Chicago torture probe draws worldwide attention

CHICAGO — As many as 200 people, mostly African American men, were allegedly tortured while in the custody of the Chicago Police Department during the 1970s and ’80s. The goal, victims charge, was to force them to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.

Some of the torture victims, based on their “confessions,” were sentenced to death row. Several were subsequently found innocent and released. Many are still in prison.

Now, after years of investigations and grand jury testimonies, a 250-page report on the police abuses is set to be released.

The acts performed under the direction of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge bear a similarity to the horrific abuses at U.S. prisons overseas, such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Cattle prods were used to administer electric shocks to victims’ genitals. They were suffocated, beaten and burned, and had guns forced into their mouths. They faced mock executions with shotguns.

United Nations weighs in

There is international pressure to get to the bottom of the Chicago torture scandal. In its concluding observations and recommendations report, released in May, on the U.S. compliance with anti-torture rules, the United Nations Committee against Torture drew attention to the “limited investigation and lack of prosecution in respect of the allegations of torture perpetrated in Areas 2 and 3 of the Chicago Police Department.”

Joey Mogul of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, which represents several of the torture victims, said in a recent statement, “We had no choice but to take our case to the UN so that these officers can be fully accountable for their criminal acts of torture.”

The Geneva-based UN committee, compromised of 10 internationally recognized experts, called on the U.S. to “promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by law enforcement personnel and bring perpetrators to justice.”

Andrea Ritchie, a civil rights lawyer, said in a statement, “It’s clear from their report that the UN committee sees torture by law enforcement personnel in the U.S. as on the same level as the torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It’s not just Guantanamo that needs to be shut down, it’s torture wherever it takes place.”

The situation was also brought to the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C., last October. Joining with community activists, Illinois Democratic Congressmen Danny Davis and Bobby Rush joined torture victim David Bates and his lawyers to present a petition before the three-member panel.

“We have officials in Chicago who could deal with it, but they don’t want to deal with it,” said Bates. “It’s a shame we have to come to Washington, D.C., to get people from different countries to deal with it.”

Some see a connection to the slowness and unwillingness to deal with police torture to Mayor Richard Daley, who was Cook County state’s attorney for eight years, during which time 55 of the torture cases occurred.

The human perspective

Bates recalled what happened to him two decades ago at age 18. A plastic bag was placed over his head, threatening him with suffocation, and he was punched and kicked by Chicago police officers, he said during a recent interview on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio program.

“We have to look at this from a human perspective,” said Bates. “These are individuals who were tortured and beaten at the hands of people who basically are supposed to serve and protect them.”

In an effort to coerce false confessions, Burge and others are believed to be responsible for many brutal acts of police torture of African American and Latino suspects. One tactic used was known as “the Vietnam treatment,” presumably started by Burge, a Vietnam veteran.

Burge has been the subject of various legal investigations for nearly a decade. He was fired in the early 1990s for mistreating a suspect, and has lived in Florida since. He continues to collect a taxpayer-funded pension.

Government payroll documents show that at least 14 detectives implicated in Burge’s torture regime are still working in law enforcement, according to an article published in the Chicago Defender in May 2005. Four are on the Chicago police force, three others serve as investigators for the Cook County Sheriff, and another three work in similar capacities for the Cook County State’s Attorney. Several others serve in private law enforcement roles, including as private investigators and security officers.

Connection to the death penalty

As Federal District Court Judge Milton Shader recently wrote in a capital federal case “it is now common knowledge that in the early to mid-1980s …. Commander Jon Burge and many officers working under him regularly engaged in the physical abuse and torture of prisoners to extract confessions.”

Eleven men tortured by Burge were on Illinois’ death row, according to the Illinois Coalition to End the Death Penalty, before former Gov. George Ryan stepped in. Ryan pardoned four of the men and the remaining men are in prison for life without parole, some waiting for their appeals. And, in many instances, prosecutors continue to stand in the way of timely remedies.

A 1999 Chicago Tribune study found that the system in Illinois has been plagued by investigatory error, official misconduct, unreliable snitch testimony, disbarred and otherwise disciplined defense attorneys and other problems. “With such a track record, can we ever be certain that we will not execute an innocent person?” the ICEDP asks. The Burge case and the resulting wrongful capital convictions highlight why the death penalty is systemically faulty.

A history of brutality

It is no secret that Chicago, like many other cities, has a long history of police brutality against racially and nationally oppressed communities, including cover-ups by authorities.

Police torture and corruption “represents one of the most explosive controversies in Chicago’s history, fueling concerns about systemic racism in law enforcement,” read a statement issued here last November by a coalition of human rights organizations, bar associations, attorneys and community activists.

