First Defense Legal Aid is a one-of-a-kind antidote to police overreach, only available in Chicago, and maybe the best-kept secret in town for communities most at risk of the kind of human rights abuses Burge made the Chicago Police Department famous for. Â They train and support volunteer lawyers who deploy to the station to provide FREE legal defense if someone calls 1(800) LAW-REP4 to report the arrest right away, and provide know-your-rights trainings in community settings.
“It’s not just Burge, it’s a culture,” says FDLA Executive Director Eliza Solowiej. The recent indictment of Chicago police commander Glenn Evans shows that credible claims of police misconduct continue to reach the highest levels of Chicago Police Department leadership.
In fact, First Defense is still the only way someone held in a Chicago police station might access their Miranda rights 24/7 for free. Contrary to how popular crime dramas portray the process, in Illinois, like most states, the public defender is not available to anyone in police stations because they can only be appointed in court. People can be held for days with no contact with anyone but police and prosecutors before they are released or sent in front of a judge. The volunteer lawyers are on-call 24/7 hoping to even the playing field between suspects and police and watchdog the investigation.
Through providing for, and watchdogging, the rights of arrestees, First Defense helps police culture such as the ‘code of silence’ be transformed, and periods of police custody safer for Chicago youth when the pressure to solve a case could lead to questionable tactics. Still, almost all arrestees waive their constitutional rights for lack of hope they might actually access them. Â Solowiej contends: “the relationship between communities and police, and public safety in general, improve when more people access their rights.”
Contact: Eliza Solowiej, Executive Director, First Defense Legal Aid