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Friday, July 29, 2016

Government-Sponsored Torture in Chicago

I was listening to NPR this week, and the Planet Money section of the broadcasts was discussing the $100,000 payout received by each of the 120 victims of the City of Chicago Police Department. The payout was “reparations” for Police-sponsored violence in furtherance of the Department’s policy of torturing African Americans to extract confessions that were used at trial to convict them. Let me just say that again: a major American city had a *decades-long policy of torturing Black criminal suspects*.

Just so you’re convinced it was really torture, news reports from 1996—twenty years ago—listed the techniques as “appl[ying] electric shock and burn[ing] [a suspect]’s face, chest, and thigh by holding him against a hot radiator."

That article was based on a report from the Chicago PD’s Office of Professional Standards concluded that “detectives at Area Two had engaged in ‘systematic abuse, including “planned torture,” for at least 13 years.’ [The Report] listed the names of 50 alleged victims, grouped them by techniques applied (electroshock, suffocation, hanging by handcuffs, etc.), listed the names of detectives that had surfaced in connection with the victims' complaints, and concluded that ’particular command members were aware of the systematic abuse and perpetuated it either by actively participating in same or failing to take any action to bring it to an end.’”

The torture scandal also features in Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve’s book, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court. As she points out, the ring leader of the torture program, was convicted in 2010 of perjury. “Police Commander Burge never faced criminal charges for what reads like three decades of wartime atrocities in an American city—atrocities that were widely known within poor communities around the Cook County Court but ignored by local state prosecutors.” The state and city never prosecuted Burge, and even paid for his defense.

The police shooting of Laquan MacDonald revealed that the way the police treat African Americans had changed little after 2010. The only thing that was a surprise was the naivety of the New York Times reporter who claimed that police brutality was a “revelation” to a city that had known about it and turned away for over thirty years.

How should we respond to this? Is it really enough to notice that it happened, prosecute the ringleader for a related offense, and continue on as if everything is better? Why not think that this is a criminal conspiracy on the part of local and state government to assault African America pins through the criminal justice system and cover it up in plain sight? Is the Chicago criminal justice community, from the police to the courts and everyone in-between, fatally compromised by this horror? The practices are even worse than another Illinois cases, concerning similar municipal and state lawlessness in the southern Illinois town of Cairo. See O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974). It’s worth revisiting Justice Douglas’s language in dissent from the case:

“This is a more pervasive scheme for suppression of blacks and their civil rights than I have ever seen. It may not survive trial. But if this case does not present a "case or controversy" involving the named plaintiffs, then that concept has been so watered down as to be no longer recognizable. This will please the white superstructure, but it does violence to the conception of evenhanded justice envisioned by the Constitution.”

In Crook County, Van Cleve speaks eloquently about the ways in which institutional bureaucratic structures can pervert our humanity and undermine our decency. Our grip on our values proves all too fragile. But that is a horror we must confront, not ignore. Where’s the anger until the criminal police officers and other government officials are brought to book? Where’s the truth and reconciliation committee? Is $100,000 enough?

Posted by Eric Miller on July 29, 2016 at 05:35 PM | Permalink


Of course, none of you remarked that the 'torture' was conducted by one particular squad run by an officer who was fired from the force 23 years ago. There's no place for truth in the mind of most law faculty.

Posted by: Art Deco | Aug 1, 2016 8:06:54 AM

Excellent post, Eric. It's crucial to focus on how many of the same dynamics that allowed the 13 year torture regime and the subsequent coverup are still at play today. Some of the links are very direct. At least one police officer who tried to blow the whistle on the police torture scandal had his life threatened and his career ruined, and this is a well known cautionary tale in the Chicago PD, even all these years later. In the Laquan McDonald case, the eight officers who filed police reports that supported Jason Van Dyke's discredited version of events had every reason to believe that there was no risk in lying, and a huge risk in contradicting their colleague. Here's an oped I wrote on this: http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/inaction-over-chicago-police-reform/article_167c84ed-520b-52c3-9dc5-534941bb826d.html

Also crucial to realize how many people and institutions beyond the police department and the prosecutor's office played a role in the coverup, mainly by turning a blind eye. As I wrote in 1999 (in more detail than you might want), all but a couple of Illinois judges turned a blind eye, refusing even to hold evidentiary hearings on allegations of repeated torture. Also, notably, the mainstream Chicago media refused for years to cover the story. Here's my article on how judges and others abetted the scandal and coverup: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=165395 The issue of legal remedies is complex. Even more challenging is the issue of lack of political will.

Posted by: Susan Bandes | Jul 30, 2016 12:49:09 PM

Two quick clarifying point. First, situation is more complex than winners and losers. In South Africa the ANC was indeed a winner as it gained power, but the dispossessed land owners have problems with the post-Apartheid land remedies of the ANC (see Bernadette Atuahene's recent book). Second, I may have not been clear about South Carolina. The Truth and reconciliation commission was aimed addressing the past victims of Klan-offiiclals not at the loser former Klan members. I take your point that such commissions are unlikely to happen in the US, but there is hope as a watered down version was used in the Ferguson investigation.

Posted by: John | Jul 30, 2016 11:04:14 AM

John's comment concerns me since I'm not sure my point came through.

I'm pessimistic that it will be used here since the victims here unlike South Africa aren't the "winners." The application to the KKK (losers) is telling in that respect.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 30, 2016 10:03:59 AM

I'm confused. You describe a Chicago PD "policy of torturing African Americans," or worse still, that "a major American city [Chicago] had a decades-long policy of torturing [b]lack criminal suspects."
But the report you link to seems to say only that a commander of a violent crimes unit of Police Area 2, a subdivision of the department, implemented a policy of torturing suspects of violent crimes, and that the vast majority of his victims were black, which isn't surprising given that Area Two appears to be comprised of the South Side, which is 93% black (the remaining 7% are mostly whites in Hyde Park, where violent crime is low). It's not clear that even this violent crimes unit commander had a policy of torturing black criminal suspects in particular as opposed to a policy of torturing suspects of violent crimes generally, but I really don't see how you figure that the department or the city had a policy of torturing black criminal suspects.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jul 30, 2016 12:30:25 AM

Yes, truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa were implemented by the ANC after the end of apartheid (and they had problems), but two observations. First, even though truth and reconciliation commissions are often implemented by the winners (which is usually the case) they can still offer a way to create a dialogue between the oppressed groups by providing a forum for them to be heard. Second, the use of truth and reconciliation was tried in the Greensboro, South Carolina in the 1990s to remedy the past discrimination and official city involvement with the KKK. I actually have a forthcoming article that explores alternative remedies to police misconduct. John F. Acevedo, Restoring Community Dignity Following Police Misconduct, 59 HOWARD LAW JOURNAL 901 (2016).

Posted by: John | Jul 29, 2016 10:42:03 PM

"the truth and reconciliation committee"

This idea intrigues me but was applied in South Africa by the winners.

Posted by: joe | Jul 29, 2016 7:32:30 PM

Richard M. Daley is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Chicago. John Yoo has a named chair at Berkeley. One wonders if Eugene de Kock is in negotiations with Harvard for a nice comfy sinecure.

Posted by: anon | Jul 29, 2016 6:37:08 PM

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