On the south side of this wounded city, young black men and women fill a youth center on a recent weekend to learn how to exercise their civil rights.
“Who watched the Laquan McDonald shooting?” asks civil rights instructor Charles Jones, referring to the infamous October 2014 episode in which a black teenager was shot 16 times by a white police officer who is now facing murder charges. The shooting, captured on dashcam video, sparked protests across the city and raised questions about institutional racism within the Chicago Police.
Every person in the room raises their hand or nods their head. Jones has their attention now.
Jones tells them about how he was arrested in Chicago on drug charges at 17 — “The police knocked on my door and told my mother I would be back home in 15 minutes” — and held by the police for three days without access to a phone or a lawyer. Before he knew it he was in prison, convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years.
“If it’s your word against the police,” he asks the youths, “who are they going to believe?”
Their answer is almost unanimous. “The police.”
Jones’ story illustrates a sobering fact about the nation’s third-largest city: In the past three years, less than half of 1% of people arrested in Chicago saw an attorney while in police custody — a possible violation of their constitutional legal rights — according to statistics provided by the Chicago Police Department after CNN filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Last month a task force assigned by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued a scathing reportabout the practices of the police force on this issue. The Police Accountability Task Force (PATF) found that “CPD generally provides phone access (to arrestees) only at the end of processing, after interrogation and charging” and “when individuals in custody attempt to invoke their legal rights to counsel, they report facing hostility from police.”
Meanwhile, the city is on edge over escalating gun violence. While overall crime in Chicago has dropped in the past three years; murders in the city have skyrocketed. Police department data show that 216 people were killed in the city through May 15 this year, up from 133 during the same period in 2015. Shootings incidents were also up 60%.