Ordinary Chicagoans say Homan Square facility, where suspects are interrogated and detained without legal access, fits within a broader tradition of police abuse
Tuesday 3 March 2015 12.39 EST Last modified on Tuesday 3 March 2015 18.31 EST
He would go on to investigate torture for a distinguished religious group, become an anti-apartheid campaigner and even an adviser to his city’s mayor. But before all that, in the early 1960s, Prexy Nesbitt was just another young black man thrown over the hood of his car by one of Chicago’s notoriously brutal police.
Nesbitt, then in his late teens, had put his Checker Marathon between a police cruiser and the vehicle of a woman he saw a cop harassing. The white officer, evidently dissatisfied, drew his gun and pointed it at Nesbitt’s left temple. Later taken to a police station, Nesbitt ultimately got out of the situation unharmed, he remembered, because his schoolteacher father and pediatrician uncle were well respected in their Lawndale neighborhood – where, then as now, the red brick towers and warehouse complex now known as theHoman Square police facility marks the skyline.
“The class position of my family was the only reason I wasn’t thrown in jail,” Nesbitt, now 70 years old, remembered. “Otherwise, I might even not be here telling the story.”
Back when Nesbitt was growing up, Homan Square was the Sears Roebuck complex, an engine of economic vitality. Now, among other police functions, it’s a site for interrogations and hours-long detentions without public notice or legal access, compared by locals to a CIA black site. Nesbitt and others with a sense of Chicago’s history – lawyers, activists, an ex-cop, everyday Chicagoans – consider Homan Square to fit within an ongoing, racialized legacy of police abuse and civil-rights denial whose roots are deep, wide and old.
“The subtle message in the department is white supremacy, white male supremacy,” said Pat Hill, a Chicago police officer from 1986 to 2007 who led the African American Police League.
Ironically, the Chicago police department itself opened the aperture for a broader look into its behavior on Sunday, releasing a three-page “factsheet” attempting to refute the result of investigations by the Guardian. The press release likened Homan Square’s “several standard interview rooms” to those of the “more than 25 CPD facilities throughout the city”, implying that the facility is more consistent with typical police practices than a departure from them.
Chicagoans, particularly black and brown citizens, lament that as all too true – that being interrogated and abused, frequently without public notice or legal counsel, has transformed the denial of constitutional rights in their city into a kind of disturbing norm.
Late last year, following decades of profound systematic abuse, institutional racism and the repeated denial of civil rights, Chicago citizens asked the United Nations to classify what their notoriously brutal police force does to them, in an American city, as a violation of international anti-torture statutes.
Contained within an appeal to the UN Committee Against Torture – the same watchdog that has looked into Guantánamo Bay andthe police killing in Ferguson, Missouri – were a litany of tales describing highly damaging abuse and injustice, completely out of step with alleged crimes. One was the story of a 22-year-old black man, who was beaten so badly when Chicago police found him smoking marijuana that he awoke from consciousness in Cook County jail with “22 stitches in my tongue, two facial fractures, bruised ribs, scrapes all over my body … an orbital fracture, a nasal fracture”.
Late last week, after multiple Chicago lawyers came forward to the Guardian with allegations of suspects being interrogated without public notice or legal counsel at a warehouse known as Homan Square, more young black men from Chicago began telling their stories of being abused, off the books, inside the facility.
“A monopoly and application of the use of illicit violence is the modus vivendi of the Chicago police department and of governance in Chicago,” Nesbitt said.
“Violence and the use of illicit violence versus people of color, particularly blacks and Latinos, is as routine in Chicago as traffic lights.”
Payouts and politics: ‘That’s not something to brag about’
While Chicago’s violent police legacy has struck hardest at its poor, black and brown citizens, the financial costs are more widespread.
In 2014 alone, payouts to victims of Chicago police misconduct cost taxpayers a total of $54.2m, according to a tally from the Chicago Reporter. Victims pursuing civil-rights litigation against Jon Burge – the Chicago police commander whose torture tactics, including electrocution and beating suspects with phone books, became notorious in his reign beginning in the 1970s – have totaled at least $64m in judgments and settlements.
Most police-misconduct payouts come through settlements, which allow the Chicago police department to withhold admitting that wrongdoing actually occurred.
Greg Malandrucco was one of them. He and a friend, Matthew Smith, each got $45,000 as a result of a 2010 beating they sustained outside a Mexican restaurant at the hands of men they understood to be off-duty Chicago cops. It all stemmed from Smith blocking the men’s bathroom while he put on his jacket to leave.
