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Chicago Police's so-called 'black site' mischaracterized

Lawyers and local crime reporters say a widely-shared article from The Guardian mischaracterized a Chicago Police Department facility called Homan Square as the equivalent of a CIA "black site."

Black sites house detainees who undergo interrogation in highly secretive prisons. But the non-descript Homan Square building on the city’s West Side is not exactly off-the-books.

In the past few years WBEZ reporters and other journalists have been to the facility for tours and interviews as well as press conferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ Frank Main says reporters on the police beat know Homan Square. He’s visited 20 or 30 times during his career. He said the massive building located at 1011 S. Homan was once a Sears Roebuck warehouse.

“The reasons I’ve been there is going for essentially ‘show and tells’ where the police will show huge amounts of drugs that they’ve seized in various cases. And in those situations you’ll have lots of media; television cameras, radio,” he said.

Main said Homan Square is a secured site. Visitors need to show ID and give a reason for their visit.

“There’s some sensitive police bureaus there," he said. "For example, there’s the organized crime bureau which runs gang investigations and drug investigations. And a lot of people in those units are undercover.”

The Chicago Police Department says advertising the location would put their lives at risk. A spokesman says gang members have been known to stake out the place to catch glimpses of undercover cops, a reason why some people might be denied access. But the building also has a public entrance where people can pick up stolen property and items inventoried in crimes.

If people know about this place and the media is invited for press conferences, can it be characterized as a “black site”?

“No, it wasn’t a mischaracterization,” said Guardian reporter Spencer Ackerman of his story’s headline describing Homan Square as such. “You can find certain black sites in Romania and Poland that are out in the open. It’s not the visibility of the facility, it’s what goes on in the facility that makes it secretive.”

Ackerman reports arrestees are kept out of official booking databases and attorneys are denied access. He also notes a detainee at Homan Square who endured a beating, another a prolonged shackling and one who even died.

“That’s what makes it, or as [lawyers] characterize, that’s what makes it analogous to a black site,” he said.

A CPD statement stands by the department’s claim to always record arrests, and that’s no different at Homan Square.

A few lawyers contacted for this story said clients, unfortunately, are sometimes held without being booked and attorneys are delayed in getting to clients, but that could happen anywhere in Chicago.

Flint Taylor, an attorney with the People’s Law Office, was quoted in The Guardian story. He praised the article for highlighting the lack of police transparency, and said it’s concerning that such things would happen in a centralized location. However, Taylor said he might’ve used different analogies to describe Homan Square. In the end, he said he'll leave it to the reporter to do the characterization.

Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago, said prisoners are held without being entered into the system all over the city, not just Homan Square.

Futterman says it’s an exaggeration to call it a "black site."

“If there’s a risk, I think it’s elevating this facility,” Futterman said. “And making it look like there’s a problem in one particular station, as opposed to there’s a broader systemic problem to people who are very vulnerable who are denied their basic fundamental constitutional right.”

If similar complaints happen at other police facilities, these practices aren’t unique to Homan Square. Ackerman said these practices happening at other places around Chicago is disturbing. But would those facilities also be considered black sites?

“If it’s not what goes on in Homan Square that you’re disputing, the characterization I leave to people then to look at for themselves once they aggressively investigate the facts of what’s going on here,” Ackerman said.

Meanwhile, Futterman said policing practices everywhere in Chicago need to be reviewed.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @soosieon

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