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Police want more time to give detained phone call

Police and Mayor Lightfoot's office rejected plan to require police give detainees a phone call within an hour, but aldermen want accountability

December 30th, 2020 4:15 PM

Justin Laurence & Pascal Sabino | Block Club Chicago

Aldermen and police officials locked heads Monday during a debate over an ordinance that would require police ensure detained people can make a call within an hour of being arrested.

The measure would require the Police Department to provide detained people with a phone call one hour after arriving at a police station. Although the ordinance allows for exceptions in extraordinary circumstances, police officers would have to document the reason for delay.

At the request of Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), the Committee on Public Safety held a hearing on the ordinance Monday without taking a vote on the proposal. Hairston remains at odds with Mayor Lori Lightfoot over the ordinance, as Lightfoot is proposing an alternative that critics say waters down the effort.

Lightfoot's administration argues Hairston's proposal would leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits for failing to adhere to the new, stricter standard. But supporters of the proposal say asking police to document why a phone call was delayed is not an outrageous request.

Details of Lightfoot's alternative proposal emerged on Dec. 14, but the full language has yet to be introduced at City Council.

Hairston's ordinance is backed by the Cook County Public Defender's Office; legal groups, including the National Lawyers Guild; civil rights advocates like First Defense Legal Aid; and more than 200,000 other individuals and organizations that signed an open letter asking for Lightfoot's support.

On Dec. 14, Hairston said she'd fight Lightfoot's attempts to amend her ordinance.

"I will continue to resist the law department and the Police Department's efforts to try to make it convenient for them," she said. "This is progressive. Anything else is not progressive."

The ordinance mirrors state law that requires officers provide detainees with the opportunity to call an attorney or family member within a "reasonable" amount of time. Although the state law defines "reasonable" as generally within one hour, it does not require the one-hour timeframe to be followed.

That vagueness of the time requirement makes it difficult to enforce, experts told Block Club last week. Despite the state law, people are often detained for hours or days without getting a call, and they're interrogated without being able to speak to an attorney, said Craig Futterman, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago who spoke at the Dec. 14 hearing. This practice is known as "incommunicado" detention.

California allows for three hours, and other large jurisdictions like New York City and Philadelphia have a similar "reasonable" standard, city officials said Monday.

"Any time you put in place a hard hour requirement, or time limit, it creates an opportunity for litigation against the city," said Jeff Levine, of the city's law department.

"I don't want to buy into a dichotomy of having the discussion be between people who are seeking to avert bad treatment versus those who promote it, but rather trying to collectively arrive at a result here that promotes reasonable, appropriate, prompt rights, coupled with a uniform standard that is capable of being applied."

Levine cautioned committee members to carefully choose their words during the hearing because the city is subject to a lawsuit on the issue. Two plaintiffs in the suit — Futterman and Peter Parry of the Cook County Public Defender's Officer — were speaking during the hearing.

Randall Darlin, the Police Department's deputy chief of operations, said the department would prefer to be measured on the "reasonable" standard.

People may make a call only after being booked and processed, but that can be delayed if there were mass arrests, such as during protests, or if the person requires medical attention, Darlin said. The arresting officer must conduct a thorough search of the person, or may need to file extensive paperwork on the arrest, also potentially causing delay, Darlin said.

Darlin declined to suggest what timeframe requirement work for the department — saying that decision would need to be data-driven — frustrating Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

"Let me be real clear here: Give me a time or otherwise I'm going to go with an hour," Ervin said. "You guys have got to come up with something. You can't keep dragging this thing out."

Ald. Chris Taliaferro (28th), a former police officer and chair of the committee, confirmed the administration is considering mandating a three-hour timeframe, but the amended language has yet to be introduced to City Council.

The vagueness of the time requirement has real consequences, Futterman said. Withholding a phone call to an attorney can lead to a suspect giving a false confession, he said.

"Everyone in this council knows the financial cost, as well as the human costs, of false confessions in Chicago. We've seen approximately $50 million paid out every year as a result of police abuse, and the most significant ones, the highest price tags … have been in the area in which people have been wrongfully convicted as a result of" false confession, he said.

Delaying a phone call can affect families, as well, Futterman said.

"It's also not just about a lawyer, it's also about family. It's about people who are desperate, who have kids, who need to make arrangements for a child to be picked up … let family know where they're at," he said.

Taliaferro said he agreed it's "unconscionable" that someone could sit in custody without making a phone call, but he knows it's "very difficult" to process and book someone within an hour.

"The question becomes whether one hour would be unduly burdensome … setting ourselves up for failure" and further lawsuit settlements. 

CONTACT: pascal@blockclubchi.org

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