Chicago Police Department must improve detainees’ access to lawyers, according to lawsuit settlement

It should become easier to get your call while in Chicago police custody after city officials on Wednesday settled a legal dispute with activists and legal aid groups alleging CPD routinely denied arrestees access to lawyers .

Activists stood in “Freedom Square” – a vacant lot across from the Homan Square CPD facility notorious as an interrogation site – touting a consent decree finalized by Judge Neil Cohen as the end of a decades-long struggle to end the department’s isolation practices has been detained by attorneys and families in violation of state and federal law that has been on the books since the 1950s and 1960s.

“This didn’t start two years ago, this started 20 years ago,” said Damon Williams of the LetUsBreathe Collective, one of the eight plaintiff organizations, which also includes the Cook County Public Defender, the MacArthur Justice Center and Black Lives Matter Chicago.


“The answer often when people crowded into the city [and said] ‘Don’t do anything new, just follow the law.’ The answer was no. They had to be brought to justice to be forced to follow the law.”

The settlement agreement, which takes effect in February, essentially sets out steps CPD will take to comply with applicable law — including the 5th, said Craig Futterman of the University of Chicago Law School.

Lawyers have long complained that their clients “disappear” after being taken into police custody, their whereabouts unknown and unreachable by lawyers and family members, allowing police to conduct marathon interrogations that have led to false convictions, Futterman said .

“Finally, we’re delivering on the promise of ‘Miranda,'” said Futterman.

The decree requires the department to install phones in interrogation rooms and detective rooms, with signs in English, Spanish and Polish containing the phone number for a Cook County Public Defender hotline, said Alexa Van Brunt, director of the MacArthur Justice Center. Stations will also add private room for phone calls.

Attorneys can call stations to reach clients. Most importantly, CPD trains officers to obey state laws and gives detainees the ability to call an attorney. The SAFE-T Act, a criminal justice reform package that goes into effect Jan. 1, requires detainees to make at least three phone calls within three hours of arriving at the station.

Plaintiffs are allowed to visit police facilities to verify compliance, and CPD must share data on detainees’ access to lawyers over the next two years. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country and sets standards.

“Hopefully this is something that can be a model for other cities,” said Van Brunt.

The lawsuit was filed by the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and a coalition of other organizations amid mass arrests by the CPD during the summer 2020 wave of protests.

About a quarter of more than 1,000 arrestes represented by the public defender’s office in spring 2020 were never allowed to use the phone, and those who did receive a call waited an average of more than four hours, according to the lawsuit.

“This happened well before the 2020 protests, but the protests allowed us to show that this was a department policy of not following the law,” Van Brunt said.

The settlement says the city does not admit to the allegations in the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the legal department said the city had not commented on the settlement.