“Black Sites” of Silence?

Those who follow police misconduct closely know that patterns of abuse can become normalized when tolerated or unchecked by police supervisors. Abuses that went unreported or were unsubstantiated in years past have been exposed by the growing presence of camera phones and other technologies that record police-public interactions. But they can’t catch them all.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman has reported a truly disturbing practice in Chicago. The police have established a “black site” area where Americans are held incommunicado to be interrogated. Prisoners are held without charge and in violation of their constitutional rights and without access to legal counsel:

The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.

Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

  • Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.
  • Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.
  • Shackling for prolonged periods.
  • Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.
  • Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

Unlike a precinct, no one taken to Homan Square is said to be booked. Witnesses, suspects or other Chicagoans who end up inside do not appear to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct. Lawyers and relatives insist there is no way of finding their whereabouts. Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside.

“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,” said Chicago lawyer Julia Bartmes.

This is not Chicago’s first brush with systematic abuse of citizens. Just this month, a retired CPD detective was released from prison for covering up the torture and false confessions of over 100 people in the 1970s and ‘80s. He still collects a $4,000 per month pension.

Police transparency is essential to effective policing, but police organizations often protect their officers from outside scrutiny, making it difficult to hold officers accountable for repeated violations of policy. Secretive internal investigations can stonewall public inquiry into disputed officer-related shootings committed in broad daylight. Left unchecked, entire police departments can develop institutional tolerance for constitutional violations in day-to-day policing. 

But what Ackerman reports seems to be the ultimate lack of police transparency. If what he reports is true, a full investigation should be launched by government officials outside of the Chicago Police Department to examine such egregious violations of civil and constitutional rights.

At PoliceMisconduct.net, we’re shining a light to bring these abuses out into the open.

Read Ackerman’s powerful report here.