Bernadine Dohrn, a law professor at Northwestern University and spokeswoman for the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights said that during a 19-year period ending in 1991, Chicago Police displayed “extreme discrimination and racism,” and no officers were ever tried or charged.

Thirty years ago, Barnabas F. Sears, acting as a special prosecutor, investigated former Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan and his role in the 1969 police raid of a West Side home that resulted in the shooting deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Groups like the People’s Law Office first made a name for themselves by investigating the FBI and the Chicago Police force’s involvement in this brutal act.

Unfortunately, police brutality continues to plague Chicago, especially in Black and Latino communities. The city of Chicago has had to pay out millions of dollars as settlements in some of these cases.

According to one study by the Chicago Reporter, between 1998 and 2002 citizens made 13,703 charges against officers. The Office of Professional Standards, a civilian body that investigates excessive force by officers, found evidence to support 847 of them. During the same period, the city resolved 935 civil cases alleging excessive force by Chicago police officers that will cost the city $61.2 million.

Probe of recent abuses

Special prosecutor Edward J. Egan, 83, a former state appeals court judge, was appointed in 2002 to review the case and has spent the last four years looking into the allegations against Burge and others, but has yet to issue any findings or criminal charges.

Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court denied a request to keep Egan’s report from going public. “We’re terribly relieved not only to see the light at the end of the tunnel but the end of the tunnel,” Egan told The Associated Press after the ruling.

There has had to be consistent pressure on authorities to make public the report and that the investigation be done correctly. After prosecutor Egan was appointed, University of Chicago law professors Locke Bowman and Randolph Stone wrote an article in the Chicago Sun-Times asking him to be “thorough, aggressive, unsparing, open” and “impartial.”

“The African American community, reasonably enough, sees the allegations that Burge and other white Chicago police officers brutalized dozens of young black men as suggesting the most stark and appalling police racism,” they went on to say.

More than two-dozen current and former police officials and homicide detectives have taken the Fifth Amendment because Egan could charge them criminally as result of the civil suit testimony. The investigation’s report is expected to include the names of those who refused to testify.

Attorneys for the victims of police torture in Chicago are pleading for justice, including investigative interviews of Mayor Daley. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say they want to explore what measures were taken, if any, in response to internal reports of police misconduct.

“He was aware of the torture from the beginning and he did nothing about it,” said Flint Taylor, an attorney for the People’s Law Office, referring to Daley’s tenure.

Washington hearing offers hope

As the only hearing focused on human rights violation within the U.S., the IACHR investigators were presented with details of the case in the hopes that the panel would intervene and call for an independent international inquiry. The case presented to the panel asked the international community to put pressure on officials to file charges against the Chicago Police Department, given the department’s the lack of accountability for such acts.

Commissioner Clare K. Roberts, an attorney in Antigua and Barbuda and then-president of the IACHR, suggested that the groups presenting the petition consider bringing a formal case before the international panel.

A formal case could produce public findings by the commission that could prove embarrassing to Chicago officials, although it would not require the city to become involved in any international court proceedings. The U.S. is not a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights, the international agreement that provides for a court solution in such cases.

Solving the problem across the nation

Other jurisdictions across the country have taken similar measures in response to police abuse and corruption. A far-reaching investigation followed in the wake of allegations that a number of Los Angeles police officers had been involved in the drug trade and had planted drugs on suspects. Officers of the L.A. Police Department were eventually prosecuted and more than 100 criminal cases were thrown out.

In Pittsburgh, following a rash of complaints of police abuse of citizens, a federal court imposed a consent decree under which the police are monitored by the U.S. Justice Department.

Lawyer Taylor went on to explain at the IACHR that while extreme forms of brutality “more or less” ended with the firing of Burge, the cover-up of the torture abuses has extended to 30 years.

“Unless Burge and his progeny are indicted, it can be expected that the public respect for police will descend to the level of respect that the police have shown for the public,” said Lawrence Kennon, a former Cook County prosecutor and member of the Justice Coalition of Greater Chicago.

Taylor, who appeared with Bates on the same recent edition of “Democracy Now,” said that perhaps there’s not enough public outrage about this torture scandal.

But, he concluded, “the international community is looking at it in a very strong way, and to hear Chicago put in the same breath with Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is something that, if that doesn’t wake up the powers that be here in the city of Chicago and that doesn’t wake up the U.S. attorney’s office and that doesn’t, in fact, put on the carpet the state’s attorney of Cook County and the mayor of the city of Chicago, I don’t know what will.”

Pepe Lozano ( is a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World.