Behind 'the Disappeared' of Chicago’s Homan Square

A criminologist dissects the so-called black site, where military interrogation techniques are allegedly substituted for questioning.

The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman published a scathing account of Homan Square in Chicago on Tuesday, detailing a ‘black site’ in which Guantanamo-esque interrogation techniques are used to question suspected criminals.

The story is especially timely given the mayoral elections occurring today, and it casts a shadow over Rahm Emanuel’s handling of crime in the city.

But Homan Square sits within a larger story of corruption and violence—one that stretches back through Chicago’s long murky history of fighting crime. Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project and a criminologist who wrote a corollary story for The Guardian on military interrogation tactics in the city, spoke to me about the allegations of police brutality in Chicago.

Tanya Basu: Why was Homan Square unknown for so long?

Tracy Siska: I think it’s because under the law, people have a right to get counsel when arrested or when held but you’re not provided free counsel like a public defender. Mostly who they take to Homan Square are black and brown and poor kids who can’t afford to hire private counsel while they’re in custody. That’s a little nuance in the law that few know about.

Basu: Were there rumors of Homan Square?

Siska: There was knowledge in the police-accountability community. We knew exactly where it was, but we couldn’t get the press in Chicago to cover the story. We think it started during [former Chicago Police Department Superintendent] Phil Cline’s time around 2006 or 2007 until about 2011 when the city had roving special units [that worked out of Homan Square.]

Basu: Why wasn't the press covering it?

Siska: I think that many crime reporters in Chicago have political views that are right in line with the police. They tend to agree about the tactics needed by the police. They tend to have by one extent or the other the same racist views of the police—a lot of urban police (not all of them by any stretch, but a lot of them) embody racism.

Basu: Why did The Guardian cover it then?

Siska: I think The Guardian, especially Spencer Ackerman, comes at it from a civil-rights perspective. When he sees government doing something wrong, he goes after it. He came in looking for the Zuley story and ended up following up with this one.

Basu: Is there a possibility of other Homan Square-type locations around the city?

Siska: There’s always that possibility. It’s hard to keep up with CPD [Chicago Police Department] facilities. However, the Chicago Justice Project is part of a coalition of organizations that about two years ago got the general order [CPD’s governing rules] changed, so lawyers could be able to access their clients in any facility maintained by the CPD.

Basu: What about Homan Square-like locations around the country?

Siska: I don’t know, but I would say that the creation of the fusion centers on a federal level gives me pause about how widespread Homan Square places are around the country.

Basu: What is the area around Homan Square like?

Siska: If you’re able to find the location, there are CPD cars there. The evidence-retrieval unit is there. It’s a multi-use facility. People in the department know it exists, but outside people don’t. Maybe not beat officers, but many supervisors know it exists, since they have to work their way through their special units all the time.

Basu: Going back to the Guantanamo interrogation techniques associated with Homan Square, and just to be clear: These warehouses aren’t interrogating suspected terrorists, correct?

Siska: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. 99 percent of the people from this site are involved in some form of street crime: gang activities, drugs—urban violent crime. That’s what makes the site even worse. It takes Guantanamo-style tactics on urban street criminals and shreds the Bill of Rights.

Basu: To clarify: What do “Guantanamo-style” tactics entail?

Siska: Isolation, deprivation of food, other outside contact. It’s meant to be a lot of touchless torture. So they’re not touching you, which in the human-rights field is more powerful and scary because it doesn’t leave marks but leaves huge internal wounds. Most of the time, people aren't physically abused. They’re cut off from society, not allowed phone calls, not fed as much. These are just tactics that are more sophisticated in urban-policing tactics.

Basu: What does it mean when Ackerman says records would disappear?

Siska: We changed that rule. What used to happen at Homan Square is that prior to a year ago, if you get arrested and you get brought down anywhere in any district, you would not pop up in the city computer as being arrested until they processed the police report, which could take anywhere from an hour to 15 hours. If they “arrested” you, then they have to report it. But if they don’t “arrest you,” nefarious things could happen and they could interrogate you without a lawyer. And they would move you around from district to district. So [for example] if the family shows up or the lawyer shows up and they say you aren’t here but you are, they’ve denied you access. But if they say you’re at [district] 17, then move you to 15, and then 12, they can question you without counsel. At Homan Square they don’t process paperwork about your arrest. You’re just gone. No one knows.

At some point they have to do the paperwork and prosecute you. After they get your confession, you wind up back in the paperwork.

Basu: What’s the incentive for doing the paperwork then?

Siska: About a year ago, we changed the rule. After arriving at a CPD facility, [officers] have 20 minutes to one hour to put you into the system, and you appear on the system city-wide. Any officer anywhere in the city can find where you are. And anywhere they move you to, every time you move, [officers] have 20 minutes to one hour to put you in so you show up on a computer. Each time you move, your right to phone calls and Miranda rights starts all over again.

Basu: With the Chicago mayoral elections today and the media coverage, do you think anything will change in the near future?

Siska: We haven’t heard of any changes. As history has taught us, very rarely does media coverage affect bad policing practices.