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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Police Reform Proposal Requiring Detainees Get A Phone Call In First Hour Needs To Consider Exceptions, Chair Says

Police reform advocates are pushing the city to ban incommunicado detention by the end of the year. Ald. Chris Taliaferro said he is worried the proposed ordinance's "hard line" would lead to lawsuits.

Activists and attorneys call on the city to end incommunicado detention.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Despite pressure from activists, a proposed ordinance that would guarantee people arrested by Chicago Police a right to an attorney won’t be on the agenda for a City Council meeting soon.

Less than 2 percent of people arrested in Chicago get access to an attorney while in custody, police records show. The proposed ordinance would require police to allow detainees to use a phone within one hour of arrest — but the measure stalled in City Council’s Committee on Public Safety for more than a year before being granted a hearing in August.

Now, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who heads City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, said he supports the ordinance “wholeheartedly” but it needs to allow for reasonable exceptions before he will send it to full City Council for a vote.

The law would require Chicago Police to allow detainees to use a phone within one hour of arrest so they can call their family and an attorney. Illinois state law already requires that detainees be allowed to make phone calls to their family and attorney “generally within one hour” of arrest.

But without a city ordinance to enforce state rules, people are routinely detained by Chicago Police for hours and even interrogated without being able to speak to an attorney or tell their families where they were and what was happening to them, advocates said. This practice is known as “incommunicado” detention.

The current language of the ordinance sets “a hard line” that police must give arrestees access to a phone within one hour, even when it is not feasible to do so, the alderman said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/ Block Club Chicago
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) at a City Council meeting in February 2020.

The law needs to have flexibility for legitimate reasons why police would not give a detainee access to a phone, Taliaferro said. The alderman spent over 20 years as a police officer, and personally experienced situations where it was not feasible to give detainees a call within an hour, he said.

If a person who is arrested is in dire need of medical attention before making a call, or if many people are arrested at once and the precinct is too packed to get everyone to the phone before the time limit, the city could be held liable, Taliferro said.

“Until those things get ironed out and there’s an exception placed within that ordinance, the city would probably lose a lot of money based on lawsuits,” Taliaferro said.

At an August committee hearing on the incommunicado detention ordinance, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said the prevalence of incommunicado detention is “unacceptable, inexcusable.” An exception should be written into the ordinance that would offer flexibility in certain situations while also holding police accountable, Hairston said.

“We can put something in there that allows, if it cannot be done … all they would have to do is document the reason why they were not able to comply,” Hairston said.

More than 200,000 people and organizations have signed an open letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot calling on her administration to prioritize the ordinance that would ban incommunicado detention, according to First Defense Legal Aid attorneys.

A legal complaint filed by a group and the Cook County Public Defender is asking the courts force Chicago Police to comply with state laws on ensuring access to a phone within an 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.

Taliaferro aims to move the incommunicado detention ban through his committee “as soon as possible,” but said there may not be enough time left this year to get it to a full vote.

“We’re still in conversation about the language of the ordinance itself, although our goal is to make sure that our residents… have adequate protections and that their constitutional rights are being protected,” Taliaferro 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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