The last few years have drawn increased attention to police brutality and racism across the United States. But racist police torture isn’t usually part of that discussion — unless you’ve paid attention to the saga of Jon Burge in Chicago. A former police commander, Burge was indicted in 2008 on perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to a civil case involving the torture of mostly black suspects in police custody from 1972 to 1991.
The indictment came several years after the U.S. military was revealed to have tortured detainees in Iraq, most infamously at Abu Ghraib. The Iraq charges were abhorrent, clearly war crimes. Yet I remember the stories feeling far-off at the time. Burge, however, was indicted for torturing people here, in an American metropolis that I called home — and not just once, but repeatedly; not briefly, but across nearly two decades.
Upon his death, Burge had served slightly less than four-and-a-half years in prison for charges related to torture.
Burge died last week at the age of 70 at his home in Florida, where he has spent most of his time since his firing from the Chicago Police Department in 1993 and often spent time on his boat, the “Vigilante.” Upon his death, Burge had served slightly less than 4 1/2 years in prison for charges related to torture. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago and state of Illinois spent well over $100 million on the various settlements, reparations fees, and legal defense for Burge and his associates. An unknown number of black men — perhaps over 200 — were subject to searing physical and emotional pain from Burge’s actions.
The late commander’s crimes are still shocking to assess. But those crimes also must be seen as of a piece with a broader culture of brutality and racism in the Chicago Police Department. Burge’s death came just days into the trial of a white Chicago police officer for the murder of 17-year-old black teenager Laquan McDonald and in the wake of a 2017 Department of Justice probe that found the Chicago police regularly using excessive and deadly force, and tolerating racist policing practices.
Burge is now gone. But Chicago will be dealing with the fallout of his actions for generations to come. The broader culture of racism and brutality that he was at the helm of in the Chicago Police Department appears to be firmly intact.
Burge’s crimes were broken wide open by John Conroy, who reported the story in the Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly. The 1990 article, “House of Screams,” tells the story of a suspect named Andrew Wilson and his brother Jackie, who were both accused and later convicted of killing two police officers. Andrew Wilson told the Reader he was subject to, in Conroy’s words “burns and electric shock, the shock delivered by two different devices to his genitals, his ears, his nose, and his fingers” while being interrogated by officers under Burge’s command. Accusations from other victims reported by Conroy ranged similar shocks to beatings to officers putting plastic bags over suspects’ heads; there were stories of burns from cigarettes and radiators that individuals in police custody were chained to.
The allegations came out shortly after Burge was first taken to civil court in 1989 by the People’s Law Office, a Chicago civil rights practice that would come to represent many of Burge’s torture victims from that point on. One attorney, Flint Taylor, has written extensively about Burge’s crimes in recent years. (I was often his editor at In These Times, where he wrote many such reflections.) He described an “unremitting official cover-up that has implicated a series of police superintendents, numerous prosecutors, more than 30 police detectives and supervisors, and, most notably, Richard M. Daley,” the city’s former longtime mayor and a previous state’s attorney. The revelations came to Taylor and his partners in part through multiple anonymous sources who worked with Burge, including one who left anonymous voicemails who they took to calling “Deep Badge.”
After appealing the verdict against Andrew Wilson in a torture case he brought against Burge, the People’s Law Office’s compiled evidence was enough to convince the police to reopen its Wilson investigation, as well as a broader probe into Burge’s torture. He was brought before the Chicago Police Board in 1992. By that time, the city’s police union had come to his defense. A fundraiser organized for Burge at a local union hall drew 3,000 people.
More victims were coming with accusations of mock executions, sticking a gun in a suspect’s mouth, and the use of a cattle prod, sometimes on a suspect’s genitals.
More victims, however, were coming forward with accusations: among them, mock executions through Russian roulette, sticking a gun in a suspect’s mouth, and the use of a cattle prod, sometimes on a suspect’s genitals. Taylor claims they documented 118 such cases.
