At the Hands of Police

Following the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by police officer Jason VanDyke, many in Chicago have pushed for criminal justice reform.

Editor’s note: Amy Campanelli, the Public Defender of Cook County, Illinois, is a strong advocate for reform of Chicago’s police department and courts. On January 31, a federal judge approved a consent decree requiring the Chicago Police Department undertake dozens of reforms as a result of its ugly history, including the police shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald and alleged cover-up of the murder by three other officers. Campanelli has sponsored numerous efforts to reform the criminal system, including recently proposed legislation that would guarantee arrestees access to a phone within one hour of being detained. She spoke on January 8, 2019, at Chicago’s Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church about her experience as a public defender in Chicago, and the legacy of racism that plagues the police and the courts. What follows is an edited transcription of her remarks.

I’ve been a defense attorney for thirty-one years

Twenty-six of them as a public defender, most recently with Cook County. I’ve seen hate and racism in our criminal justice system. I’ve seen my clients’ wrists bruised, with red rings caused by handcuffs squeezed too tight. I’ve seen black eyes, bruises to the chest, the back, the legs, the face. One of my clients had stitches in his head from when a Chicago detective hit him with rings on his finger. I’ve listened to my clients in case after case tell me how they were screamed at for hours, pushed around, beaten, prevented from using the bathroom, denied food, water, and medication. All at the hands of the police.

These stories aren’t isolated; they are the rule. We, all of us, have allowed these things to happen for years because we’ve accepted the narrative that people in some communities are less worthy, less human.

Public defenders serve as a voice for people in these communities. We hear their stories, we see the excessive use of force by police. We experience the system as it processes human beings into prison inmates.

As public defenders, we represent some 80 percent of the people who pass through our criminal courts system. (I don’t call it the criminal justice system, by the way. When it becomes just on a daily basis, I will start calling it the criminal justice system.)

As public defenders, we are at the front lines in court. Our job is to attack the government’s abuse of power, to show how evidence has been destroyed or mishandled, how homes have been searched without warrants, and how those arrested have been beaten and intimidated to falsely confess.

We work to help judges understand a whole person, not just see a potential criminal, and to put mistakes into context. We work to show how a person is more than the crime they are charged with.

There must be an obligation to treat everyone in the criminal courts system as our brother, our sister, our child. When we recognize our connection to every person who touches our lives, we will treat them with dignity and fairness and love. As the Bible notes, “That which you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me.”

We’ve come a long way

In 1931, for example, nine African American teenagers were wrongfully arrested for raping two women on a train. They came to be known as the Scottsboro Boys. There was no evidence to arrest, let alone convict. Eight of them were convicted and sentenced to death just two weeks after the alleged crime.

But out of that horror of hate and racism came the decision in Powell vs. Alabama, which said for the first time that the 6th Amendment right to a lawyer at trial applied to the states. [Equal Justice Initiative founder and director] Bryan Stevenson has noted that the Scottsboro case teaches that you cannot underestimate the power of our history as it relates to race and poverty in the struggle for justice.

We’ve also got a long way to go. Three days ago, a judge, who is a former long-serving Cook County prosecutor, acquitted three white police officers of creating false police reports and lying to help their fellow officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was caught on video shooting—no, executing—Laquan McDonald with sixteen gunshots.

Compare that finding to the diverse jury who heard the evidence against Van Dyke and convicted him of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm.

Last year, I heard a talk by Fred Gray, who served as an attorney for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and before her, Claudette Colvin, who also refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Gray knew the consequences of hate, and how to fight it. When Alabama barred the NAACP from operating in the state, he served as the organization’s legal counsel and fought for eight years, until he won back the right for the NAACP to defend and fight their causes in Alabama.

Gray went on to win cases such as Dixon v. Alabama, which established due process rights for students at public universities, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, which reversed the discriminatory redistricting of Tuskegee, Alabama, and Williams v. Wallace, which protected the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers. He successfully sued the federal government over its Tuskegee syphilis study, which left black men untreated as part of its experimental method.

As a young public defender, inspired by lawyers like Gray, I began litigating excessive force claims for my clients. I always heard the same defense from the officers: my client “resisted arrest,” or “was involved in a foot chase where he fell,” and that’s how he got the black eye or broken finger. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s, claims of excessive use of force made to prosecutors and judges fell on deaf ears. And clients would tell me that when they asked for a lawyer or a phone call, those requests also fell on deaf ears.

Not until the interrogation and intimidation were over, not until clients confessed, were they allowed to reach out for help.

Don’t think this isn’t happening today

Families tell me that they sat at police stations for hours requesting to see their loed one, only to be turned away or falsely told that their loved one was not in custody.

I’ve interviewed witnesses as young as nine or ten, forced to make identifications. They were told if they didn’t do it, they would be taken away from their mother and put in foster care.

This policing through fear and hate affected how I defended my own clients. In the past, when the abuses I’ve just described happened to my own clients, I would advise them not to file a complaint, because this would lead to them being improperly interviewed without my presence. And the statements provided during these interviews would be given to the prosecutors and used against my clients in plea bargains or trials.

The abuse and racism that I have seen for decades is why I have pushed to have a police station representation unit where we have attorneys available twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year, to go to any place where anyone is arrested in Cook County. Because it will not change from within. History has shown us that police reform will never come only from within.

Attorneys are needed for oversight, to protect every individual whose liberty is at stake. No one should have to go to a police station without a lawyer. I am trying to change expectations and culture. I’m trying to change the narrative around how poor people, the accused, the arrested, the incarcerated, deserve to be treated.

At the Hands of the Police

Amy Campanelli