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Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key-Chicago Journal

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  • Dennis Dixon
    12/14/2005 10:00:00 PM Email this article • Print this article Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key A West Side man joins class-action suit
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 15, 2005
      12/14/2005 10:00:00 PM Email this article • Print this article 
      Locking up witnesses and throwing away the key
      A West Side man joins class-action suit after unpleasant stays at Area 4 headquarters
      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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