Former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
On September 11, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, acceding to a longstanding community demand, apologized for decades of torture by police officers of black suspects under former Police Commander Jon Burge. He called it a “dark chapter in the history of the city of Chicago,” and a “stain on the city's reputation.” “All of us,” he said, are “sorry for what happened.”
The unprecedented apology came just after the Chicago City Council approved a $12.3 million settlement to Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves, both tortured by Burge and his crew of brutal detectives. Kitchen gave a false confession as a result of this torture; both he and Reeves were wrongfully convicted and spent twenty-one years in prison, with Kitchen spending thirteen of those years on death row.
The City of Chicago has now paid more than $20 million in “pinstripe patronage” to private lawyers to defend Burge, former Mayor Richard M. Daley and the City of Chicago, approximately $65 million in settlements to eighteen of the 120 known African-American victims of Burge-related torture and more than $500,000 to Burge in pension money. Cook County, whose prosecutors, under the lead of former State’s Attorney Daley, knew of the torture and actively covered it up, have expended an additional $10.7 million in lawyers’ fees, and the federal government and its court system have easily spent more than $5 million during its six-year torture investigation, its successful prosecution of Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice, the litigation of numerous civil torture cases brought by wrongfully convicted torture victims and its housing of Burge at the federal penitentiary at Butner, North Carolina, where he is serving his four-and-a-half-years sentence. With the Kitchen and Reeves settlement, which will unfortunately once again relieve Daley of his dreaded obligation to testify at deposition about his thirty-year involvement in the torture scandal, the taxpayer’s tab now exceeds $100 million with no end in sight.
While the financial burden that the forty-year police torture scandal has inflicted is in itself stunning, the harm that it has visited goes far beyond that. The brutal racism that Burge and his men visited upon their victims from 1972 until Burge was removed from the force more than twenty years later mirrored the violence of slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow, with its dehumanization being imported from the US military’s torture chambers in South Vietnam. The entire Cook County criminal justice system was also deeply corrupted by the scandal, with prosecutors and judges fueling wrongful prosecutions by willfully obtaining and gladly accepting false confessions that were the product of torture, and the blatant perjury that was a necessary partner in this brutal microcosm of the new Jim Crow. And this scandal has implicated the long reigning former Mayor of the City of Chicago, and the highest officials in the Chicago Police Department and the Cook County State’s Attorneys’ Office.
Thus the continuing damage to Chicago’s citizens, particularly African-Americans, is incalculable. As Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno said on the floor of the City Council when its finance committee approved the settlements: “There are lives behind these torture victims, there are families behind them. Most of the time, poor families, if not all the time.” While the vast majority of Burge’s numerous co-conspirators are retired and collecting police pensions with healthcare benefits, most of the living torture survivors are working menial jobs or hustling on the street, without healthcare or treatment for the psychological damage that they suffered as a result of their torture, deprived of legal redress because of the official cover-up. Two of these men, Anthony Holmes and Melvin Jones, were key government witnesses in its successful prosecution of Burge in 2010, and Jones also testified against Burge at the Chicago Police Board hearings that resulted in Burge’s firing in 1993. Even more disturbingly, some twenty men are still in prison, fighting for new hearings where their cases can be re-evaluated in light of the overwhelming evidence of systematic police torture.
So where do the City and county powers-that-be presently stand as the Chicago police torture scandal enters its fifth decade? While Mayor Emanuel’s apology is certainly both welcome and in sharp contrast to his predecessor’s arrogant refusal to offer one, the City cannot, as of yet, put this scandal behind it, as Mayor Emanuel urged. Not while scores of men remain uncompensated, without medical and psychological care, and Burge and his confederates continue to receive pensions and free lawyers at the City’s expense.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, now headed by Anita Alvarez, was disqualified more than ten years ago from the cases where survivors of torture by Burge seek new criminal court hearings. But it recently attempted to reinsert itself, to oppose the prisoners’ pleas for relief. Stymied in that attempt by the chief judge of the Criminal Courts, Alvarez now is spearheading a vicious attack on the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, no doubt because it has recommended that more than a dozen police torture cases be reopened. Disappointingly, the special prosecutor who replaced the State’s Attorneys’ Office has resisted the prisoners’ pleas for hearings in most of the cases, and Cook County did not join the City in settling the claims made by Kitchen and Reeves against the Cook County prosecutors who participated in procuring Kitchen’s false confession and fabricating false evidence against both of them.
So the struggle for justice in the Chicago Police torture scandal continues. With an apology won, activists are now urging Mayor Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle to create a joint fund to compensate those torture survivors who have no legal recourse and to provide them with healthcare services and job training. Twenty million dollars—the same amount paid out in pinstripe patronage to defend Burge, Daley and their co-conspirators—has been publicly suggested as an equitable amount. Full and fair hearings for all those torture survivors who remain in prison is another just demand that is long past due, as is the stripping of Burge’s pension. These concrete steps would go a long way to cleanse Chicago and Cook County from the stain of police torture, and to heal the deep and longstanding wounds inflicted by this racist scandal.