[News] Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key
News at freedomarchives.org
Fri Dec 16 08:38:55 EST 2005
Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key
A West Side man joins class-action suit after
unpleasant stays at Area 4 headquarters
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
By LAURA McGANN and FAWN RING, Medill News Serivce
After spending hours in a locked West Side police
interview room in November, a 20-year-old man
pleaded with detectives for the medication that controls his bipolar disorder.
The detectives laughed at his request. According
to the young man, Ernest Smith, the police told
him he would stay in the small, cold windowless
room for up to two weeks until he revealed
details about the murder they said he witnessed.
Meanwhile, Smiths mother frantically called the
police, who were unable to locate her son in
their computer system because he was a witness not a suspect in a crime.
Four days later, according to Smith, police
detained him again overnight. in another spartan
investigation room with no bathroom and a metal
bench bolted to the wall. He was frightened and
could not sleep because the bench was too short,
and the floor was dusty and smelled of urine.
The next morning, a federal judge took the
Chicago Police Departments word that it would
change its witness interview policies, which have
been called unconstitutional in an on-going lawsuit.
The class action lawsuit was filed in April by
the University of Chicagos MacArthur Justice
Center and Mandel Legal Aid Clinic against the
Chicago Police Department on behalf of witnesses
to crimes who say they were detained and held in
interview rooms against their will, sometimes for
days. The witnesses are seeking damages for
violation of their constitutional rights.
The lawyers for the witnesses also had sought a
preliminary injunction that would have stopped
police from detaining witnesses while the lawsuit unfolds.
On Nov. 14, U. S. District Judge James F.
Holderman denied that request because he said the
new policy proposed by the police will suffice.
Under that policy, detectives must tell witnesses
they can leave during questioning.
"If a witness understands that he or she is free
to leave," Holderman wrote in his opinion, "there
is no constitutional violation in holding the
witness in a locked interview room for long periods of time."
While the witnesses lawyers are pleased the
police are making strides toward reform, they are still pursuing their case.
"We dont think this is enough," said attorney
Locke Bowman. "Actions speak louder than words."
The week the judge ruled on the injunction, Smith
alleges detectives stopped him for the first time
near his home in the Little Village neighborhood.
He said they took him to Area 4 police
headquarters, at Harrison Street and Kedzie
Avenue, where detectives searched him, took his
house keys, and locked him in an interview room.
Smith said he begged police to let him leave.
"If Im not arrested, why cant I go?," Smith said he asked the police.
Detectives took turns questioning him and left
him alone for long stretches. Smith said he
started screaming after a few hours as panic from
his bipolar disorder set in. He said a detective
then grabbed him by his shirt and punched him in the chest.
"They treated me like I didnt have rights,"
Smith said. He was released eight hours later, around 3 a.m.
Four days later, Smith was picked up by police
again and held for almost 24 hours.
This time, Smith said police took his wallet and
shoelaces and locked him in a similar room. His
mother contacted an attorney, who went to the
police station but was not allowed to see Smith.
By law, witnesses in Illinois, unlike crime
suspects, can be denied access to an attorney during police questioning.
Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the citys law
department, denies the claims of witnesses like
Smith. "The Chicago Police Department has never
held any witnesses against their will," she said.
In court testimony in October, former Chief of
Detectives James J. Molloy said even if witnesses
are interviewed in locked rooms, they are free to
leave whenever they like. But detectives are not
required to inform them of this right, and
standard practice has been to discourage witnesses from leaving.
Molloy said the reason the door is locked is to
keep witnesses and detectives safe. Witnesses are
instructed to knock on the door if they need something, he said.
Molloy defended the practice of isolating
witnesses, including keeping them away from
family members and lawyers. He said it protects
witnesses from outside influences and intimidation.
Molloy also testified that it is not uncommon for
witnesses to remain in locked rooms for more than
24 hours. But witnesses are only held longer than
72 hours in very rare cases, he added.
He acknowledged that witnesses held more than 24
hours would sleep on either the metal bench,
which is shorter than the length of the human body, or on the floor.
Smith questioned why any witness would choose to
spend the night at a police station.
"Why would I say, Yes, officer, Id love to stay
here overnight and sleep on the floor?" Smith said.
Detective Patrick ODonovan, a seven-year veteran
at Area 4, testified that he treats witnesses
with "kid gloves," offering food and beverages
before an interview and providing bathroom breaks upon request.
"I dont want to damage my credibility or rapport
with a person because come trial time, Im not
going to have a witness," ODonovan said.
Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and
author of a book on the dark side of American
policing called "Breaking Rank," said Molloys
explanations for police practices make sense, but
the tactics are "inhumane and completely unnecessary."
"Its draconian stuff from the dark ages," Stamper said.
He said he thinks Chicago detectives are looking
for opportunities to turn witnesses into suspects and opt for short cuts.
"The police are operating in the interest of
efficiency at the expense of community
credibility. Whats lost in this equation is the constitution,"
He added that he is not aware of any other police
department in the country that places witnesses in locked rooms.
In preparation for Stampers appearance as an
expert witness at the court hearings, the
MacArthur Justice Center polled 60 police
departments nationwide to see if any have similar policies.
Of the 49 that responded, 48 said they never lock witness interview rooms.
The St. Louis Police Department said it has no
official policy on whether interview room doors should be locked.
Several departments responded with alarm,
questioning the constitutionality of the
practice. "Locking witnesses in rooms is
equivalent to holding them against their will,"
said one citys spokesperson. "Any police
department that does this is asking for a lawsuit," said another.
Even the Chicago Police Department recognizes it
needs to change some of its tactics to improve
its relationship with the community. In court,
Sheri Mecklenberg, general counsel to Police
Superintendent Phil Cline, said, "Weve got to
get the ball rolling to make ourselves a better police department."
The new proposal will "promote the trust of the
community and witnesses and make us more
accountable. It would address meritless claims,
like this case, if we had a directive," Mecklenberg said.
According to Hoyle, the new policy will be an
official directive from the Chicago Police
Department to detectives. It is being reviewed
internally by a police committee and is expected to go into effect in January.
Smith thinks the policy will help because had he
been told he could leave, he would have.
Stamper is more skeptical because witnesses still
can be locked in interview rooms.
"The moment the bolt is slid, it reinforces the
psychology of detention," he said.
Smiths lawyers called the new policy too
limited. They said witnesses should be informed
in writing of their right to leave the police
station and be allowed to see family members and lawyers.
Bowman said he thinks change will be slow and
incremental because a larger problem exists
between the police and some communities,
particularly those on the citys South and West
sides. In some of these neighborhoods, he said,
"the police behave a lot more like occupiers than protectors."
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