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A Black Site in Chicago? Police Accused of Running Secret Compound for Detentions & Interrogations

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Image Credit: The Guardian

An explosive new report in The Guardian claims the Chicago police are operating a secret compound for detentions and interrogations, often with abusive methods. According to The Guardian, detainees as young as 15 years old have been taken to a nondescript warehouse known as Homan Square. Some are calling it the domestic equivalent of a CIA “black site” overseas. Prisoners were denied access to their attorneys, beaten and held for up to 24 hours without any official record of their detention. Two former senior officials in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice are calling on their colleagues to launch a probe into allegations of excessive use of force, denial of right to counsel and coercive interrogations. We speak to Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian. We are also joined by Victoria Suter, who was held at Homan Square after being arrested at the NATO protests in Chicago in 2012.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today with an explosive new report that Chicago police continue to operate a secret compound for detentions and interrogations, often with abusive methods. According to The Guardian, detainees as young as 15 years old have been taken to a nondescript warehouse known as Homan Square. Some are calling it the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site overseas. Prisoners were denied access to their attorneys, beaten, and held for up to 24 hours without any official record of their detention. Brian Jacob Church, who was arrested during Chicago’s 2012 anti-NATO protests, said he was shackled to a bench for 17 hours without being read his Miranda rights.

BRIAN JACOB CHURCH: When they first arrested us, they took us to this building. We were never booked. We were never processed. I was in Homan Square for about 17 hours, handcuffed to a bench, before I was actually finally allowed to see an attorney. So, essentially, the bench was about this wide, and at the back it had a bar that came across like this. They wouldn’t unhandcuff to sleep, so when I slept, I slept with like my hand cuffed to the bar, and I kind of slept like this. All of our ankles were handcuffed together, as well. I asked them to make a phone call. I asked, you know, to talk to my lawyers. And again, they pointed at the phone number and was like, “Oh, you’re not getting any phone calls from here.” And they were like, “Just tell us what we want to know, and you can go home.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: At least one victim was found unresponsive in an interrogation room and later pronounced dead. The Guardian says the detainees brought to the Homan site, quote, “are most often poor, black and brown.”

AMY GOODMAN: Now, two former senior officials in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are calling on their colleagues to launch a probe into allegations of excessive use of force, denial of right to counsel, and coercive interrogations.

For more, we’re joined right now by Spencer Ackerman, national security editor at The Guardian, where he’s published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago. This latest story is headlined “The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site.'” In his first installment last week, Spencer Ackerman reported on a Guantánamo Bay interrogator involved in torture who was also a longtime Chicago police officer known for abusing people of color. We’re going to go through all of this.

Spencer, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about this, about Homan.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Homan Square is a place where a number of undercover Chicago police task forces operate—the anti-gang force, the anti-drug task force—and it operates out of a warehouse on Chicago’s West Side that just sort of fades into the background view of the neighborhood. If you look out on the façade, as we’ve done, it doesn’t appear to have any normal police insignia signifying that it’s a precinct, like you would at your local police precinct. If you look a little closer, the signs are there. There’s a checkpoint out front with a yellow barrier to block traffic. There are both marked and unmarked cars in the yard. There’s an evidence locker in Homan Square that the cops have been saying makes the whole place public, and allows people to go look for that.

