How Chicago Police 'Disappeared' 7,000 People in an Off-the-Books Interrogation Warehouse
Police “disappeared” more than 7,000 people at an off-the-books interrogation warehouse in Chicago, nearly twice as many detentions as previously disclosed, the Guardian can now reveal.
The new disclosures, the result of an ongoing Guardian transparency lawsuit and investigation, provide the most detailed, full-scale portrait yet of the truth about Homan Square, a secretive facility that Chicago police have described as little more than a low-level narcotics crime outpost where the mayor has said police “follow all the rules.”
The police portrayals contrast sharply with those of Homan Square detainees and their lawyers, who insist that “if this could happen to someone, it could happen to anyone.” A 30-year-old man named Jose, for example, was one of the few detainees with an attorney present when he surrendered to police. He said officers at the warehouse questioned him even after his lawyer specifically told them he would not speak.
“The Fillmore and Homan boys,” Jose said, referring to police and the facility’s cross streets, “don’t play by the rules.”
According to an analysis of data disclosed to the Guardian in late September, police allowed lawyers access to Homan Square for only 0.94% of the 7,185 arrests logged over nearly 11 years. That percentage aligns with Chicago police’s broader practice of providing minimal access to attorneys during the crucial early interrogation stage, when an arrestee’s constitutional rights against self-incrimination are most vulnerable.
But Homan Square is unlike Chicago police precinct houses, according to lawyers who described a “find-your-client game” and experts who reviewed data from the latest tranche of arrestee records obtained by the Guardian."Not much shakes me in this business – baby murder, sex assault, I’ve done it all,” said David Gaeger, an attorney whose client was taken to Homan Square in 2011 after being arrested for marijuana. “That place was and is scary. It’s a scary place. There’s nothing about it that resembles a police station. It comes from a Bond movie or something.”
The narcotics, vice and anti-gang units operating out of Homan Square, on Chicago’s west side, take arrestees to the nondescript warehouse from all over the city: police data obtained by the Guardian and mapped against the city grid show that 53% of disclosed arrestees come from more than 2.5 miles away from the warehouse. No contemporaneous public record of someone’s presence at Homan Square is known to exist.
Nor are any booking records generated at Homan Square, as confirmed by a sworn deposition of a police researcher in late September, further preventing relatives or attorneys from finding someone taken there.
“The reality is, no one knows where that person is at Homan Square,” said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who studies policing. “They’re disappeared at that point.”
A Chicago police spokesman did not respond to a list of questions for this article, including why the department had doubled its initial arrest disclosures without an explanation for the lag. “If lawyers have a client detained at Homan Square, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them,” the police claimed in a February statement.
Numbers are ‘hard to believe’
Twenty-two people have told the Guardian that Chicago police kept them at Homan Square for hours and even days. They describe pressure from officers to become informants, and all but two – both white – have said the police denied them phone calls to alert relatives or attorneys of their whereabouts.
Their accounts point to violations of police directives, which say police must “complete the booking process” regardless of their interest in interrogating a suspect and must also “allow the arrestee to make a reasonable number of telephone calls to an attorney, family member or friend”, usually within “the first hour” of detention.
The most recent disclosure of Homan Square data provides the scale behind those accounts: the demographic trends within the 7,185 disclosed arrests at the warehouse are now far more vast than what the Guardian reported in August after launching the transparency lawsuit – but are consistently disproportionate in terms of race and constitutional access to legal counsel.
- 82.2% of people detained at Homan Square were black, compared with 32.9% of the Chicago population.
- 11.8% of detainees in the Homan Square logs were Hispanic, compared with 28.9% of the population.
- 5.5% of the detainees were white, compared with 31.7% of the population.
- Of the 68 people who Chicago police claim had access to counsel at Homan Square, however, 45% were black, 26% were Hispanic and another 26% were white.
“Operating a massive, red-brick warehouse between two of the most crime-filled areas in the city of Chicago, equipped with floodlights, cameras, razor-wire – this near-paramilitary wing of the government that we’ve created, I would say that people who live close to it know what purpose it serves the most,” said the attorney Gaeger. “The demographics that surround it speak for themselves.”
Despite the lack of booking and minimal attorney access at Homan Square, it is not a facility for detaining and interrogating the most violent of Chicago’s criminals. Drug possession charges were eventually levied in 5,386 of the disclosed Homan Square arrests, or 74.9%; heroin accounted for 35.4% of those, with marijuana next at 22.3%.
The facility’s use by police has intensified in recent years. Nearly 65% of documented Homan Square arrests since August 2004 took place in the five years since Rahm Emanuel, formerly Barack Obama’s top aide, became mayor. (The Guardian has filed a Foia request with Emanuel’s office to disclose the extent of its involvement in Homan Square.)
The 68 documented attorney visits are actually slightly higher, statistically speaking, than the extremely minimal legal access Chicago police provide suspects in custody during the initial stages of their arrest. The 2014 citywide total at declared police stations, according to First Defense Legal Aid, was 0.3%. On face value, the lawyer visit rate at Homan Square, according to the newly disclosed documents, was 0.9% over nearly 11 years.
