The Chicago police department operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while
locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black
The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as
Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special
police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who
spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe
operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.
Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:
At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.
Brian Jacob Church, a protester known as one of the “Nato Three”, was
held and questioned at Homan Square in 2012 following a police raid.
Officers restrained Church for the better part of a day, denying him
access to an attorney, before sending him to a nearby police station to
be booked and charged.
“Homan Square is definitely an unusual place,” Church told the Guardian on Friday. “It brings to mind the interrogation facilities they
use in the Middle East. The CIA calls them black sites. It’s a domestic
black site. When you go in, no one knows what’s happened to you.”
The secretive warehouse is the latest example of Chicago police
practices that echo the much-criticized detention abuses of the US war
on terrorism. While those abuses impacted people overseas, Homan Square –
said to house military-style vehicles, interrogation cells and even a
cage – trains its focus on Americans, most often poor, black and brown.
Unlike a precinct, no one taken to Homan Square is said to be booked.
Witnesses, suspects or other Chicagoans who end up inside do not appear
to have a public, searchable record entered into a database indicating
where they are, as happens when someone is booked at a precinct. Lawyers
and relatives insist there is no way of finding their whereabouts.
Those lawyers who have attempted to gain access to Homan Square are most
often turned away, even as their clients remain in custody inside.
“It’s sort of an open secret among attorneys that regularly make
police station visits, this place – if you can’t find a client in the
system, odds are they’re there,” said Chicago lawyer Julia Bartmes.
Chicago civil-rights attorney Flint Taylor said Homan Square
represented a routinization of a notorious practice in local police work
that violates the fifth and sixth amendments of the constitution.
“This Homan Square revelation seems to me to be an
institutionalization of the practice that dates back more than 40
years,” Taylor said, “of violating a suspect or witness’ rights to a
lawyer and not to be physically or otherwise coerced into giving a
Much remains hidden about Homan Square. The Chicago police department
has not responded to any of the Guardian’s recent questions – neither
about any aspect of operations at Homan Square, nor about the Guardian’s investigation of Richard Zuley, the retired Chicago detective turned Guantánamo Bay torturer. (On Monday evening, it instead provided a statement to MSNBC
regarding the Guardian’s Zuley investigation: “The vast majority of our
officers serve the public with honor and integrity,” said the
statement, adding that the department “has zero tolerance for
misconduct, and has instituted a series of internal initiatives and
reforms, to ensure past incidents of police misconduct are not
repeated”. Without providing any specifics, it claimed “the allegations
in this instance are not supported by the facts.”)
When a Guardian reporter arrived at the warehouse on Friday, a man at
the gatehouse outside refused any entrance and would not answer
questions. “This is a secure facility. You’re not even supposed to be
standing here,” said the man, who refused to give his name.
A former Chicago police superintendent and a more recently retired
detective, both of whom have been inside Homan Square in the last few
years in a post-police capacity, said the police department did not
operate out of the warehouse until the late 1990s.
But in detailing episodes involving their clients over the past
several years, lawyers described mad scrambles that led to the closed
doors of Homan Square, a place most had never heard of previously. The
facility was even unknown to Rob Warden, the founder of Northwestern
University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, until the
Guardian informed him of the allegations of clients who vanish into
inherently coercive police custody.
“They just disappear,” said Anthony Hill, a criminal defense
attorney, “until they show up at a district for charging or are just
released back out on the street.”
Jacob Church learned about Homan Square the hard way. On May 16 2012, he and 11 others were taken there after police infiltrated their
protest against the Nato summit. Church says officers cuffed him to a
bench for an estimated 17 hours, intermittently interrogating him
without reading his Miranda rights to remain silent. It would take
another three hours – and an unusual lawyer visit through a wire cage –
before he was finally charged with terrorism-related offenses at the
nearby 11th district station, where he was made to sign papers,
fingerprinted and photographed.
In preparation for the Nato protest, Church, who is from Florida, had
written a phone number for the National Lawyers Guild on his arm as a
precautionary measure. Once taken to Homan Square, Church asked
explicitly to call his lawyers, and said he was denied.
“Essentially, I wasn’t allowed to make any contact with anybody,”
Church told the Guardian, in contradiction of a police guidance on
permitting phone calls and legal counsel to arrestees.
Church’s left wrist was cuffed to a bar behind a bench in windowless
cinderblock cell, with his ankles cuffed together. He remained in those
restraints for about 17 hours.