But as we started investigating, we had heard reports from lawyers and from police reform activists, criminologists, that what happens in Homan Square, beyond the sort of above and visible practices, involve things that you would only really hear about at CIA black sites overseas—extended detentions in which people are shackled and don’t have records made of where they are. That might seem, on the face of it, mundane, until you think: Relatives and lawyers have no way, when someone’s taken there, to figure out where these people are, which, as we had heard again from the attorneys who had dealt with police there, was a really disturbing thing. Finally, they had told us that when they went, as attorneys, to try and seek out their clients at Homan Square, on the few times that they were able to find out that someone was there, police would either turn them away or, when they tried to ascertain whereabout information over the phone, they would get the runaround and people maybe not telling them that they were sure that their clients had been there, or asking them, “How do we know that you’re actually a lawyer?” We subsequently found out that, you know, kind of sotto voce, in 2011, ’12, local activists and lawyers had brought this up with the Chicago police and had gotten the police to change some of their procedures, to make it clear that attorneys were allowed to visit. But we had found cases even after that where attorneys had said that they had been waiting outside Homan Square for the better part of an hour and gotten turned away.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to get your response to the Chicago Police Department’s statement to your reports in The Guardian about Homan Square. They wrote, quote, ”CPD abides by all laws, rules and guidelines pertaining to any interviews of suspects or witnesses, at Homan Square or any other CPD facility. If lawyers have a client detained at Homan Square, just like any other facility, they are allowed to speak to and visit them. It also houses CPD’s Evidence Recovered Property Section, where the public is able to claim inventoried property.” So could you respond to what the Chicago Police Department’s response was to the report, and also elaborate who exactly first likened this facility to a CIA black site? One of the people whom you interviewed for the piece?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s correct. To go first to the Chicago police’s response to our story—and I appreciate you allowing me the time to talk about it—notice all the things they don’t say. They don’t say when attorneys have the right to talk to their clients there. They don’t say when attorneys get to access their clients at Homan Square. They don’t say what those booking—what those records are. They don’t say—that would document someone’s appearance at Homan Square. They don’t say when those records have to be made. They don’t say in what method those are supposed to be public. They never address at all the central question of someone being booked at Homan Square, of records being made available to the public, available to their lawyers and available to their families there. We asked the police those questions when they issued us and other news organizations those statements, and we’ve still yet to hear anything. For that matter, before we published the story, days before we published the story, we sent an extensive list of questions to the police. We got nothing. I went to Homan Square on Friday and was promptly turned away. There are lots of questions here that the police really do have to answer that are outstanding.

AMY GOODMAN: The mayor was running for—was running again for his office. Did you go to Mayor Emanuel himself or to his office to ask some questions?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: I didn’t go to Mayor Emanuel’s office. One of my colleagues at The Guardian has put questions to Rahm Emanuel, and we’ll see if we get any answers from that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to bring into the conversation Victoria Suter, who traveled to Chicago on May 12, 2012, to attend the NATO protest. Four days later, she and 11 others were taken to Homan Square in Chicago after police raided the apartment where they were staying. Suter spent 18 hours in solitary confinement before being allowed to speak to a lawyer. She joins us now from Charlotte. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Victoria.

VICTORIA SUTER: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you got in touch with us after we reported on the piece yesterday, and said, “Wait a second, I am one of those people who was held at Homan Square.” Talk about your experience.

VICTORIA SUTER: In Homan Square itself, from the raid in the Bridgeport neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, I was put in an unmarked vehicle. It was the standard undercover cop car, you know, a silver Crown Vic. And not being from Chicago, I tried to keep track of what turns they were making where, at first, but after a certain point I couldn’t keep up with it. I was already asking to see a lawyer. And I kept asking, “Where are you taking me? Where are you taking me?” And the only response that I got was: “We’re going to give you a tour of hell on Homan.” And—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. What did they say?

VICTORIA SUTER: I had no idea what that meant. And—

AMY GOODMAN: “We’re going to give you”—what did they say? “We’re going to give you a tour”—

VICTORIA SUTER: They said, “of hell on Homan.” And when we arrived there, it was dark. I couldn’t see the outside of the building. But we went in through a garage. There were really large, like military vehicles. They were black, just absolutely massive. There was—one of the other people arrested in that raid with me, they took him in first and left me outside with another officer, and then they took me inside. I was taken to a room, not particularly big, no windows. They put ankle shackles on me at that point and cuffed my right arm to a bar that ran behind the bench, where I stayed for 18 hours prior to being able to see an attorney. There was only one small window and a door that had—

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ask to speak to an attorney before that 18-hour period?

