PI Original Ellyn Fortino Tuesday December 15th, 2015, 6:03pm

Hearing On Controversial Homan Square Facility Puts Another Spotlight On CPD Procedures

Progress Illinois recaps Tuesday's Cook County Board hearing on the Chicago Police Department's controversial "Homan Square" facility.

Cook County commissioners held a hearing Tuesday afternoon about "Homan Square," a Chicago police facility that allegedly functions as an "off-the-books" detention and interrogation center.

The thinly attended hearing, held by the county board's Human Relations Committee chaired by Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-1st), comes months after The Guardian first exposed alleged abuse at Homan Square last February.

According to the news organization's reporting, suspects detained at the "secretive" police facility -- located in a former Sears warehouse on Chicago's West Side -- have allegedly been beaten, abused and denied "basic constitutional rights," including access to counsel.

The Guardian reporter who broke the story, Spencer Ackerman, testified at the hearing. He discussed a recent Guardian analysis of Chicago police records, which revealed that more than 7,000 people were detained at Homan Square between August 2004 and June 2015. 

Of the 7,185 people brought to Homan Square, nearly 6,000 were black, the review found. Additionally, "police have documented only 68 lawyer visits at Homan over that time period," Ackerman noted.

Eliza Solowiej with First Defense Legal Aid said the free legal service provider has had problems connecting with clients who have been brought to Homan Square.

"We've had people who have been there, and we've been told by city officials at Homan Square and other police districts that they did not know of any arrest of that person for hours and hours on end," she told commissioners. 

Two alleged Homan Square detainees testified as well, including Marc Freeman. He says he was held incommunicado at Homan Square for several hours before he was booked at the 11th district police station on a drug offense, for which he ultimately served probation. 

Freeman claims he was denied access to phone calls and legal counsel while detained at Homan Square in October 2014. He said he was never read his Miranda rights before arriving at the 11th district police station.

"Because of my experience at Homan, and not knowing the scope of where I was until The Guardian article exposed it, I've lost trust in the Chicago Police Department and trust in the city of Chicago," he said.

A CPD representative did not attend the hearing.

In a statement released Tuesday, the police department repeated its assertion that Homan Square, which houses special police units and a ballistics lab, is not secret.

"Most individuals interviewed at Homan Square are lower-level arrests from the narcotics unit. There are always records of anyone who is arrested by CPD, and this is no different at Homan Square," the statement added. "The allegation that physical violence is a part of interviews with suspects is unequivocally false, it is offensive, and it is not supported by any facts whatsoever."

A total of eight people testified at Tuesday's Cook County Board hearing, which took place amid controversy over the Laquan McDonald case

"The shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the hands of the Chicago police ... and the 13 months that it took for the facts of that case to come to light, and for the wheels of justice to begin turning, have shown that the elected leaders who sit on the other side of this building -- the city side -- have not dealt with the issue of race, policing and civil rights in Chicagoland with the urgency the issue requires," Boykin said at the hearing. "Therefore, it has fallen to us on the county side of the building to shine a light in dark places. One of those dark places is Homan Square."

"The allegations of torture, sexual assault, denial of access to legal representation are very serious," he added.

Flint Taylor with the People's Law Office also testified. The People's Law Office filed a federal lawsuit against the city in October on behalf of three Homan Square detainees, who allege they experienced unconstitutional abuse at the police facility, including being handcuffed for hours in dark rooms without food, water or bathroom facilities, denied access to lawyers and subjected to racial epithets and threats to them and their families.

During his testimony, Taylor said he would like to see Homan Square included in the scope of the U.S. Justice Department's "pattern and practice" probe into the CPD, which was announced last week. 

Tracy Siska with the Chicago Justice Project agreed. However, in remarks after the hearing, Siska stressed that "everything CPD does should be looked at -- from contact cards on up."

The Justice Department should "be looking at everything they do, and Homan's just a piece of it."

Going forward, Siska would like to see more Chicago media reporting on Homan Square.

"I think that by itself would be revolutionary," he said. "I'm sick of hearing journalists telling me off the record that it couldn't have possibly happened in Chicago and that myself and everyone else are liars ... It would really (be) nice if the media picks it up and runs with it. We'll see."

At the end of the hearing, Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-5th) made a point to stress that the Cook County Board lacks authority over Homan Square. She said the board could only act on non-binding resolutions related to the facility. 

But Boykin pointed out that "resolutions can be persuasive, if you make the case." 

"I don't want folks to believe there's nothing that this body can do, because we can," he stressed. "I'm gonna do all that I can. Because of the 7,000 people detained at Homan, (nearly) 6,000 of them happen to look like me and you. They're black. And that's not right."

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