“I had essentially figured, ‘All right, well, they disappeared us and
so we’re probably never going to see the light of day again,’” Church
Though the raid attracted major media attention, a team of attorneys could not find Church through 12 hours of “active searching”, Sarah
Gelsomino, Church’s lawyer, recalled. No booking record existed. Only
after she and others made a “major stink” with contacts in the offices
of the corporation counsel and Mayor Rahm Emanuel did they even learn
about Homan Square.
They sent another attorney to the facility, where he ultimately
gained entry, and talked to Church through a floor-to-ceiling chain-link
metal cage. Finally, hours later, police took Church and his two
co-defendants to a nearby police station for booking.
After serving two and a half years in prison, Church is currently on parole after he and his co-defendants were found not guilty in 2014 of terrorism-related offenses but guilty of lesser charges of possessing an incendiary device and the misdemeanor of “mob action”.
The access that Nato Three attorneys received to Homan Square was an exception to the rule, even if Jacob Church’s experience there was not.
Three attorneys interviewed by the Guardian report being personally
turned away from Homan Square between 2009 and 2013 without being
allowed access to their clients. Two more lawyers who hadn’t been
physically denied described it as a place where police withheld
information about their clients’ whereabouts. Church was the only person
who had been detained at the facility who agreed to talk with the
Guardian: their lawyers say others fear police retaliation.
One man in January 2013 had his name changed in the Chicago central
bookings database and then taken to Homan Square without a record of his
transfer being kept, according to Eliza Solowiej of Chicago’s First
Defense Legal Aid. (The man, the Guardian understands, wishes to be
anonymous; his current attorney declined to confirm Solowiej’s account.)
She found out where he was after he was taken to the hospital with a
“He said that the officers caused his head injuries in an
interrogation room at Homan Square. I had been looking for him for six
to eight hours, and every department member I talked to said they had
never heard of him,” Solowiej said. “He sent me a phone pic of his head
injuries because I had seen him in a police station right before he was
transferred to Homan Square without any.”
Bartmes, another Chicago attorney, said that in September 2013 she
got a call from a mother worried that her 15-year-old son had been
picked up by police before dawn. A sympathetic sergeant followed up with
the mother to say her son was being questioned at Homan Square in
connection to a shooting and would be released soon. When hours passed,
Bartmes traveled to Homan Square, only to be refused entry for nearly an
An officer told her, “Well, you can’t just stand here taking notes,
this is a secure facility, there are undercover officers, and you’re
making people very nervous,” Bartmes recalled. Told to leave, she said
she would return in an hour if the boy was not released. He was home,
and not charged, after “12, maybe 13” hours in custody.
On February 2, 2013, John Hubbard was taken to Homan Square. Hubbard
never walked out. The Chicago Tribune reported that the 44-year old was
found “unresponsive inside an interview room”,
and pronounced dead. The Cook County medical examiner’s office could
not locate any record for the Guardian indicating a cause of Hubbard’s
death. It remains unclear why Hubbard was ever in police custody.
Homan Square is hardly concerned exclusively with terrorism. Several
special units operate outside of it, including the anti-gang and
anti-drug forces. If police “want money, guns, drugs”, or information on
the flow of any of them onto Chicago’s streets, “they bring them there
and use it as a place of interrogation off the books,” Hill said.
Regardless of departmental regulations, police frequently deny or elide access to lawyers even at regular police precincts, said Solowiej
of First Defense Legal Aid. But she said the outright denial was
exacerbated at Chicago’s secretive interrogation and holding facility:
“It’s very, very rare for anyone to experience their constitutional
rights in Chicago police custody, and even more so at Homan Square,”
Church said that one of his more striking memories of Homan Square
was the “big, big vehicles” police had inside the complex that “look
like very large MRAPs that they use in the Middle East.”
Cook County, home of Chicago, has received some 1,700 pieces of
military equipment from a much-criticized Pentagon program transferring
military gear to local police. It includes a Humvee, according to a local ABC News report.
Tracy Siska, a criminologist and civil-rights activist with the Chicago Justice Project, said that Homan Square, as well as the unrelated case of ex-Guantánamo interrogator and retired Chicago detective Richard Zuley, showed the lines blurring between domestic law enforcement and overseas military operations.
“The real danger in allowing practices like Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib
is the fact that they always creep into other aspects,” Siska said.
“They creep into domestic law enforcement, either with weaponry like
with the militarization of police, or interrogation practices. That’s
how we ended up with a black site in Chicago.”