the facility, but afterward the commissioner told media that he left the building with more questions than answers and that the facility was “eerily quiet” with no suspects in custody.
But CPD’s stance on the issue contradicts the testimony of people, mostly blacks, who claim that Homan Square has been well-known among West Side residents. Earlier this month, Fred Hampton, Jr., the son of slain Black Panther Fred Hampton, said that the facility was so well known that residents had their own name for it.
“It done happened to us so much we called them whoopee stations. It was known in the community. ‘Man what happened, you was gone for four or five days?’ ‘Yeah, man, they had me in the whoopee station, man.’ It was no documenting your name, no log-in,” said Hampton.
Spencer Ackerman, the national defense and counter-terrorism reporter from The Guardian who initially broke the story, said during his testimony at the hearing that he discovered the practices of Homan Square in February while he was in Chicago reporting on a local detective who oversaw the torture of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
During his reporting, Ackerman said he heard about Homan Square, which was described to him as a place where “Chicagoans, many of them poor, black and brown, were held for hours on end without access to attorneys or even a record of their whereabouts.”
Ackerman said that his investigation resulted in various testimonials from former detainees of the site who claimed they were tortured. He also talked to attorneys who claimed they were unable to locate their clients who were being held at the site.
“We at The Guardian wanted to get to the bottom of this story by filing a Freedom of Information request, basically suing to force disclosure,” said Ackerman, who said his findings were “shocking.”
The reporter said he discovered that between August 2004 and June 2015, police took detainees to Homan Square more than 7,000 times, but lawyer visits to the facility were only documented 68 times during that period. Two of the detainees who were said to have received lawyers denied to The Guardian that this was the case. He said 82 percent of the detainees at the facility were black men, while 12 percent were Hispanic. Just six percent were white, he said.
Kory Wright was one of those detainees. Wright testified that on June 29, 2005, he was on his aunt’s porch getting his hair braided when six squad cars arrived and officers stormed his aunt’s house during a search. They eventually handcuffed him and carried him away to Homan Square.
“They interrogated me, asking me about things I knew nothing about, like a murder than occurred in the area, and whether I knew where a gun was and things of that nature,” Wright said.
“I sat in that room and they turned the temperature up and I was zip-tied to a bench. When I asked for a phone call and requested to use the bathroom, I was denied both requests.”
Wright was eventually indicted on drug charges and requested a bench trial, believing that he could talk with the judge about the baseless nature of the criminal charges he faced.
The undercover informant, who claimed she had purchased drugs from Wright ,was unable to properly identify him at trial and the charges were subsequently dropped. Wright says that the incident has resulted in emotional distress and missed employment opportunities.
Freeman said he was sent to Homan Square on Oct. 23, 2014. He was in his Ukrainian Village apartment around 3:30 p.m., when four masked members of CPD’s Narcotics Unit executed a no knock raid of his apartment. The officers brandished machine guns and threw him to the ground, handcuffed him and removed him from his residence on suspicion of selling marijuana out of his house, Freeman said.
“When they were arresting me I first asked to see the warrant,” he said. “After being shown the warrant, I then asked to speak to an attorney for the first of four times, all of which were denied. I was never read my Miranda Rights. I was sent to Homan Square, taken to a room and handcuffed to a rail in the back of the room. From there the questions started as I was asked if I wanted to help myself out by becoming a confidential informant.”
Freeman said one officer told him that he was going to jail if he didn’t agree to help the police out. Three hours later, he was taken to the 11th District police station, where they took his fingerprints and mugshot.
“If the allegations are true, it would mean than Chicago residents have been denied fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against illegal search and seizure,” said Terrarsi during his public testimony.
Terrarsi said that detainees were also denied access to legal counsel, “in violation of the Sixth Amendment, even after requesting legal counsel repeatedly.”
He added that, along with the denial of basic constitutional protections, some detainees claimed that their human rights were violated as well. When CPD was questioned about the site, Terrarsi said that the department’s answers weren’t credible. He also echoed Boykin’s call for an independent investigation into the facility.
Flint Taylor, an attorney who has been working on police brutality cases since 1969, represents Brian Church, one of the “NATO Three” protesters who were arrested in 2012 on terrorism charges.
“[Church was] held there for 17 hours in a dark room and lawyers in my office tried to find him and could not find him until there was a such a ruckus with the corporation council that finally my partner was able to find him,” Taylor said, adding that he’s filed a lawsuit against Homan Square personnel and the City of Chicago that is currently pending in federal court.
When Taylor attempted to submit documentation regarding the use of cameras at Homan Square, Vice Chairman Deborah Sims (5th) questioned whether the documents should be submitted to the state’s attorney rather than the Cook County Board Committee.
Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (7th) disagreed with Sims’ apprehensions, noting that the documentation could be submitted to the committee without it jeopardizing the still-pending case and asked Taylor why he believed that local media outlets had been so late in following up on the alleged activities of Homan Square.
“I believe that when The Guardian beat them to the story and continued to follow-up on it, much of the local press felt that since it was not their story, they did not want to look into it.
When a man was quoted in The Guardian story calling Homan Square a ‘black site’ (a term used in describing secret prisons operated by the CIA, generally outside of legal jurisdiction) some local media outlets pounced on the comment to try to discredit the story, Taylor said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you call it a ‘black site,’ or a ‘secret detention center,’ or a ‘torture center.’ What’s important is what we have and what The Guardian has uncovered over the years about the extent of the illegal practices going on there and the racial aspects of them.”
Ultimately, the apprehensions of Commissioner Sims won out and the hearing was eventually called to a 15-minute recess to iron out its legality and to request the presence of a state’s attorney.
“This is too important for us not to get it right,” Sims said.
After the hearing, Boykin said he hopes that the county board passes a resolution that might persuade the Justice Department to investigate Homan Square as it plans to do with CPD.
“I view this hearing as a critical step — an important rung on the ladder to accountability,” he noted in a statement.
“It is my hope and my expectation that this testimony will be of use to the Department of Justice as they embark on their ‘patterns and practices’ investigation of the Chicago Police Department. Any federal investigation that excludes Homan Square will be woefully incomplete.”