Story highlights

Data obtained by CNN shows that only a small fraction of those arrested in Chicago see a lawyer

Chicago's Cook County has topped every other county -- and state -- in number of exonerations due to false confessions

Chicago CNN  — 

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.”

A city on edge

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 report about 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%.

The mayoral task force didn’t mince words in their report, which accused the Chicago Police Department of institutional racism and found that officers have alienated blacks and Hispanics with their use of force. The PATF said they repeatedly heard complaints from the community that “some CPD officers are racist, have no respect for the lives and experiences of people of color” and when punishment “does not match the gravity of the misconduct, it sends a message that the police can “act with impunity” inside a department where a “code of silence” is institutionalized by a “badly broken” police accountability system.

The task force also made dozens of recommendations to Mayor Emanuel, including mandates that “arrestees be allowed to make phone calls to an attorney … within one hour after arrest” and “a legal aid or other provider be contacted within 30 minutes of the arrest of any juvenile.”

The mayor responded by implementing many of the reforms recommended by the PATF report. But Emanuel’s directive didn’t include the one reform that Charles Jones and many others were hoping to see – a promise that every person arrested in Chicago is given access to an attorney while in custody.

“This is ridiculous. They are keeping 99 percent of the detainees incommunicado,” said Eliza Solowiej, executive director of First Defense Legal Aid, which provides free legal representation to people in Chicago Police custody.

Solowiej has been advocating for the civil rights of arrestees for years and says First Defense Legal Aid is ready to help. But time and time again, clients tell her they were not given access to a phone while in detention, she said.

“When will (the city) … make sure that 99 percent of the people (arrested) are not alone with police or prosecutors?” Solowiej told CNN.

Civil rights abuses?

But the Chicago Police Department, in a statement, told CNN that the “vast majority of arrestees … are released in a matter of hours, and not questioned in custody.” Many arrestees may not request an attorney because it would prolong their detention, the CPD said.

The CPD added that “every arrestee is read his or her Miranda rights” and that the police department “verbally advises individuals placed in police custody of their rights to counsel before interview or interrogation.”

The police department “holds itself to the highest standards to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected,” the statement said.

When asked by CNN for comment, the mayor’s office said the city is working to build an action plan around the remaining PATF recommendations and that Emanuel “supports the police department’s welcoming of reforms that would build on efforts to protect the rights of arrestees and ensure they have access to legal counsel.”

Some civil rights advocates wish they would hurry up.

“Given the storm of protests after Laquan McDonald we thought the reforms would be implemented quickly,” said Paul Strauss of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee, a consortium of Chicago law firms that provide pro bono legal services in civil rights cases. Strauss said his group is meeting to figure out “how to pressure the city to adopt these reforms.”

Since late last year the U.S. Justice Department has been investigating whether Chicago police have made a habit of violating the law or the Constitution in their policing. The results of their probe could be months away.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Police’s spotty record on civil and constitutional rights is costing the cash-strapped city hundreds of millions of dollars.

Data from the Chicago Law Department, which serves as counsel for the city, reveals that the city paid more than $322 million from 2010 to February 2016 in judgments, settlement payments and legal fees for a number of reasons, including false arrests, illegal searches and seizures, extended detentions, malicious prosecutions, excessive use of force, reverse convictions, constitutional rights violations and failure to provide medical care.

And, since 1989, Chicago’s Cook County has topped every other county – and state, even – in the U.S. in its number of exonerations due to false confessions according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

‘Know your rights’

“Chicago is the false confession capital of the world,” Jones, the civil rights instructor, tells his young students.

It’s an issue that’s personal for him.

After he was arrested in 1991, he said the police coached him into confessing to being a “lookout” in a murder case he didn’t know anything about. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 40 years because he didn’t have an attorney while in custody and it came down to his word against the word of the police, he said.

“I served 20 years in prison,” Jones tells his students. “For a crime I didn’t commit.”

CNN could not verify Jones’ claims, and the Chicago Police declined to comment on his case.

But Jones, 43, who has filed a clemency petition and is hoping to be pardoned by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, is determined to help today’s Chicago youth avoid his fate.

“You are not required to give them (police) any information other than your name, address, phone number and date of birth,” Jones tells the assembled group. He passes out business cards with the toll-free number to First Defense Legal Aid and, as a reminder, two phrases printed on the back: “I will not talk. I want my lawyer.”

“Know your rights,” Jones says. “Stay calm and collected, survive the encounter and file a complaint (if necessary). That’s how change happens.”

By the time the class is over, student David Johnson has already memorized the two phrases on Jones’ business card. “I will not talk. I want my lawyer,” he says.