EAST GARFIELD PARK — Newly released records show that less than 2 percent of people arrested in the first half of 2020 received access to an attorney while in Chicago Police custody, according to a legal watchdog group.
Watchdog groups had been pressuring police to turn over the records since June to no avail. The police department finally released the data just days after First Defense Legal Aid filed a legal complaint asking a judge to force the department to make the records public.
The data shows that years of slow improvements in enforcing the constitutional right to an attorney have come to a grinding halt, in spite of a consent decree and other reforms to the Chicago Police Department.
“It is my opinion that these reform efforts are disingenuous and a way to quell pressure and dissent,” said Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe Collective. “The fact that there’s such resistance to this fundamental concept, I think speaks to the larger, corrupt and violent and destructive nature of the Chicago Police Department.”
First Defense Legal Aid has collected data from Chicago Police on how many people in police custody get access to an attorney since 2013. At that time, only .2 percent of people detained by police were able to get legal advice.
Access to an attorney increased each year since the legal aid group began reporting on the data until reaching a high of around 2 percent in 2018. The 2019 data and the newly released data through May 2020 shows the upward trend has plateaued, and the rate of access to an attorney has not increased in two years.
“Everywhere else that we’ve seen globally that … has actually implemented real access to counsel for arrestees has seen improvements in public safety, decrease in violent crime, decrease in wrongful convictions,” said Eliza Solowiej, executive director of First Defense Legal Aid.
Behind the low rates of access to an attorney is the refusal of Chicago Police leadership to implement policies that would allow people to use a phone shortly after their arrest, Solowiej said. Illinois state law requires that detainees be allowed to make phone calls to their family and attorney “generally within one hour” of arrest, but police routinely flout those rules, Solowiej said.
The overwhelming majority of people impacted by this practice are Chicagoans of Black or Native ancestry, Solowiej said.
Without an attorney, arrestees risk self-incrimination when they are questioned by police. Every person has the right to legal advice regardless of what they are arrested for because even minor accusations can snowball into something more serious, Solowiej said.
“Anything you say can be used against you, so it’s really a lot at stake. And it’s often people who are arrested for a misdemeanor, that ended up being the ones who give false confessions for serious cases, and then convicted of murder that they never did,” she said.
The practice of denying arrestees the right to make a timely call to family members and get legal advice from an attorney is known as incommunicado detention. During the summer protests against police violence and racial injustice, hundreds were arrested, and many were “disappeared” without being able to tell their families where they were for hours, said Damon Williams of the #LetUsBreathe collective.
“You are in some kind of experience where you have been taken and captured. To be able to communicate with your loved ones where you are, what’s going on is just a primary need,” he said. “Particularly at this time when there’s been no investigation, no verdict, and no court proceedings.”
When Williams was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge May 31 during protests calling for justice for George Floyd, he wasn’t given an opportunity to use the phone until the very end of the day, he said.
“I wasn’t even present or asking for my own rights or advocating for myself in the way that I should have because it was such an intense time. Because I was getting berated and argued with by officers,” Williams said.
While he was in lockup, Williams said he witnessed several teen demonstrators being mocked by police.
“His people did not know where he was… they never called their family members,” he said.
Chicago Police declined to comment on the release of the records due to an ongoing lawsuit against the department for its practice of incommunicado detention.
The lawsuit was filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office along with other plaintiffs including Black Lives Matter Chicago, the #LetUsBreathe Collective, Stop Chicago, UMedics and GoodKids MadCity.
The legal complaint would force the city to follow state laws that require access to a phone upon being arrested within a reasonable time, which is generally agreed to be one hour.
Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s office surveyed around 1,500 people detained by police between April and June 2020 and found that a quarter were never given their right to a phone call. Those that were given access to a phone had to wait an average of four hours, she said.
“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,” Campanelli said.
Chicago Police have a history of violating civil and constitutional rights, according to Williams. The department is overshadowed by the legacies of former commander Jon Burge, who tortured hundreds into giving false confessions, and the Homan Square black site where at least 7,000 people were disappeared to the off-the-books interrogation compound.
But the continued practice of incommunicado detention and denial of access to legal counsel shows that “this is not isolated, but institutional,” Williams said.
“If the police are not following the law, that shows the law is not for protection, but for oppression,” Williams said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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