2016 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Homan Square


Spencer Ackerman, Zach Stafford

The Guardian US

The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

Guardian US national security editor Spencer Ackerman and contributing writer Zach Stafford revealed that the Chicago police department has held more than 7,000 people, approximately 6,000 of them black, in detention at a warehouse in a major American city, with neither constitutional access to an attorney nor basic public notice of their whereabouts.

The city denied anything untoward was going on. The mayor said his officers followed all the rules. The cops didn’t say a word. This is, after all, Chicago.

In Chicago, the legacy media outlets took for granted the word of Rahm Emanuel – especially when a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter came to town to expose interrogation practices that had gone unnoticed for years. In Chicago, a culture of violent policing had long since become the norm – until it became one of the dominant news stories of 2015.

Months before the videotaped killing and associated cover-up of Laquan McDonald returned Chicago policing to the national spotlight, Ackerman and Stafford began an investigation that continues into 2016. Ackerman’s reporting sparked federal civil rights lawsuits from victims, ignited protests across the city and the internet tracked by Stafford, and won the acknowledgement of the US attorney general alongside a Justice Department investigation in Washington.

But the secrecy and abuse from inside the police facility – known as Homan Square – still bypassed the local press. The Columbia Journalism Review disparaged a “discouraging” disinterest in an article titled “The Guardian’s Homan Square story was huge on the internet – but not in Chicago media.” Any follow-up reporting would need to be done by Ackerman and Stafford.

So Guardian US sued Chicago – and won.

To uncover the scope of illegal interrogation after detainees continued to come forward to Ackerman, Guardian US took the city to court for all relevant records at the facility – internal documents, video imagery, intake logs and more, going back decades.

As Emanuel and the police denied on local and national television that Homan Square was abnormal, hundreds of pages of police files transformed into people opening their front doors to Stafford, detailing some of the 7,165 arrests uncovered at Homan Square – with only 68 attorney visits.

As a team of researchers cross-checked spreadsheets of arrest records by hand in Chicago, a team of interactive journalists entered them into a special database in New York showing a massive racial disparity: 82% of Homan Square detainees are African American, in a city that is 33% African American.

As Homan Square became a theme of Emanuel’s runoff re-election challenge, the persistent Guardian US series spurred several detainees – many of whom did not even know where they had been held until they read it – to sue the police for civil-rights violations.

“Until publication of details about Homan Square in The Guardian newspaper,” read one of the federal suits, “PLAINTIFFS relied on the DEFENDANT OFFICERS’ threats and did not speak to attorneys about their experience at Homan Square because they were afraid of police and concerned for the safety of their families.”

But the details about Homan Square – the genesis of the hashtag #Gitmo2Chicago – start with a footnote.

When the Guardian prepared to excerpt a memoir by tortured Guantánamo Bay detainee Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Ackerman reviewed the manuscript. A footnote on page 127 referred to his interrogations by a police detective in Chicago, a city with a long history of brutal law enforcement tactics.

Ackerman, a national security reporter for 13 years who contributed to Guardian US’s coverage of Edward Snowden’s surveillance disclosures, flew to Chicago to report on the detective. There, criminologists, police-reform activists and lawyers described systemic problems with Chicago policing – and mentioned serious concerns about a warehouse on the corner of West Fillmore Street and South Homan Avenue that some likened to a CIA “black site.”

Within days of Ackerman’s initial exposé on February 24, former detainees began contacting him and Stafford, a Guardian US contributing writer who focuses on race and policing, to describe being held incommunicado at Homan Square. In video interviews, on photo shoots returning to the scene and even in drawings of the cages in which they were held, more than 20 people would recount to Guardian US a remarkably similar story of abuse behind closed doors:

  • All said police did not book them, fingerprint them, or otherwise permit them access to attorneys when requested – in violation of publicly available Chicago police directives.
  • All but two said they were denied phone calls at Homan Square, again breaking the rules.
  • All said they were interrogated by police, with most being handcuffed for hours to a metal bar behind a bench, most being denied bathroom visits when requested, and all being questioned without attorneys present.
  • Some said that police arrested them while masked and that, when they were taken into Homan Square, most police were plain-clothed, leaving officer identities a mystery.
  • Some also said police were physical with them – hitting them, shoving them, stepping on the testicles of one and forcing a metal object into the anus of another. Guardian US acquired video footage of the man who described the sexual assault at Homan Square: captured on surveillance cameras inside the warehouse, police escorted him through doors marked “Prisoner Entrance,” suggesting detentions that had become routine.

As the Guardian US transparency lawsuit continues, so will its pursuit of the truth about Homan Square. What remains clear today, as numerous officials across Chicago and the country have acknowledged, is that Ackerman and Stafford’s committed investigation has changed the way people view the extremes of policing and their impact on fundamental constitutional rights.