Lawyers: Chicago cops blocked access to arrested protesters

After arresting hundreds of protesters over the weekend, Chicago police obstructed attorneys’ access to their clients in custody, lawyers and activists said.

John Seasly

Activists gather outside the Chicago Police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue on Monday, June 1, 2020, to call for the release of fellow activist Malcolm London. London, who was arrested Sunday night during a protest over the police killing of George Floyd, was released Monday evening.

Activist Malcolm London finally saw his lawyer at 2:30 Monday morning, as he lay handcuffed to a hospital bed. Eight hours had passed since police beat and arrested him at a protest on 53rd Street, according to a video of the incident. Other activists, elected officials, and his attorneys had been trying to find him for hours. But standing in their way, they said, was the Chicago police.

“It was scary and frustrating to not know what was going on,” London said. “I didn’t have any information except that I couldn’t leave.”

Over the weekend, as officers arrested hundreds of people protesting racism and police brutality in response to the police killing of George Floyd, six attorneys interviewed by Injustice Watch said cops stonewalled them and their colleagues from locating and contacting their clients in custody. The attorneys said police threatened them with arrest, hung up on them, gave false information, and prevented them from speaking with clients.

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“It was a very terrifying time, when you know people are injured in the system and you can’t find them,” said Molly Armour, a member of the National Lawyers Guild Chicago’s mass defense committee. The right to an attorney is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and in Illinois law, which says a person should have access to a lawyer within the first hour after they arrive at a police station.

In an emailed statement, the Chicago Police Department denied blocking attorneys from accessing their clients over the weekend.

“With respect to delays, given the large number of arrests made, attorneys were given access to their clients as soon as possible. They were never denied access to their clients,” Sgt. Rocco Alioto wrote.

But Brendan Shiller, founder of the Westside Justice Center and one of London’s attorneys, said he believes there was a coordinated effort by police to block people in custody from legal counsel.

“You don’t have that many officers at every level playing the exact same game unless there’s an understanding of some type, either said or unsaid,” Shiller said.

Officers who intentionally block access to an attorney can be charged with official misconduct, a felony offense.

People arrested in Chicago, especially black youth and young adults, have long complained that police restrict their access to attorneys, according to a 2016 report by the Police Accountability Task Force chaired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was then the president of the Chicago Police Board.

Attorney Ashley Alvarez said she was trying to contact a client held at the 19th District police station in Lakeview at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, when a sergeant incorrectly told her that attorneys were not essential workers and that she was violating the city’s curfew. The sergeant also told her she could not see her client and threatened her with arrest, Alvarez said.

“How funny would this be, an attorney tries to get her client out and can’t save herself because she’s in jail,” Alvarez recalled another sergeant joking.

She would have risked arrest, she said. But Alvarez said she had another client in her car who she had just gotten released from police who would have also been arrested for violating curfew. She left the station but said she plans to file a complaint.

Attorney Lillian McCartin said a client’s family used the “Find My iPhone” app to locate him at the 1st District police station in the South Loop. But when she went there and asked the police to let her see him, she said they denied he was there.

Aaron Goldstein, who heads the civil division at the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, said he spent two and a half hours at the 1st District station trying to locate seven people he suspected had been arrested and taken there. He said police told him to call the department’s central booking line, but he kept getting a busy signal.

A sergeant finally let him speak to one client and told him that some of the others had been released or were not processed at that station, according to Goldstein.

“They used the situation to abandon all the rights that people have. When things break down, they’re not willing to stick to the rules and the Constitution,” he said.

Last weekend’s protest was one of many demonstrations around the country spurred by the May killing of George Floyd, who died in Minnesota after an officer knelt on his neck. Chicago protestors decried systemic racism, called for police accountability (or in some cases, for the abolition of police) while honoring the memory of Floyd and other victims of police violence, including Breonna Taylor, who police shot dead at her home in Kentucky earlier this year.

After police beat London, they took the activist to the 2nd District station at 51st and Wentworth Avenue on the South Side. But when Shiller, his attorney, arrived less than an hour later, he said a police sergeant repeatedly told him London wasn’t there. Even after two aldermen showed up, police told them London was at another station, or was inside but could not be contacted, Shiller said. Hours passed before Shiller learned that police had taken London to a nearby hospital. And more hours went by before an attorney was able to talk with him.

London was released around 6:30 p.m. Monday with a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge, nearly 24 hours after his arrest, Shiller said.

Shiller said he had encountered occasional pushback from police in the past when trying to contact clients in their custody, but nothing like what he experienced Sunday night.

“What I’ve never had,” he said, “is that many police officers, up and down the line, blatantly lying to me.”