The Chicago Police Department's Homan Square facility

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NEW: "Surely such a thing was an excess of war overseas, not a police practice here at home," says reporter

The Guardian newspaper accuses Chicago police of running a secretive detention facility

Police say Homan Square is not a secret facility

Chicago CNN  — 

Allegations of a secret detention and interrogation site run by Chicago police and abuses that may have taken place there were aired at a county commission hearing Tuesday.

The hearing, led by Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin, came amid heightened criticism of the Chicago Police Department. Chicago is in Cook County.

According to an investigation by The Guardian newspaper, the Chicago Police Department runs a secretive detention site at Homan Square, a sprawling compound that includes various police operations.

At Homan Square, the newspaper alleges, people have been abused, kept off the books and denied access to attorneys, essentially held in the dark.

“I was initially skeptical. Surely such a thing was an excess of war overseas, not a police practice here at home,” Spencer Ackerman, a national security editor at The Guardian, said at Tuesday’s hearing.

The hearing included testimony from people who were detained at Homan Square and their advocates.

It got off to a somewhat confusing start as commissioners questioned whether such a hearing was within their scope. They called a recess before returning to hear testimony.

Representatives of the Chicago Police Department were invited to testify, a statement by Boykin said, but did not attend.

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When contacted by CNN for comment on Homan Square and the hearing, a police spokesman sent a statement that addresses a number of the allegations about Homan Square, stating – in bold letters – that the former Sears warehouse is not a secret facility.

It is home to the department’s evidence and recovered property section, and parts of the facility are sensitive.

“Most individuals interviewed at Homan Square are lower-level arrests from the narcotics unit. There are always records of anyone who is arrested by CPD, and this is no different at Homan Square,” police said. “The allegation that physical violence is a part of interviews with suspects is unequivocally false, it is offensive, and it is not supported by any facts whatsoever.”

A ‘double standard in Chicago?’

Among Tuesday’s speakers was Marc Freeman, who told commissioners about his arrest in 2014. He was accused of trafficking narcotics.

Freeman said he was taken to Homan Square and handcuffed to a tiny rail. He said he was asked about becoming a confidential informant, and that his requests to contact a lawyer and to use the restroom were ignored. He said he was not read his rights.

Freeman was eventually taken to the 11th District station, where he said he was fingerprinted and had his mugshot taken. That happened nearly eight hours after his initial arrest, he said.

“There exists a double standard in Chicago where the citizens are held accountable if they break laws, but the police are not,” Freeman told commissioners.

Justice Department investigation

The U.S. Justice Department recently said it would investigate whether Chicago police have made a habit of violating the law or the U.S. Constitution.

The pattern-and-practice investigation will focus on use of force, deadly force, accountability and how the Chicago Police Department tracks and handles those cases.

“The Justice Department’s investigation must take into account those systemic issues in the Chicago Police Department that go back decades,” Boykin said Monday. “Homan Square is one of those systemic issues. Investigative reporting by The Guardian newspaper indicates that within the past decade thousands of individuals have been detained there without access to counsel, and that detainees have suffered harsh treatment without due process of law.”

Laquan McDonald protests

He cited the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot and killed by Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

The city resisted releasing dashcam video showing the shooting until late last month, then did so the same day Van Dyke was charged with murder. The graphic footage and officials’ treatment of the case sparked protests.

“I view this hearing as a critical step – an important rung on the ladder to accountability,” Boykin said.

Rosa Flores reported from Chicago. Dana Ford and Ed Payne reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Mallory Simon also contributed to this report.