Illinois lawmaker calls for federal investigation into Homan Square

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - There’s now a call for a federal investigation into the practices by Chicago police that take place at the controversial Homan Square building.

State Senator Napoleon Harris said allegations of abuse by Chicago police need to be examined by the feds, similar to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

“As we walked in, we could hear people yelling, "dead man walking, dead man walking," and we wondered, what the hell is this?” said John Vergara, who’s an alleged victim.

Vergara said he was handcuffed to a wall for eight or nine hours, without food, water or access to a phone. The Chicago artist, who specializes in murals, said he was arrested  at a coffee shop, without explanation, and then brought to Homan Square instead of a district headquarters.

“They just chained us to the walls like, and to each other, like animals, and just left us there,” said Vergara. 

Vergara said his repeated requests for an attorney were ignored, until he mentioned Blake Horwitz by name. He was never charged with any crime, and now he’s suing the city.

“It seems they probably created a room where the walls are very thick, and you can't hear what's going on in an adjacent room. And it's like creating a warehouse where they can sort of do what they want to do during this time period,” said Vergara’s attorney, Blake Horwitz.

Vergara's story was told last winter by The Guardian, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Guardian's headline called Homan Square an 'abuse laden black site.'

Chicago police denied the allegations. But since then, more lawsuits have been filed about Homan Square with similar complaints.

“No lawyer, no phone call, not knowing why you are there. That’s something that might possibly happen at another police station. It's guaranteed to happen at Homan,” said attorney Scott Kamin.

“Homan is a place without a front door, without a parking lot, without a desk sergeant, without notification of rights upon arrest. It’s a giant warehouse with no conspicuous doors,” said defense attorney David Gaeger.

The Guardian recently reported that over the last decade, more than seven thousand people were held at Homan Square without seeing a lawyer.

Professor Craig Futterman of U. of Chicago has reviewed the Guardian's data.

“Virtually nobody gets access to a lawyer when they're in prison at Homan Square. That's the first thing that stands out,” said Futterman.

Futterman said the Homan Square story isn't as sexy as the headlines about a secret black site and disappearing detainees might suggest. The real story, he said, is the inability of people held there to have meaningful access to an attorney.

Some other lawyers agree.

FOX 32: Has it given an unfair black eye to the department?

Robert Loeb/defense attorney:  “I think that the headline is certainly misleading,” said defense attorney Robert Loeb.

FOX 32: And unfair to the Chicago Police?

“Yes. But on the other hand, the Chicago Police should upgrade a lot of procedures,” Loeb added.

That especially goes for procedures that would allow people in police custody to reach out to lawyers.

Eliza Solowiej of First Legal Defense Aid runs a non-profit, which provides volunteer lawyers for people in police custody.

“Homan Square is the worst example, maybe.  It’s a story that has helped shed light on the fact that no one's getting access to counsel in the city,” said Solowiei.

Chicago police, as they did last winter, continue to deny that Homan Square is some sort of secret location where detainees are abused. A spokesperson told FOX 32 that all individuals in police custody are immediately advised of their right to counsel, and all interviews are done according to the law.

Chicago police also say there are several standard interview rooms at Homan Square, just like the ones that are used at district stations and detective bureaus.

If you're looking to talk to an attorney, contact First Defense Legal Aid at 1-800-LAW-REP-4