But those documents do not tell the entire story of Homan Square. Chicago police have not disclosed any figures at all on people who were detained at Homan Square but never ultimately charged. Nor has it released any information about detentions or arrests before September 2004, claiming that information is burdensome to produce because it is not digital. (Chicago purchased the warehouse in 1995.)
“It’s hard to believe that 7,185 arrests is an accurate number of arrestees at Homan Square,” said the University of Chicago’s Futterman. “Even if it were true that less than 1% of Homan arrestees were given access to counsel, that would be abhorrent in and of itself.”
‘Try finding a phone number for Homan’
Chicago attorneys say they are not routinely turned away from police precinct houses, as they are at Homan Square. The warehouse is also unique in not generating public records of someone’s detention there, permitting police to effectively hide detainees from their attorneys.
“Try finding a phone number for Homan to see if anyone’s there. You can’t, ever,” said Gaeger. “If you’re laboring under the assumption that your client’s at Homan, there really isn’t much you can do as a lawyer. You’re shut out. It’s guarded like a military installation.”
The difficulty lawyers have in finding phone numbers for Homan Square mirrors the difficulties that arrestees at the warehouse have in making phone calls to the outside world. Futterman called the lack of phone access at Homan Square a critical problem. “They’re not given access to phones, and the CPD’s admitted this, until they get to lockup – but there’s no lockup at Homan Square,” he said. “How do you contact a lawyer? It’s not telepathy.
“Often,” Futterman continued, “prisoners aren’t entered into the central booking system until they’re being processed – which doesn’t occur at Homan Square. They’re supposed to begin that processing right away, under CPD procedures, and at Homan Square the reality is, that isn’t happening or is happening sporadically and inconsistently, which leads to the whole find-your-client game.”
Additionally, some of those who Chicago police listed as receiving lawyer visits at Homan Square disputed the accounts or said the access provided was superficial.
According to police, when they took a woman the Guardian will identify as Chevoughn to Homan Square in May 2007 regarding a theft, they allowed her attorney to see her. Chevoughn says that never happened.
“I was there a very long time, maybe eight to 10 hours,” said Chevoughn, who remembered being “petrified”, particularly as police questioned her in what she calls a “cage”.
“I went to Harrison and Kedzie,” Chevoughn said, referring to the cross streets of central booking. “That’s where I slept. It’s where they did fingerprinting, all that crap. That’s when my attorney came.”
Police arrested another man, whom the Guardian will call Anthony, in 2006 on charges of starting a garbage fire, and moved him to Homan Square. Police identified him as receiving an attorney there. But Anthony told the Guardian: “That’s not true.”
Lawyer Rajeev Bajaj was allowed into Homan Square to see one of his clients in 2006. Police stopped Bajaj from entering for approximately an hour, and by the time they let him in he saw “the secretive nature” of officers and prosecutors there – exactly what he visited the warehouse to stop them from doing.
“When I got there, there were two prosecutors questioning, knowing fully that I was down there to see him,” Bajaj said. “When I walked in, they seriously walked away, acting like they weren’t speaking to him or anything. It’s typical Chicago police, typical Homan Square, typical Cook County prosecutors’ office.”
‘They squeeze people. That’s what they do’
Jose, a 30-year-old Chicagoan whose last name the Guardian agreed not to publish, did not have access to his attorney at Homan Square. He is among 19 people identified among the 7,185 arrests who turned themselves into police at the warehouse – and whose access to a lawyer ended inside.
According to court and police documents from Jose’s case, an anonymous informant told officers a man nicknamed “Chuie” sold him marijuana from the address where Jose lived. (Not only did the search warrant not name Jose, it described a taller man.) Police showed up at his house in force in February 2013, guns drawn.
Jose wasn’t home. But his wife and 10-year-old daughter were, as well as his daughter’s friend, who had come over to work on a school project.
Police took a substantial amount of marijuana and what Jose said was about $10,000 in cash. The arrest report listed the cash at $4,670. Jose said he never got his money back.
After consulting with his attorney, Jose and lawyer Nick Albukerk traveled to Homan Square the following month. Albukerk said he advised officers that Jose was invoking his rights against self-incrimination and was not to be questioned. But the lawyer did not enter Homan Square as his client was led inside and placed in a room by himself. According to the police report, it was 10pm. Jose took a Xanax for his nerves. He began to nod off, until he heard banging on the door and a demand to “get up”.
“Are you going to help yourself?” Jose remembered the officer telling him.
“What do you mean, help myself? ‘Are you going to talk to me?’ ‘Nah, my lawyer was just here. You could have just said this in front of my lawyer. I know my rights’ … He wasn’t trying to hear it. He was just blabbing away, like ‘Oh, you think you’re a smart-ass,’ this and that.
“That’s what they do, man: they get people who don’t know their rights,” Jose continued. “That’s probably how they came upon me and my house – probably someone ended up talking to them and they dry-snitched on me. All they knew was that I lived there.
“They squeeze people, and then they go get somebody else. That’s what they do.”
Additional reporting by Zach Stafford and Phillipp Batta in Chicago and the Guardian US interactive team