“I still have nightmares. I still go through sweats,” Anthony Holmes, who said he was shocked and suffocated while called a racist epithet by Burge in the 1970s, stated on a local NPR station in 2015. “I faced my demon,” he said of testifying against Burge.
Burge was suspended from the police department in 1991. But he continued to collect a pension from the city. Cases against him wended their way through the courts over the years; while the statute of limitations had run out to charge Burge with torture, he could be charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. He was convicted in 2010 and, eventually, released early for good behavior.
In 2006, Conroy reported about a group of alleged torture victims who sought to move their cases out of the county judiciary because the bench was dotted with police veterans and those who had worked the cases involving torture in the first place. In 2016, reporter Maya Dukmasova paraphrased Conroy’s description of the close associations between the judiciary and the police as a system where “people who were complicit in CPD torture made their way up into the ranks of the judiciary.”
The damage wrought by Burge’s torture is wide and deep: over $100 million in brutality settlements; $5.5 million won by activists for a reparations fund for victims and their families (as well as a mandatory curriculum for Chicago public school students to learn about Burge’s legacy of torture); and, most importantly, those individuals who were tortured — indelibly scarred by the torture itself.
The story of Burge’s torture is unique because it stretched almost two decades and involved barbaric methods rarely seen on U.S. soil in modern times. But it was not the end of police brutality and racism in Chicago — nor, according to federal investigators, was that racism and brutality isolated to Burge’s command.
Take Chicago police misconduct cases, which are constant and massively expensive. From January 2005 through June 2008, the city of Chicago paid about $230 million in police misconduct settlements and judgements — more, as reporter Mick Dumke put it, “than LA, Houston, Phoenix, Philly, and Dallas put together.” Those numbers included torture payouts, but more recent settlements are still enormous: Payments for misconduct cases plus lawyers’ fees cost the city $371 million from 2011 to 2016.
An Intercept investigation in October 2016 detailed a Chicago police tactical gang unit’s alleged “protection racket” that charged favored drug dealers for impunity and went after their competition. The police became players in the drug trade and were rumored to have murdered two drug dealers who wouldn’t play ball — then retaliated against two whistleblower officers, showing, in the words of a judge, “extraordinarily serious retaliatory misconduct by officers at nearly all levels of the CPD hierarchy.”
Investigations by The Guardian in 2015 revealed a Chicago police “equivalent of a CIA black site” — a clandestine and unaccountable detention facility — at which more than 7,000 arrestees were taken, nearly 6,000 of whom were black. The detainees would disappear for up to 24 hours at a time, sometimes allegedly suffering beatings by officers.
And then there is the case of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot Laquan McDonald 16 times. Like Burge’s operation, the Van Dyke shooting appears to have led to a massive cover-up. Officers on the scene blatantly lied in multiple aspects of their accounts of the incident. Chicago police leadership reviewed the dashcam footage of the scene and approved the obviously false officer reports. City officials refused to release the video of the shooting for over a year.
The shooting took place in October 2014, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s February 2015 re-election campaign was heating up. The city fought to keep the footage out of the public eye for as long as possible and only brought charges against Van Dyke a few hours before the video was released.
In 2008, newly elected State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez pledged to ensure a grand injustice like Burge’s torture scandal would never happen again. Eight years later, she lost her re-election by a nearly 30-point spread amid a general perception that her office had aided in the McDonald cover-up. The same year, a Police Accountability Task Force released a report about the nature and ubiquity of Chicago police abuse against black and Latino Chicagoans, the conclusions of which were almost identical to a similar report produced in 1972. Despite repeated calls for reform of the Chicago Police Department, nothing ever seems to change.
Jon Burge’s years of torture were a horror. But he was always a particularly morbid symptom of a much larger problem of racism and brutality among Chicago cops. Burge may be dead, but the police culture that allowed him to operate for nearly two decades is not.