The Chicago Police Department is under intense scrutiny this week, as local lawyers say the city’s police officers routinely use a building on Chicago’s west side to conduct interrogations outside of established police department guidelines and its own directive ensuring that suspects have access to counsel.
Known as Homan Square, the building houses several police units that conduct sensitive police work and undercover investigations, according to the Chicago Police Department (CPD).
"They’re using it to hide someone from their lawyer,” said Tracy Siska, a criminologist and executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. “Some of the public aid lawyers know about it and can find their people, but general for-profit lawyers who are contacted by the arrestee's family members have no idea Homan Square even exists."
The Guardian newspaper reported on allegations of abuses at Homan Square, including beatings and holding people without access to counsel for more than 12 hours, in an investigation published on Tuesday.
The CPD denied the allegations raised by the Guardian story. "If lawyers have a client detained at Homan Square, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them," the CPD said in a statement. "There are always records of anyone who is arrested by CPD, and this is not any different at Homan Square."
Legal advocates contacted by Al Jazeera contradict that, saying that people taken to Homan Square do not go through a formal booking process, so there is no record of an arrest. That makes it difficult for lawyers to locate their clients, Siska said.
It has become “policy” to check Homan Square when a client can't be found at any of Chicago's police districts, according to Eliza Solowiej, the executive director of Chicago’s First Defense Legal Aid. Chicago is divided into 22 police precincts, known as districts.
“People taken there are disappeared from the system," Solowiej told Al Jazeera. "Homan Square is where lawyers look when we can’t find someone taken into custody and when the Chicago Police Department says they have no record of the arrest. Our policy is to drive over to Homan Square and knock on the door."
Suspects are typically held incommunicado at the facility anywhere between 5 to 20 hours, according to Siska.
CPD did not respond by time of publication to a request for comment about how long people are held at Homan Square.
Cutting a suspect off from the outside world serves as an interrogation tool, according to Chicago-based attorney Sarah Gelsomino, who represented activist Brian Jacob Church after he was taken to the facility in 2012. The Guardian reported extensively on Church’s experience at Homan Square.
“Our client felt like no one was going to find him,” said Gelsomino. “It’s a defeating way to feel, and that can really assist in breaking the suspect down."
In 2012, after months of complaints about Homan Square from a coalition of rights groups in Chicago, including the Chicago Justice Project, the CPD revised and strengthened a directive that gives lawyers access to any police facility, including Homan Square. "Lawyers who know about Human Square carry the order with them so they can enter the building and find their clients," Siska said.
But Solowiej says that even lawyers who are aware of the directive are routinely turned away by the guard standing outside of the building.
The directive also fails to address the use of Homan Square as a place to question people without an official record of arrest, Siska said. "People taken to the facility are still not being formally booked, so unless a lawyer knows about this order, he's going to go from district to district looking for his client. Most lawyers wouldn't even know to look in Homan Square."
Siska argues that anyone taken to Homan Square is, effectively, under arrest and therefore entitled to a constitutional right to counsel.
"There is one definition of arrest in the United States of America and that is the moment your individual liberty is restricted," Siska said. "The moment they slap cuffs on you, the clock starts running on the suspect's ability to access a phone, lawyer, and when they have to be arraigned. Any police interference with that is unconstitutional."