“I had a broken nose, I had a stitched lower half of my lip. I was knocked unconscious for a brief period,” said Malandrucco, whowrote about his beating for Vice.
Malandrucco is now on the steering committee of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, where he seeks to press back against institutionalized police abuse.
“Even the torture cases, they extend beyond Jon Burge, they extend beyond Homan Square. We’ve had people in the alliance family who’ve been tortured by other offices, and there are other cases of police torture in which officers, when they’re finally brought up on the stand, they just plead the fifth,” Malandrucco said. (As it happened, Burge, the notorious police torturer, himself pleaded the fifth, exercising his constitutional right against self-incrimination, during a February deposition. He was released from house arrest last month after being convicted to four and a half years on a perjury charge.)
Chicago’s police abuse isn’t just physical. Few in Chicago police custody upon arrest get access to lawyers, even outside Homan Square – something the Guardian reported in its original Homan Square investigation.
Figures obtained by Chicago’s First Defense Legal Aid under a freedom-of-information request found that in 2013, lawyers were able to visit clients in police custody citywide for only 302 out of 143,398 arrestees – a rate of 0.2%. These statistics reveal a very different picture from the portrayal in the Chicago police “fact sheet” which claims that “an individual who wishes to consult a lawyer will not be interrogated until they have an opportunity to do so”.
Eliza Solowiej, First Defense Legal Aid’s executive director, told the Guardian on Monday: “99.8% of people are alone with police and prosecutors in any CPD facility. If Homan is no different as of two days ago, that’s not something to brag about.”
“The mayor’s office says they are considering giving [arrestees] access to the phones early on, posting our number and a know your rights notice. I expect movement on that this month to show they aren’t getting in between people and their lawyers. Opening up the phone lines between their arrestees and legal aid is what it will take to watchdog their promises.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in the heat of a re-election runoff campaign, has denied abuse at Homan Square. In his only public comments on the issue, Emanuel said on Thursday it was “not true” that the police maintain a facility lawyers have compared to a CIA “black site”. On Monday, at an event titled “Reparations Not Black Sites” in downtown Chicago, demonstrators continued to push Emanuel and the city to take up an ordinance that would include further payments to victims under Burge as well as a formal apology from the city, community centers and a requirement for Chicago public schools to teach the history of police abuse in the city.
Julia Bartmes, a Chicago attorney who has been personally turned away from Homan Square, said that for all the structural flaws in Chicago policing and criminal justice, Homan Square remains unique.
“At other CPD stations, an attorney can sit in the lobby, speak with the desk officers, and talk to the watch commander or a detective if they aren’t getting answers,” said Bartmes. “Attorneys have no such access at Homan Square.”
Bartmes added that at Homan Square, “there is no lobby; the only point of entry is the gatehouse, and the officer stationed there may have only partial information on what is happening inside.”
Roughhousing and round-ups: ‘It goes on and on’
Thus far, five Chicagoans have spoken to the Guardian about their experiences chained up and interrogated at Homan Square. All said they were permitted neither lawyers nor phone calls. Yet the Chicago police claim that all in custody have access to counsel – and that none are abused.
“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,” the fact sheet reads.
Deandre Hutcherson said a Homan Square police interrogator punched him and stepped on his groin during a June 2005 detention. Brock Terry, taken to Homan in 2011, said police “roughhoused” him, but not enough to leave bruises.
Some of those who have been detained at Homan report police tactics they encountered within the facility as an extension of those they encounter routinely on Chicago’s streets.
Albert Smith was detained for hours at Homan Square in 2005 in the same incident as his brother David, cousin Kory Wright and their friend Hutcherson. Police at Homan, where Smith says he was neither booked nor permitted a phone call, wanted him to bring them a gun, and even drove Smith outside in a van with tinted windows to see if he could get them weapons from the street. When he couldn’t, they took him back to Homan for an estimated 12 more hours.
Smith, 35 and also a Lawndale resident, said the focus on guns has led the police to shake down black Chicagoans, and particularly black motorists, far beyond Homan Square.
“If they feel like they can take your car, they ask you, what could you do for yourself,” Smith said. “They really be wanting you to give them a gun … Once they feel like they got you boxed in, they like, ‘well, what could you do for yourself? You give us a gun, or who could you tell on,’ or whatever. Mostly they want a gun.”
Terry, a 31-year-old man who lives on the west side and who says he was held at Homan Square for three days, said that the police simply drive by and swoop up Chicagoans they see out late.
“Around midnight, two, three in the morning, they go on these corners sweeping up people,” Terry said.
