On Tuesday, emotional testimonies were heard by the Cook County Human Relations Committee as former detainees at Homan Square spoke about alleged human rights violations.
The hearing took place at the Cook County Building in the Loop where chairman and Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) renewed calls for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to expand its civil rights investigation into the facility used by the Chicago Police Department. The effort comes as some express concerns that Homan Square will be overlooked as federal officials examine records and conduct hundreds of interviews to find a “pattern of practices” of policing among officers.
Talk of Homan Square has been growing since U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a federal civil rights investigation into the practices of the Chicago Police Department on December 7. That announcement followed weeks of protests after a video was released showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.
The case has sparked calls for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Emanuel is accused of suppressing the video during his re-election campaign for a second term in an intense run-off in April. Many are suspicious as to why Alvarez took 13 months to charge Van Dyke with first-degree murder.
While Black leaders are calling for Lynch to expand the DOJ civil rights investigation into City Hall and the State’s Attorney’s office, Boykin and civil rights attorneys believe the U.S. Department of Justice will find a bevy of information that would help expose the practices of Chicago police.
Located on the city’s West Side, the facility is a former large warehouse owned by Sears and is surrounded by a gate. It has drawn sharp criticism and public outcry after the British newspaper, The Guardian, published an extensive investigation about the facility in February. The paper reported that more than 7,000 detainees—a majority of them are Black—“disappeared” in the facility that Chicago police describe as a detention center.
However in several lawsuits, former detainees describe the facility as a “medieval dungeon” where they were called racial slurs, physically abused, denied calls to their loved ones, and not allowed to see an attorney.
Many attorneys have complained of being denied access to the facility. Some say they waited for hours to see their clients.
After the story broke, Boykin and U.S. Congressman Danny Davis (7th) sent a letter asking Lynch to investigate Homan Square. In October, Boykin sent a second letter asking Lynch for a federal probe of the facility. As protests and questions continue from the McDonald case, Boykin is turning up his demands for change at Homan Square.
“The Department of Justice’s investigation must take into account those systemic issues in Chicago Police Department that go back decades,” Boykin said at the hearing. “Homan Square is one of those systemic issues. The murder of Laquan McDonald and the attempted cover-up of that murder over a period of 13 months cast even more doubt on the repeated police denials of wrongdoing at Homan Square,” Boykin added.
The hearing also included testimonies from attorneys who have visited Homan Square.
During his testimony, Kory Wright said he was handcuffed for hours as he was denied requests to go to the bathroom and to see an attorney when he was detained at the facility in 2005.
“I didn’t know my rights,” he said. “Like most Black men, I didn’t have many resources for help.”
Wright, who was arrested on suspicion for possessing heroin, said he spent hours at Homan Square before he was taken to Cook County Jail, where he spent three days before he was released.
An articulate Black man, Wright said he had a difficult time finding work because of the experience. Years later, he was accepted for an internship at Merrill Lynch, but was forced to get a copy of his deposition to clear his name for work.
Another former detainee, Marc Freeman, said he was never told his rights before he was arrested and taken to Homan Square in 2014.
“I was terrorized, frightened and coerced into making a confession,” said Freeman who was arrested after police suspected him of possessing two pounds of marijuana. He was also cleared of the charges.
At the hearing, Attorney G. Flint Taylor said he first heard about Homan Square when one of his clients was held there for 17 hours. Taylor is currently representing three plaintiffs who, in October, sued several Chicago Police officers who allegedly called them “niggers” as they performed a cavity search on them. The plaintiffs were arrested for alleged drug possession, but were never charged with a crime and a Cook County judge dismissed their case.
“Police practices at Homan Square are similar to the torture that went on under Jon Burge,” said Taylor, referring to the notorious former Chicago Police detective and commander who was convicted of torturing hundreds of criminal suspects between 1972 – 1991 in order to force confessions.
Since Cook County is a separate government from the City of Chicago, a state’s attorney confirmed at the hearing that Boykin’s calls for an expanded DOJ into Homan Square will not have any impact on the investigation. But Boykin reminded those at the hearing that he would continue to speak out against Homan Square until the problems are addressed.
In news reports, Lynch said the unlawful detentions and allegations at Homan Square are “extremely important” to her.
Meanwhile, protests over the handling of the McDonald case continue to rock the city.
On Tuesday night, Chicago police arrested 16 protesters at the intersection of Congress Parkway and Clark Street.
Early Wednesday morning, the Coalition for a New Chicago gathered outside City Hall to announce a protest on Christmas Eve on the Magnificent Mile.