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Concerns raised over interrogation tactics aren't unique to Homan Square

A few years ago, Maurice Harris got in a car accident on the city's West Side. He said an “unruly mob” started to gather so he moved his car halfway up the street.

He said a police officer came up quickly and started questioning him. Harris offered his drivers license and insurance.

“After that he asked me to step out of the car. He handcuffed me. I’m like ‘Officer, what’s going on?’ He gave me no answer,” Harris said.

The police took Harris to a hospital for a blood alcohol test. Then he was taken to a nearby police station.

“I continue to ask him, ‘Officer, am I being charged with anything. What’s going on? Let me know something.’ He did nothing but laugh. I didn’t ask for a lawyer then because I didn’t know to ask for a lawyer,” he said.

Harris estimated he was in a West Side station for four hours and wasn’t read his Miranda rights. He was handcuffed to his seat during interrogation and was eventually charged with fleeing the scene of an accident.

“I would say it’s the norm,” said Cliff Nellis, the lead attorney at Lawndale Christian Legal Center.

CPD tactics have been scrutinized this week as its Homan Square facility on Chicago’s West Side drew national attention (Harris was held at a different facility). While lawyers have raised concerns about illegal interrogation tactics there, many say the problems run across the Chicago Police Department.

Nellis has provided legal aid to Harris and others. In one case, Nellis said police were transferring a minor from one station to another. The boy's parents were following the squad car.

“[The police] turned their lights on, blew a red light and bolted and ditched them. So that (allegedly) they could take him back to the crime scene and then interrogate him there, interrogate this 15-year-old there,” he said.

Nellis said people taken in by Chicago cops aren't always read their Miranda rights, namely a right to remain silent and a right to an attorney during questioning.

“They don’t want people to be exercising their rights, particularly our young people on the West Side of Chicago while they’re in police custody. They don’t want attorneys present. They make it abundantly clear,” he said.

Nellis said he’s had good experiences with police that follow procedure exactly. But he’s also had officers yell at him saying they’ll let him know if, and when, he can talk to someone in police custody. He and other attorneys agree people are too often mistreated and illegally detained under Chicago police custody.

In fact, the city paid more than $16 million to settle a 2004 class action lawsuit that claimed people were deprived of adequate sleeping conditions and detained more than 48 hours before receiving a judicial hearing. Separate from those claims, the city settled lawsuits alleging torture from the 1980’s under Police Commander Jon Burge.

A CPD officer spoke to WBEZ under the condition of anonymity. He has worked at the Homan Square facility and said police make sure arrestees know their rights.

But the officer also admits police might use long stretches of time to sweat a person.

“Law enforcement has the legal right to hold an individual up to 24 hours without charging. At the 24 hour mark you either need to charge the person or release them,” he said.

He also said officers don’t want to risk not reading Miranda rights because that could invalidate the case in court.

Eliza Solowiej is the executive director for First Defense Legal Aid. She said it’s true police could hold a person who chooses to remain silent. But if the person doesn’t fully understand their rights, they might talk without an attorney.

“It’s reasonable to think that people would hedge their bets and think ‘I better advocate for myself, let me explain why it wasn’t me and why I was there on the scene.’ Well, that’s the exact evidence police need to charge you with the crime,” she said.

Solowiej said in 2013 police records show only 0.2 percent of people arrested were visited by defense attorneys.

CPD officials could not confirm this number, nor were they available to comment on this story.

Solowiej said arrestees should be allowed a phone call early on, rather than before lock up. She says that's often the first time it’s even mentioned.

She said there’s been talk from CPD about posting information about legal aid at police stations for people who are arrested.

CPD this week released a statement in regards to Homan Square saying the department abides by all laws related to interviews of suspects or witnesses at all facilities.

“There are no issues of access to counsel and making phone calls out of Homan Square or anywhere. I take that to be true at the moment of their release. And I’ll hold them to that,” Solowiej said.

Solowiej said the records will show if that does not hold true, and there will have to be accountability.

Still, Maurice Harris, who has had an number of run-ins with police, said that's not enough. He now works with youth at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. He’s even seen police incidents with the students he mentors.

“I’m a law abiding citizen. I stand for justice and laws that are put in place. But when those police powers are abused, I do not agree with it at all. And every day police are abusing their powers. That is the norm,” Harris said.

And he said people in the community are starting to accept that this is how it will be.

Susie An is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @soosieon.

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