Commissioner Richard Boykin’s resolution requesting the U.S. Department of Justice investigate Homan Square, an alleged off-the-books detention center operated by the Chicago Police Department, sailed unanimously through the Cook County Board meeting Wednesday.
Last month U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch launched a civil rights investigation into Chicago police’s use of force practices. Boykin has advocated to get the Justice Department to expand its probe to include Homan Square. The nondescript warehouse drew national attention and scrutiny when the London-based Guardian newspaper penned a series of articles detailing human rights abuses committed against detainees held at the North Lawndale facility.
Boykin was not surprised by the resolution’s passage, despite concerns fellow commissioners raised last month during a committee hearing on the matter. In that meeting some commissioners questioned whether the county had jurisdiction over the city’s affairs.
“I was going to get it done one way or another,” Boykin said. “I was confident we had at least nine votes willing to support an inquiry.”
Boykin plans to hand deliver a copy of the resolution to Lynch, along with Illinois U.S. representative Danny Davis. Both Boykin and Davis asked for the feds to probe the facility when the Guardian broke the story in February 2015. Homan Square is located in Davis’s west-side congressional district.
Both officials sent letters to then U.S. attorney Eric Holder, who Boykin said did not respond. And when Lynch assumed office after Holder’s departure, both Davis and Boykin sent another letter seeking an investigation into the facility.
“I am very passionate about making sure that the Constitution is being upheld,” Boykin said. “I mean, if we say we are the leaders in democracy, then we ought to act like we are the leaders in democracy. We can longer afford to have allegations of a Gitmo or a Guantanamo Bay on the west side of Chicago.”
Though nonbinding, Boykin noted, the resolution would apply pressure on the Justice Department. When Lynch announced the “patterns and practices” investigation, she indicated that Homan Square would not be part of the probe—but left the door open should more information became available.
With Chicago in the national spotlight—since video was released of the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald and an inquiry was launched into a city attorney who’d hidden evidence in another police shooting—Boykin called it significant to have the resolution coming from officials representing the second-largest county in the country.
“I think it is going to put a lot of pressure on the Justice Department,” Boykin said.
But some of Boykin’s colleagues, including commissioner Deborah Sims (Fifth), still have reservations as to whether the county has the right to tell its fifth-floor neighbor what to do. Some aldermen, Sims said, “might not be too happy with us dipping into their business.”
Still, Sims supported the resolution, because every day “something different” would come up regarding police misconduct, she said. The police department made headlines again the day after Christmas when another officer fatally shot two people; the department defended one of the killings but acknowledged the other was an accident.
“Every day it is something new,” Sims said. “We all know that somebody needs to come in and find out what’s going on. But should [Cook County] be making that ask, saying that the federal government should be looking at the city? I don’t know if we have the authority or the legal right to do that.”
“The basic concern originally was that the city is autonomous when it comes to local police powers,” noted Peter Silvestri (Ninth), who also expressed doubts of the county’s sway over the city.
Silvestri said he voted for the resolution because the language changed from mandating an investigation to requesting one. Boykin’s spokesperson Adam Salzman maintains the resolution always read as a request rather than a mandate.
Silvestri said he hoped that whatever comes out of the investigation is “positive.”
“It is important that fairness and justice be achieved always,” he said.
This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.