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Friday, March 2, 2001
Alleged Chicago Police Brutality is Targeted
Amnesty International calls for an outside investigation
By Laura Kiritsy
Controversy over alleged homophobic abuse by the Chicago police has Amnesty International, a leading worldwide human rights organization, demanding the Chicago Police Department more adequately police itself.
At a Feb. 20 press conference Amnesty International released a report calling for the Chicago city and police authorities to complete thorough and impartial investigations into two reported cases of anti-gay police brutality that occurred last year.
In the first case, Frederick Mason Jr., a 31 year-old African-American gay man, alleges that after being arrested during a dispute with his landlord last July, he was attacked by a Chicago police officer at the 11th district headquarters. Mason contends that while handcuffed to a wall, he was sodomized with a nightstick by an officer who said, ``I'm tired of you faggot...you sick motherfucker." The officer allegedly referred repeatedly to Mason as a ``faggot ass nigger" and a ``nigger fag."
In the second case, Jeffrey Lyons, a 39 year-old straight man, alleged that last November he was beaten by off-duty officers outside of a West Side bar frequented by members of the Chicago police force. After witnessing Lyons embrace a male friend outside of the bar, Lyons says the officer instigated the attack after yelling ``get that faggot shit away from my truck." Between eight and ten officers joined in the assault, during which Lyons -- the son of a Chicago police officer killed in the line of duty -- suffered a broken nose, a fractured cheekbone and neurological damage. An unidentified officer reportedly told Lyons, ``Get this through your head, you faggots will never win."
Both Lyons and Mason have lawsuits pending against the city and the officers allegedly responsible for the attacks. ``The authorities should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into these allegations of horrific abuse," said Nancy Bothne, director of Amnesty International USA's Mid-West Regional Office, at the press conference. ``A clear message must be sent that torture and ill-treatment by the police will not be tolerated and that anyone found responsible for such abuses will be brought to justice."
History of Chicago problems
Amnesty International's recently completed investigation of the cases, said Michael Heflin, director of OUTFront -- Amnesty's human rights and sexual identity program -- is an outgrowth of its continued monitoring of the Chicago Police Department over the last 10 years due to repeated allegations of police brutality. In 1993, Commander Jon Burge was fired from the department when a 20 year pattern of systematic torture of suspects was uncovered in the city's Area 2 police station. Amnesty International released a 1999 report on the Chicago Police Department, which documented additional incidents of torture, brutality, unjustified shootings, cover-ups and lax disciplinary measures which have occurred since 1990.
The Office of Professional Standards (OPS), a civilian group that handles complaints against police, has been investigating both of the alleged incidents. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network (CABN), an advocacy organization for anti-gay violence victims, however, claims that police cover-ups of the incidents have impeded the OPS investigations, and that the group is too closely linked with the Chicago Police Department to be objective. Amnesty International agrees with CABN's assessment. In its 1999 report on police abuses in Chicago, Amnesty International found that the OPS, ``although staffed by civilians, remains part of the Chicago Police Department." Amnesty International believes a more independent body needs to investigate the claims of Mason and Lyons. ``Given the serious nature [of the allegations] and the history of problems [on the police force] an independent investigation needs to be set up by the city," said Heflin.
In Frederick Mason's case, CABN's Andy Thayer casts a suspicious eye on Police Superintendent Terry Hillard for what Thayer says was a premature denial of Mason's allegations. Thayer said Hillard has raised the ire of Chicagoans in the past by rushing to defend officers accused of severe misconduct before thorough investigations were completed. In an Aug. 16 statement -- the day Mason filed his lawsuit -- Hillard publicly disputed the alleged assault on Mason despite the ongoing OPS investigation. ``It would appear that even the most basic facts do not support Mr. Mason's allegations," said Hillard. The superintendent went on to state that Mason' s physician found no sign of physical trauma and that the Illinois crime lab found no material evidence on the batons allegedly used in the assaults. Thayer pointed out that at the time of Hillard's statement, the only ones who had knowledge of the report's findings were Thayer, Mason's lawyer and the OPS.
But the Chicago Police Department disputes the assertion that OPS is too closely allied with the police department to do a proper investigation. ``The OPS is completely comprised of civilian investigators," said David Bayless, director of news affairs for the police department. The OPS and Superintendent Terry Hillard's office are ``thoroughly separate entities," he said. Bayless told Bay Windows Feb. 26 that while the investigation into Mason's sodomy charge is ongoing pending the results of a blood splatter analysis, thus far it has ``not found a single piece of information" to substantiate Mason's claim. Amnesty International's report of the incident, however, states that witnesses can testify that Mason entered police custody in good health, but was bleeding from his rectum when he was released. The report also states that Mason's family physician confirmed that he was injured in the anal area.
Thayer and Tim Cavenagh, the lawyer for Jeffrey Lyons, believe that there was a more deliberate attempt in Lyons' case to cover-up for Chicago police officers. Both said that when Lyons attempted to follow an investigating officer summoned to the scene into the bar -- where Lyons could have immediately identified his lead assailant, who had returned there after the attack -- the door was slammed in his face and locked. Investigating officers also allegedly failed to secure the crime scene, and shortly afterward, a bar employee washed away evidence from the sidewalk where the attack took place. ``It's pretty clear that the idea at that point was to try to cover it up," said Cavenagh. Initially three officers were suspended in connection with the assault, though they have since returned to work.
Despite the apparent attempt at a cover-up, the OPS recently substantiated Lyons' version of his attack. According to Cavenagh and Bayless, the case is now making its way through the proper chain of command in order to decide disciplinary measures for the officers involved. ``My guess is that the discipline would be discharge," said Cavenagh. But Cavenagh also points out that such discipline essentially allows the department as a whole to ignore the problem of police brutality, which is the reason for Lyons' multi-million dollar lawsuit against the city. ``We believe that a civil rights lawsuit is an appropriate avenue for justice," explained Cavenagh. ``It puts the spotlight on the city, the heat on the police department. It generates exposure that ultimately leads to change." Seeking monetary damages is a more effective deterrent against future abuse, as it highlights a problem in the department as a whole, said Cavenagh, and doesn't allow ``the police department to say, `Well, these guys were bad.'"
Heflin also stressed the importance of accountability. The abuse perpetrated against Lyons and the alleged abuse of Mason, if confirmed, constitute serious violations of international human rights law, he stated. Appropriate accountability for police officers, coupled with extensive training on GLBT issues is necessary to bring about systemic changes within the police force. ``If people feel they can be abusive and get away with it, the training won't work," said Heflin.
In order to maintain pressure on the Chicago Police to act appropriately on Lyons' and Mason's cases, Amnesty is urging its members around the globe to contact the Chicago Police Department and Mayor Richard Daley's office to request that full results of the investigations be made public as soon as possible.
For Thayer and the CABN, the support of Amnesty International is a welcome intervention. ``Our opinion is that the only way you get justice in cases like these is through sustained community pressure," he said.
But in the face of the ongoing negative publicity and allegations of homophobic behavior on the part of its members, the Chicago Police Department maintains that it is continuing to try to clean up the force. ``This department has been committed to getting bad officers off the street," said Bayless. ``The Superintendent has made it his mission. This department has gone out of its way to ensure it has a good relationship with the gay and lesbian community," he added, noting that Commander Richard Guerrero, who heads a precinct in a predominantly gay Chicago neighborhood, has worked closely with community members. ``To state that this department has a systematic dislike of gays and lesbians couldn't be farther from the truth."
[picture of Supt Terry Hillard] Caption: Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard is accused of being soft on police brutality.