Protesters rally at Homan Square in February 2015. Credit: Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin’s demand for a federal probe into Homan Square, which some critics have likened to a CIA “black site” operated by the Chicago Police Department, may become a test of wills of how much authority Cook County government can assert over the city of Chicago.

Boykin introduced a resolution at the county board’s January 6 meeting, calling for the Justice Department to include Homan Square in its civil rights probe of the Chicago Police Department. A spokesperson for Boykin says the First District commissioner hopes to have the resolution debated and adopted at Wednesday’s board meeting, but fears that some members will try to bury the idea in committee.

Although the resolution is nonbinding, if passed, Boykin hopes it would apply political pressure to have Homan Square investigated.

“The City of Chicago has not taken the opportunity to confront allegations of wrongdoing at Homan Square,” Boykin said in a statement. “So it falls to those of us in Cook County government to shine a light in dark places and confront this problem.”

Boykin took flak from fellow commissioners after a December hearing on alleged civil rights abuses against detainees held at Homan Square, a so-called “off the books” detention facility in North Lawndale.

Those allegations were reported by the London-based news site The Guardian, which penned a series of articles alleging that detainees were kept off the official police booking database, routinely denied access to attorneys, shackled for prolonged periods, and physically abused while in custody.

“It’s unconscionable in the 21st-century America that we have this kind of thing going on,” Boykin said.

But during that hearing, some of Boykin’s colleagues questioned the Cook County Board’s jurisdiction over the city of Chicago and the legality of the proceedings. Some officials weren’t convinced that meddling in the affairs of their fifth-floor neighbor was within the newly minted commissioner’s bounds.

Commissioner Peter Silvestri (Ninth) argued that the county doesn’t have jurisdiction to tell another municipality what to do. Commissioner Deborah Sims (Fifth) questioned the county’s liability in accepting witnesses’ testimonies about alleged abuses at Homan Square and asked whether a state’s attorney should be present.

“It’s important when one government questions the actions of another government that we have the legal authority to that … and I don’t think we do,” Silvestri said.

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin in 2014Credit: Facebook

How city and county intersect

Boykin, who took office in December 2014, has often crossed the invisible divide separating City Hall and the Cook County Board. In November he passed legislation that created a gun czar, hoping to find ways to reduce gun violence both in Cook County and Chicago. Earlier this past year Chicago adopted the American Civil Liberties Union’s recommendations to monitor the police department’s stop and frisk practices, two months after Boykin passed a June resolution urging the city to do so.

Boykin isn’t the only board member who’s veered out of his lane when it comes to questioning City Hall’s actions. Board president Toni Preckwinkle took former police superintendent Garry McCarthy to task over the city’s drug policy, urging him to reconsider arrests for small amounts of marijuana. Though a new city law made low-level pot possession only a ticketable offense, the police department still makes arrests that disproportionately affect black residents.

At times the city and Cook County have worked to each other’s mutual benefit. In March 2012 both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Preckwinkle signed off on a “reciprocal certification” program to cut bureaucratic red tape while boosting opportunities for women- and minority-owned businesses to get contracts with city and county governments. Preckwinkle and Emanuel teamed up again to commission a report detailing how both governments could potentially save upwards of $140 million by combining services and pooling resources.

Boykin isn’t the first county official to seek a Justice Department investigation into police practices either. Cook County sheriff Tom Dart has asked for just that—a probe into the scandal-plagued Harvey Police Department, which he said showed “grievous and repeated problems,” much to the chagrin of Harvey city officials.

The established precedent of county officials intervening in city matters may explain why Boykin was perplexed by board members who questioned his desire for a Homan Square investigation.

“These guys, I don’t understand it,” Boykin says, noting that Cook County government does have some oversight over the city. Chicago lies within county boundaries, and Homan Square detainees are brought to Cook County Jail and housed there-at county taxpayers’ expense.

“Some people will say that’s the city’s province,” Boykin added. “Well . . . Everything that impacts the city impacts us. . . . Cook County has a role to play here. We cannot sit idly by and watch people be tortured, denied access to counsel, and do nothing about it. That’s shameful.”

Protesters at Homan Square in February 2015Credit: Kevin Tanaka/Sun-Times

The boundaries of the DOJ probe

Boykin hoped that people who had been detained at Homan Square would testify at last month’s hearing, providing information the Department of Justice could use as part of its patterns and practices investigation of Chicago police.

Indeed, several former detainees testified at the hearing. Marc Freeman, for example, described an eight-hour ordeal he faced when he was held in Homan Square following a 2014 arrest on alleged marijuana trafficking charges. Once there, Freeman said he was handcuffed to a rail, and that his repeated requests for a lawyer were ignored. And then the questioning began.

“I was asked if I wanted to help myself out by becoming a confidential informant. I remained silent,” Freeman said. “At no point was I ever read my Miranda rights and at no point was I ever given access to a phone.”

He argued that there was no reason for police to take anyone to Homan Square other than to “interrogate and frighten citizens into working for [CPD’s] dangerous undercover work.”

Kory Wright says he had a similar experience. In 2005 he was arrested on a drug charge and taken to Homan Square, where Wright says his wrists were zip-tied to a bench in a crucifix-like position. He says he was also pressured to become a police informant.

“This was my first encounter with police,” Wright testified. “So when they took me I didn’t know I had a right to an attorney. I was just a poor black kid, and like a lot of poor black kids, we don’t have access to correct information to help us out in particular situations like this.”

Civil rights attorney Flint Taylor first became aware of Homan Square when his law firm represented a member of the “NATO 3,” the three men arrested on trumped-up domestic terrorism charges ahead of the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. It took Flint’s law firm 17 hours to find the client, who Flint says was held “in a dark room” at Homan Square.

Taylor likened the alleged abuse at Homan Square with acts of police torture committed by former police commander Jon Burge and his henchmen, known as the Midnight Crew. Burge and company infamously tortured criminal suspects into making false confessions from the 1970s through the early ’90s. He later spent four years in prison for lying to federal investigators about the torture.

Taylor says the DOJ’s investigation would fall short if it did not include Homan Square or police torture.

Meanwhile Chicago police have cast doubts about the veracity of abuse allegations at Homan Square and have said the facility is hardly secret; the public is able to claim recovered stolen property there, members of the media have toured the facility, and the department has held press conferences there.

Additionally, arrestees or suspects held at Homan Square are informed of their rights, including the right to consult a lawyer, and are informed if their lawyer appears and requests to see them, according to police. CPD has denied allegations of physical violence of suspects held at Homan Square as “unequivocally false.”

“Arrest and interview procedures are matters of people’s most basic rights and CPD takes these rights extremely seriously,” the statement said. “Any CPD personnel violating the established rules would be subject to immediate disciplinary investigation.”

Still, Taylor says that the Burge scandal and the Homan Square allegations are signs of long-standing patterns of racial discrimination, abuse of power, and lack of transparency and accountability.

“This is a systemic problem,” Taylor says. “It’s a pattern and practice of misconduct [and] of secrecy.” It isn’t just [about] one man shot down on videotape. That is an example of what’s been going on all these years.”

Boykin says the board is duty-bound to take some action to ensure the rights of county residents are upheld, adding that access to counsel is the bedrock of this nation’s judicial system.

“All of us in municipal and county government bear responsibility for the safety and dignity of our constituents,” he says. “We cannot be silent, and with the United States government asking tough questions about the systematic civil rights issues in the Chicago Police Department, now is the time to speak up.” v

This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.