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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Dismissing Torture: Finally Unravelling the Secrets of Jon Burge

This article came out in early 2005 from the Chicago Reader. The Reader is Chicago's artsy newspaper and its circulation is exponentially smaller than either the Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times.

JON BURGE SEEMS to have begun abusing suspects not long after he became a Chicago police detective in 1972, but not until the late 80s was he cross-examined at length about his interrogation practices. Accused by convicted cop killer Andrew Wilson of torture, he testified fearlessly, presenting himself as guilty only of being a dedicated, resourceful policeman and an activist supervisor. He said he often stood at the door of interrogation rooms, listening to his detectives question suspects, and never saw any abuse.

Wilson had shot two officers dead in February 1982, and Burge worked five days straight to track him down, never going home. When Wilson was finally located, hiding in a west-side apartment, Burge was first at the door, attacking it with lock picks, tools rarely held by policemen. "I used a single-digit rake and tension bar," he explained in a 1988 deposition.

After his conviction, Wilson sued the city, saying he'd been tortured by Burge and detectives under his command. He wasn't the first former suspect to make this accusation, and scores have been uncovered since. Wilson said Burge wired him up to a black box and turned a crank that generated an electric shock. This technique bore a striking resemblance to what American troops in Vietnam called "the Bell telephone hour"--shocking prisoners by means of a hand-cranked army field phone. In defending himself against Wilson's suit he said he'd never seen a black box, and though he'd served as a military policeman in the Mekong delta in 1968 and '69 had never heard of field phone interrogations. He bristled at the suggestion that Americans in Vietnam had conducted them.

Burge's peers from the Ninth Military Police Company, however, remember such torture in considerable detail.


The article went on to detail cases of systematic torture that originated from Area 2 and 3 where Commander Jon Burge was in charge for years starting in the early 1970's. Burge was finally fired in 1993 after documented evidence of years of systematic torture under his command. Of course, upon being removed from his command he continued to draw a pension from the city.

In the last couple weeks, Burge has found his way back into the news.

Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge was arrested Tuesday morning on perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to a civil case about whether he and officers under his command tortured suspects in police custody.


Much like Al Capone, Burge has still not faced justice for the systemic torture he carried on for decades. Instead, he is facing perjury charges that stem from a civil suit related to his torture. In fact, when former Governor George Ryan halted executions, his decision came in large part from the discovery of the very torture that Burge systematically perpetrated. According to John Jackson of Operation PUSH, there are roughly 200 people still falsely imprisoned in Chicago as a result of false confessions from Burge's torture.

This case unfortunately is about a lot more than merely a rogue police officer and many people who spent time in jail for crimes they didn't commit. It starts with this ironic column by Carol Marin. The piece is entitled Torture Cases Ignored Too Long

On Monday morning, Jon Burge will walk the long lobby of the federal courthouse in Chicago to the elevators that will take him to his arraignment.

A media horde will greet him.

Reporters, producers and a crush of cameras will lock on Burge as makes his way past marshals and metal detectors.

The white-haired former Chicago police commander whose name became synonymous with the torture of African-American suspects does not walk briskly anymore. At 60, he has knee problems. After his indictment on federal perjury and obstruction charges last week, Burge winced as he came down the steps of the Tampa courthouse.

"I'm old. I'm hurting," he told Sun-Times reporter Natasha Korecki, who broke the story of his indictment. "Please leave me alone."

To our discredit, too many of us left Burge alone for years. And, though the feds are finally prosecuting him, they don't get a complete pass either.

This business of accountability can make us testy.

Mayor Daley, for instance, late last week was sick of questions about whether he, as the Cook County state's attorney, along with his first assistant, Dick Devine, the current state's attorney, should have investigated Burge 26 years ago. In 1982, police killer Andrew Wilson's face looked normal going into an interrogation room, but resembled ground beef hours later. In 1982, then-Police Supt. Richard Brzeczek said he wrote a letter bringing that to the attention of Daley and Devine.


Marin correctly lays some of the blame on her local media colleagues. It is a understatement to say that it is to her Chicago area media colleague's discredit that the torture went on too long. The main purpose of the First Amendment is to expose this sort of corruption so that it doesn't occur. Yet, it did, and its after effects still continue nearly four decades later.

This wasn't merely one rogue cop committing torture on occasion. Instead, it was a "rogue" area of cops committing torture on systematic scale. None of them have yet been punished for the torture itself. The current mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, was Cook County State's Attorney from 1980-1989. (the county where Chicago is located) That was during some of Burge's most vicious acts of torture. Daley did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO STOP IT. That's either a case of incompetence of the highest order or something worse.

Anita Alvarez, the current candidate for Cook County State's Attorney, has been in the state's attorney's office since the early 1980's. She is touting her experience as one of her biggest strength, but it is that "experience" that looked the other way while Burge systematically tortured suspects. Burge was finally indicted by Patrick Fitzgerald the transplant from New York. Had a Chicago area prosecutor been asked to finally bring Burge to justice, we likely would be waiting forever. What about a Chicago Police Department that also looked the other way while this went on? What about a Chicago news media that looked the other way while this went on? The Tribune and the Sun Times left it to the Chicago Reader to break news on this story until very recently. When the two biggest newspapers in the city can't be bothered to expose systematic torture there really is a problem? What about an entire political machine that looked the other way while this occurred? Something like this didn't merely happen in a vacuum. It happened because an entire political, media, and power structure allowed it to happen...whether by wilfull ignorance or worse.

2 comments:

Kevin said...

Good for Fitzgerald, but has anybody looked into why the US Attorney at the time did nothing? People are remembering that Daley didn't prosecute Burge when he was State's Attorney, but a police officer's torturing a confession out of a suspect is also a federal crime under 18 USC 242.

This is very little, very late, and people should understand that convicting Burge of perjury in this case will not help those who were wrongly convicted overturn their convictions. Because the law makes that virtually impossible, their only hope remains a pardon from the governor.

walt said...

Burge's actions leaves me speechless. The Trib, Sun-times, are just as guility. There silence is what Burge and his fellow detectives depended on, and gave license for this to go the torture to go on as long as it did.