In his first public remarks about the secretive Chicago police warehouse, exposed by the Guardian two weeks ago, the Cook County commissioner, Jesús “Chuy” García, described an ongoing effort to do what hundreds of protesters have called for: an independent investigation from city hall.
“I did some checking through staff about the assertions made in that article,” García said in an interview with Windy City Times, the local LGBT newspaper. “We spoke with some experts in the field and we continue to investigate.”
“They’re troubling,” García said of allegations by arrestees who detailed to the Guardian off-the-books police interrogation and abuse, “and we continue to investigate”.
The Guardian has interviewed nine people who have told strikingly consistent stories about police holding them in Homan Square for hours without providing any way to notify their families or their lawyers as to where they are. Chicago police, in separate but unspecific statements have denied there is anything untoward about the facility.
Chuy’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Guardian on Tuesday, after suggesting in late February that it planned to issue a formal response. “We have not ascertained whether the assertions are true,” he told the Windy City Times in the interview.
García’s brief remarks were the first from a Chicago mayoral candidate since Emanuel’s dismissal of the Homan Square revelation on public television in February — “That’s not true,” the mayor said — and suggested he was addressing protesters’ demands.
Details of Chuy’s investigation remained unclear, but for weeks, community organizers and activists have taken to the west-side compound, the plaza outside Emanuel’s office and social media to call for an independent investigation by the mayor.
More recently, including at a protest over the weekend, demonstrators called for an “immediate inspection” of the facility.
On Monday, at least two politicians got an inspection of their own – however carefully orchestrated – when Al Wysinger, a superintendent with the Chicago police, gave county commissioner Richard Boykin and local alderman Willy Cochran a tour of Homan Square with selected members of their staff.
The Guardian spoke with Boykin immediately following his visit inside Homan Square, which he said he found “eerily quiet”.
Upon arrival, Boykin said, the elected officials were told the facility had not been “cleaned up” for their visit. However, the commissioner said that he saw no people being held in detention and that they rarely ran into any officers.
Police took the two politicians “to the detention center part of the facility, where people had made allegations of about being in tiny holding rooms, about being in cages and stuff like that”, Boykin said. “I must confess [the lock-up area] does look like a cage scenario.”
While Boykin found the holding areas to be small, he estimated they could hold between nine and 12 people.
Chicagoan John Vergara has drawn pictures of a caged room inside the facility, reminiscent of the “cages” described to the Guardian by arrestees Brock Terry and David Smith, as well as former police superintendent Richard Brzeczek.
When Boykin inquired about the “cage scenario”, he says police explained that ceilings had been dropped in the area to cover plumbing.
“The interview rooms we saw are small, but they do have cameras in them,” Boykin added.
Boykin said he was told the cameras had been installed just over a year ago. All Homan Square detainees interviewed by the Guardian described experiences before 2014, although a lawyer has told the Guardian that in early 2014, police told him that his client – another young black man – was not at Homan Square, even though he was.
Chicago police department representatives at Homan Square assured the elected officials on the tour, Boykin said, that all rights were respected, that detained people were allowed access to lawyers and even that a supervised visit to the private restroom close to the holding area was permitted during detention.
One aspect of Homan Square that caught the attention of Boykin and his staff was an apparent lack of a fingerprinting operation, which he said differed from other police facilities he had visited.
“They said though that the lack of ability to finger print in that facility didn’t mean that a legitimate arrest wasn’t taking place,” said Boykin’s policy director, Adam Salzman, who was also on Monday’s tour. “There were other ways to make a record and verifying the subject’s identity.”
Boykin said he would attempt to convene a town hall meeting with officers and citizens. He also joined politicians from Chicago to Washington in calling for a US Department of Justice investigation into the allegations of detention inside Homan Square.
The justice department has not responded to multiple requests for comment about Homan Square.
With the runoff vote looming on 7 April, Emanuel maintained a less than five-point lead over García in a new poll released this week. The mayor, who served as Barack Obama’s chief of staff in the White House, announced this week that he would removed traffic cameras in the city; police reform has been a major campaign issue.
Before the mayoral election, García was a relative unknown but managed to capture 33.8% of the votes on election day two weeks ago and prevent Emanuel from taking a majority needed for re-election.
“We’re picking up a lot of steam,” García told Politico last week. “This is a pretty phenomenal development that it’s a dead heat at this moment.”