Skip to contents
Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Chicago Police Illegally Denied Protesters Right To Attorney, Phone Call, Top Public Defender Says

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli and activists are suing the city, saying the move to deny arrestees a phone call and access to an attorney violates state and constitutional law.

Activists and attorneys call on the city to end incommunicado detention.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
  • Credibility:

BRONZEVILLE — Chicago Police illegally denied arrested protesters the right to an attorney and phone call, Cook County’s top public defender said — and now she and activists are suing the city.

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli joined a coalition of local activist and legal groups in filing the lawsuit Tuesday, alleging that police have denied Constitutional rights to arrested protesters.

The plaintiffs also include Black Lives Matter Chicago, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, Stop Chicago, UMedics and GoodKids MadCity.

Leaders for each activist group say their members were arrested during recent protests against police brutality and detained for hours to days without being able to call their families or attorneys to tell them where they were. This practice often referred to as “incommunicado” detention.

The National Lawyers Guild Chicago, also a plaintiff, allege police denied them access to detained clients.

Groups including the MacArthur Justice Center, First Defense Legal Aid and several university-based legal clinics are representing the plaintiffs.

“The practices of isolating those arrested… denying them access to a basic thing called a phone ignores the fundamental rights of all of us,” Campanelli said in a press conference outside Chicago Police headquarters in Bronzeville. “And we should all be angry at this. Chicago is considered, unfortunately, the false confession capital of the world because of the abuses of this Chicago Police Department.”

Chicago police spokesperson Margaret Huynh denied the allegations in a statement provided on Wednesday. Representatives for the city did not respond to a request for comment.

“Any allegation that the Chicago Police Department would refuse detainees’ access to legal counsel is false,” Huynh said. “At no point have detainees been restricted from contacting their legal representation. As is standard practice, CPD ensures detainees are given the ability to make a phone call as soon as practicable upon being taken into custody.”

According to Campanelli, the lawsuit is asking the courts to compel the city to follow state law requiring police to give detainees access to a phone within a reasonable amount of time, which is generally agreed upon as one hour.

The illegal practice of denying arrestees the right to a phone call has come to a head after weeks of protests resulting in the mass arrest of activists, many of whom were recorded getting beaten by police in riot gear.

Campanelli said the mass arrests of demonstrators has only exacerbated the police department’s history of denying rights to an attorney. She also said police have used the ongoing pandemic as an excuse to ignore detainee rights.

She said her office surveyed nearly 1,500 people who appeared in Cook County Court between April 16 and June 5, 2020. Nearly one in four said they were never given access to a phone while they were detained.

Those who said they did get to use a phone waited an average of more than four hours, Campanelli said.

Molly Armour of the National Lawyers’ Guild said this type of detention is a tactic for police to deny people the right to political protest and silence calls for police accountability.

“We know Chicago has a history of disappearing political clients, has a history of disappearing activists. And then we are cut off from our ability to reach them,” Armour said. “We have people who were arrested who sustained violent attacks and we were still not able to reach them.”

Christopher Brown of the #LetUsBreathe Collective was among those who were arrested.

Brown said officers battered him during his arrest but he wasn’t given medical attention, nor was he given a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus once arriving at the police station. The worst part was sitting alone in the precinct for hours without being able to call his worried grandmother, he said.

The group he was protesting with eventually sent an attorney to the precinct where he was detained — but Brown said officers turned the attorney away and denied Brown was being held there.

“I was closed off from any way to communicate with anyone,” he said. “The trauma that I’m going through right now, having these nightmares, crying literally every other day, still worrying about my injuries… I don’t want any other child to experience this.”

Damon Williams, one of the cofounders of #LetUsBreathe Collective, accompanied Brown to one of the George Floyd protests. But within minutes of arriving at a demonstration, Williams said he was battered by several cops and detained.

Williams said he was held for eight hours at the police station and was never offered a phone call. Half of that time, he was chained to a bench while several officers verbally abused him, he said. Officers also did not contact parents or guardians for youth activists who’d been detained into the night, Williams said.

Williams’ group formed after a secret police black site was uncovered in the Homan Square neighborhood. A report by The Guardian found that thousands of Black people were disappeared to the site where many were physically and mentally tortured into giving false confessions.

That facility remains a source of trauma for the West Side. That legacy lives on through the continued denial of basic Constitutional rights toward detainees, Williams said. 

The lawsuit is just the first step of tackling the broken system of policing, Williams said.

“The system needs to be divested because it is structurally violent,” he said. “Homan Square and the work of Jon Burge is not bad policing. It’s not individual bad apples. That was structured.”

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.