Many are simply let go after being rounded up for information on street crime.
“It’s not always two and three in the morning. They’ll do it in broad daylight,” said Hill, whose 21 years of policework mostly focused on Chicago’s south side.
Hill called it a “form of intimidation” rather than necessary police work: “The more they do it, they get promoted, attaboy, you know, you can go to the tactical team, you can go to narcotics. You take the promotional exam, become a supervisor, so it goes on and on.”
Cook County and racial history: ‘It was like modern-day slavery’
Once taken out of Homan Square and into police districts, Chicagoans caught in the justice system proceed to the fortress-like Cook County jail on 26th and California, run by the Cook County sheriff’s department. The jail itself “systematically violated inmates’ constitutional rights”, according to a 2010 stipulation by the US Department of Justice, through the use of “excessive force by staff, the failure to protect inmates from harm by fellow inmates, inadequate medical and mental healthcare, and a lack of adequate fire safety and sanitation”.
Cook County and the Justice Department entered into an agreement that year to fix the jail. But a recent civil-rights lawsuit finds more continuity than change.
The suit, filed in October by Kathleen Zellner – the same Chicago-area attorney attempting a civil-rights lawsuit against the detective turned Guantánamo torturer Richard Zuley – describes an ongoing “culture of lawlessness” at the jail she likened to a “Chicago version of Abu Ghraib”.
A 27-year-old Jane Doe plaintiff, a non-violent drug offender, spent 27 days at the jail starting in November 2013. She was sexually assaulted – hence the pseudonym – as well as beaten and slashed with a razor; she lost clumps of hair and a tooth. A corrections officer, Darmea McCoy, pegged her for the other inmates as a snitch, accelerating the assault. McCoy is alleged to have told her: “This is not the Hilton and if you don’t like the accommodations then you shouldn’t have made the reservations.”
Albert Smith, who also said he was made to sleep on the floor of the Cook County jail when he was there in the mid-2000s, said conditions at the jail were “the worst thing you could ever go through”.
“Shit, man, it was like modern-day slavery,” Smith added.
Conversely, Bill Dorsch, who retired as a Chicago police defective in 1994 as a 25-year veteran, said that after decades of outside scrutiny, he considered police abuse in Chicago more exceptional than systemic.
“I can’t see it really going on now. You get that individual officer who’s got a problem, maybe, with the person he arrested, but I don’t think it’s rampant,” Dorsch said.
But Hill, who retired in 2007, said that institutional dysfunction in the police force starts at the academy, and is anything but colorblind: “The type of crime that they’re supposed to be fighting is described for them, and the face of the criminals are black.”
When Hill tried to resist it within the African American Police League, she said she faced retaliation: not only was she called racist names, she recalled, but cocaine and marijuana began showing up in patrol cars she had used during routine inspections.
“You’re going to always have a Homan Square,” Hill said. “They consider that part of real police work, even though it doesn’t stop any of the dope from coming in here.”
Alice Kim, a founding member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, a group pushing for reparations for Jon Burge’s victims, said Chicago typically covers up its systemic abuses rather than facing them forthrightly.
“The cover-up angle needs to be explored and made explicit. Mayor Emanuel denies what is happening at Homan Square. There needs to be a real investigation,” Kim said.
“In the Burge torture cases, the city – from Mayor Daley to State’s Attorney Dick Devine to the police board to the office of professional standards – denied that torture was taking place.”
Nesbitt, now an adjunct professor at Chicago’s Columbia College, doesn’t live in Lawndale anymore, though he goes back for frequent visits. As his career progressed, he investigated torture and racial persecution for the World Council of Churches’ anti-racism program; campaigned against apartheid in South Africa; and in the 1980s, came to advise Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
Recounting his decades of experience with police, Nesbitt sometimes sounded like he was narrating a gangster story.
Gloves Davis got his name from putting on gloves “before he beat you”. Two-Gun Pete had a second gun on him so he could plant evidence. When Nesbitt told a black officer where he was taken about the white cop putting the gun to his temple, the officer said: “If he had done that to me, I’d have shot his motherfucking ass.”
Nesbitt wants Homan Square investigated as well.
“There are many, many buildings in that complex, so I think there should be an independent inquiry into all those buildings. It’s where the bodies are buried,” Nesbitt said. “Unless you look through all those buildings – somebody; an independent inquiry – the whole story’s never going to come out.”
- This article was amended on 3 March 2015 to correct the year that Deandre Hutcherson and Albert Smith were at Homan Square. It was 2005, not 2006.