By: Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune: May 11th, 2010

More than half a million people could be eligible for cash awards in a proposed $16.5 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit accusing Chicago police of mistreating suspects, city officials said.

The City Council Finance Committee on Monday recommended approval of the settlement in the federal civil rights case, filed in 2004 on behalf people who claimed they were subjected to an “institutionalized system of police torture” that included being deprived of adequate food and water.

If approved this week by the full council, up to 514,000 people could be eligible for awards between $90 and $3,000. The amounts could be reduced if too many people apply.

Some one-time suspects might be eligible for three separate awards totaling $5,090, according to case documents. The city would pay the first $15 million in costs, and an insurer would cover the rest, said Mara Georges, the city’s top lawyer.

At one point, plaintiffs sought far more, Georges said. “In a case where you have a demand of over $100 million, to settle it for $16.5 million is a good result,” she said.

Loevy & Loevy; a civil rights law firm, could receive legal fees of up to $5 million from the $16.5 million settlement fund, out of which administrative costs also would be paid, according to court documents. Attempts to reach the firm’s attorneys were not successful.

According to the lawsuit, people were arrested without warrants, shackled to a wall or metal bench and given infrequent meals, few bathroom breaks and no bedding in a manner “consistent with tactics of ‘soft torture’ used to extract involuntary confessions in other parts of the world.”

But Georges said police sometimes face difficult decisions when “they think they’ve got the guilty party in custody. They don’t want to let the person go. They are afraid of additional crimes. They are afraid of the person leaving and never finding the person again.”

Potential beneficiaries include up to 12,000 people arrested between March 15, 1999, and Feb. 10, 2008, without a warrant for alleged felonies who were not given a probable cause hearing within 48 hours. Awards in those cases would be limited to $3,000.

Eligible for up to $2,000 would be as many as 2,000 people held between Oct. 21, 2001, and March 10, 2010, in interview rooms for more than 16 hours without a mattress or pad to sleep on, regular meals or sufficient bathroom access.

Up to 500,000 people held overnight in lockups between Oct. 21, 2001, and March 10, 2010, without proper overnight bedding would be paid no more than $90.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Cook County Circuit Court has established a “duty judge” system to ensure probable cause hearings within 48 hours, Georges said. Padded mats now are given to people held overnight in lockups or interview rooms, and rules mandating they get adequate meals and bathroom breaks are stressed, she added.

Potential award recipients would be alerted through notices in newspapers and when possible via mail.