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Police Reform Advocates Demand Aldermen Pass Law Requiring Detainees Get A Phone Call In First Hour

Just 2 percent of people arrested get access to an attorney while in custody of Chicago police. An ordinance could help change that, advocates said.

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) at a City Council meeting in February 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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WEST SIDE — Police reform advocates are calling on the City Council to pass an ordinance to ensure arrested people are guaranteed an attorney.

Less than 2 percent of people arrested in Chicago get access to an attorney while in custody, police records show. A proposed ordinance would require police to allow detainees to use a phone within one hour of arrest — but the measure has languished for a year under Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th).

The proposed ordinance sat in City Council’s Public Safety Committee for over a year before getting a hearing. Advocates are now demanding Taliaferro, the committee’s chair, schedule a vote so it can move to the full City Council before the year ends.

A lead proponent of the ordinance, First Defense Legal Aid, organized a power hour Wednesday where it encouraged residents and volunteers to use social media to pressure Taliaferro to move the ordinance out of committee before the Nov. 18 City Council meeting.

Taliaferro’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Making sure detainees are given access to a phone within one hour of arrest is “a racial equity matter of the highest order,” said Eliza Solowiej, executive director of First Defense Legal Aid.

Credit: First Defense Legal Aid
Eliza Solowiej

The ordinance was drafted with people who were arrested by police and detained for hours without being able to speak to an attorney or tell their families where they were and what was happening to them, Solowiej said. This practice is often referred to as “incommunicado” detention.

“The people impacted designed it as a way to help their suffering be prevented for others,” Solowiej said.

Illinois law already requires detainees be allowed to make phone calls to their family and attorney “generally within one hour” of arrest. But Chicago police routinely flout those rules since there is no enforcement to those standards without a city ordinance, Solowiej said.

A coalition led by the #LetUsBreathe Collective and the Cook County public defender launched a legal complaint against Chicago Police, asking a judge to force the city to grant arrestees access to an attorney.

Public Defender Amy Campanelli’s office surveyed about 1,500 people detained by police from April to June and found 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.

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

A majority of City Council members support the ordinance, Solowiej said. An open letter asking Lightfoot to support the ordinance gathered more than 210,000 signatures within a month, including from the Afro American Police Officers League.

The attempts to end incommunicado detention through the courts and City Council are “examples of incredibly hopeful civic engagement from people who have been impacted by this most basic offense to our civil rights,” Solowiej 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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