[News] Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key

Anti-Imperialist News 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, Smith’s 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 Department’s 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 Chicago’s 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 don’t 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 I’m not arrested, why can’t 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 didn’t 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 city’s 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, I’d love to stay 
here overnight and sleep on the floor?’" Smith said.

Detective Patrick O’Donovan, 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 don’t want to damage my credibility or rapport 
with a person because come trial time, I’m not 
going to have a witness," O’Donovan said.

Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief and 
author of a book on the dark side of American 
policing called "Breaking Rank," said Molloy’s 
explanations for police practices make sense, but 
the tactics are "inhumane and completely unnecessary."

"It’s 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. What’s lost in this equation is the constitution,"

Stamper said.

He added that he is not aware of any other police 
department in the country that places witnesses in locked rooms.

In preparation for Stamper’s 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 city’s 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, "We’ve 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.

Smith’s 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 city’s 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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