VICTORIA SUTER: Yes, I had been asking since the time of my arrest and the entire transport between Bridgeport and Homan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And did you ever come to learn, Victoria, why the police had raided the apartment you were staying in and why you were detained for as long as you were and under the conditions you were?

VICTORIA SUTER: At that point in time, I had no idea what was going on. I was laying down to go to sleep when the raid occurred. And so, you know, you’re going down to—laying down to go to sleep, and then, all of a sudden, the doors are kicked in, and there’s guns on you, and you’re being taken away in handcuffs in an unmarked car to this place that you have no idea where you are. No one’s telling you anything. No one’s telling you what charges are possibly being filed against you. And it was all very chaotic and disorienting. And then, as we continued asking, while in Homan, “What are the charges? What are the charges? Where are we? Why are we here?” we got absolutely no answers the entire time I was there.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, ultimately, after 18 hours, what were you charged with?

VICTORIA SUTER: I was not charged with anything. After 18 hours, I was transferred into the Cook County Jail at 26th and California on the West Side, and I was released several hours after my transfer in with no charges. I was told—they knew that I was there to protest NATO. And upon my release, I was told, you know, “If we see you out there this weekend, we’re going to pull you back in and charge you with these guys.” But we still had no idea what those charges were at that point in time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian’s investigation found that Homan Square has been in operation since the 1990s, is that correct?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: They took over the facility itself in the late ’90s.


SPENCER ACKERMAN: The Chicago police, started operating out of that facility around, I want to say, like 1997 or so. They started—they moved more and more operations in there. The period where it looks like, according to our sources, that they’ve started operating these sorts of interrogations and detentions without booking and without legal access seems to have really picked up around 2005, although we’re not totally sure when in fact it—when in fact it starts.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what drew your attention to this facility?

SPENCER ACKERMAN: Thank you so much for asking. I was investigating a story that Amy mentioned about a connection between a Chicago detective who became a Guantánamo Bay torturer, tortured a man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who’s still at Guantánamo today. And as I was discussing this with a Chicago police reform activist, in the course of that conversation, that guy, Tracy Siska of the Chicago Justice Project, mentioned to me that institutional problems with Chicago policing ran so deep that Chicago even operates its own form of a black site. And I was just like, “What? That can’t be right. That doesn’t happen in the United States. That’s nuts.”

And I started looking at it further and talking to more and more attorneys about this, particularly people who do front-line visits to police facilities, and they said, “No, there’s this place called Homan Square. We try to get access to it, and routinely we don’t.” One attorney told me that it’s even become, amongst people in this legal community, almost like an open secret, where if you hear from someone that their relative has been picked up by police, but there’s no record of them in central booking, they just start figuring, “Well, they must be at Homan. We’ll call and try and find out if we can get access to them.” And most often they don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we just showed two white prisoners at Homan—Brian Jacob Church, we showed a clip of, who you interviewed, and then, as well, Victoria Suter. But you say mainly what we’re talking about here, people taken to this site and, as you call it, disappeared—many don’t know where they are—are black and brown people in Chicago.

SPENCER ACKERMAN: That’s right. The attorneys who do these front-line police visits told me that typically these are people of color who are most often impacted, including people who, when we tried to speak with them through their attorneys, declined, out of fear that there would be retaliation by the Chicago police.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we want to come back and talk about this police detective, Richard Zuley, who went from Chicago to Guantánamo, and what happened there. We’re also going to ask you about Jon Burge, known for torturing people in police stations in Chicago, and what has happened to him. Spencer Ackerman is national security editor at The Guardian, where he’s published a two-part series on police abuse in Chicago, “The Disappeared: Chicago Police Detain Americans at Abuse-Laden 'Black Site'” and “Bad Lieutenant: American Police Brutality, Exported from Chicago to Guantánamo.” That’s what we’re talking about next. Stay with us.

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