Arrestees denied phone calls, access to lawyers, lawsuit claims

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Chicago Police Department’s frequent denial of access to phone calls and lawyers for arrestees has become more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic and recent protests, a lawsuit filed by activists and the Cook County public defenders office claims.

“The practices that isolate those arrested, preventing them from calling their families or a lawyer, denying them access to a basic thing called a phone, ignores the fundamental rights of all of us and we should all be angry about this,” Public Defender Amy Campanelli said Tuesday outside CPD headquarters.

Campanelli was joined by members of the activist groups also named as plaintiffs in the suit, including Good Kids Mad City — a community-based, anti-violence organization — the #LetUsBreathe Collective and Black Lives Matter Chicago.

“We are fighting for our right to literally walk and breath and exist,” Amika Tendaji, of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said as she stood in front of a hand painted banner that read “End Incommunicado Detention.”

“I would think a city like Chicago would stand on that side, would be supportive of that.”

Data collected by the public defenders office between April 16 and June 5 showed that 23% of women and men who were arrested were never offered to a phone call after they were taken into custody by Chicago police.

“Since 1963, the law has required that every person that is arrested be permitted to communicate and consult with an attorney within a reasonable time upon arrest,” Campanelli said. “That law has been ignored by this police department for 60 years.”

“Reasonable time” has been defined by Illinois legislators as an hour. But the public defenders office found that 22% of arrestees who it surveyed had to wait five or more hours to use the phone.

“Denying phone access is a key CPD tactic to impede access to counsel,” according to the suit that was filed Tuesday against the city of Chicago in the court’s Chancery Division. “The result is that detainees are held incommunicado, without legal guidance or protection from police coercion.”

City officials said they would “vigorously defend against” the allegations in the suit.

“We strongly disagree that the City, through its agents at the CPD, maintains policies intended to prevent detainees from accessing legal representation,” Kathleen Fieweger, a city spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “Indeed, the complaint itself makes clear that the CPD continues to allow lawyers to consult with their clients.. Plaintiffs’ demand that they be allowed a specific, alternative method does not take into account appropriate security conditions and resource limitations.”

Attorneys and activists at Tuesday’s news conference accused police of “disappearing people.” They also spoke of families being denied the ability to speak with their loved ones and lawyers being told they could not speak to their clients until after they were processed.

Damon Williams, founder of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, said he was denied a phone call and wasn’t permitted to talk to his attorney for hours after he was arrested during a George Floyd protest in Hyde Park three weeks ago.

“The [police] abuse that we are protesting is their response to our protests,” Williams said.

The suit seeks a court-ordered mandate for the police department to follow the law and give arrestees access to a phone and a lawyer.

Defense attorney Brendan Shiller, who filed the suit on behalf of the activist groups, said he and the others also expect to file an emergency motion for an injunction again the police department in the near future.