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Friday, October 20, 2017

More from the archives

To continue my previous posts on the lost history of police misconduct in Chicago….

In 1959, the Illinois ACLU published a small pamphlet—Secret Detention by the Chicago Police. The report studied (and condemned) a specific Chicago police department practice: secretly holding arrestees for extended periods of time without charging them or taking them before a judge. In the process, it linked that practice to systemic mistreatment of minority and poor arrestees (p. 5) and confessions coerced by physical or psychological means.

Although brief, the Report combines quantitative and qualitative analysis. Its statistical analysis concluded that about 20,000 defendants were held incommunicado for 17 or more hours before being brought before a magistrate in 1956.  Nearly ten percent of those 20,000 were held in custody for more than 48 hours without being brought before a magistrate (pp. 5-6, for more detailed discussion of the data, see pp. 22-29). Often, these people were not merely in custody for an extended period, but were in custody and denied access to friends, family, or legal counsel (p. 11).

The ACLU report argued that those extended detentions led to instances of the third degree, or police torture. While some of that torture was “mild” (though still illegal), a hard slap, a blow from a blackjack or telephone book, a punch in the gut (p. 13), the ACLU charged that extended detention also provided an opportunity for more extreme acts. “It has been repeatedly charged, and on one occasions it apparently was proved, that the police have shackled a prisoner’s hands behind him, looped a rope through the handcuffs and over a door top, and hoisted the victim until his feet dangled, his toes barely touching the floor (p. 14). The report cited two cases where suspects complained they were subject to that practice: Emil Reck and Michael Livingston in 1936, and the case of Hector Verburgh in 1946 (p. 14). Reck, whose case finally made it to the United States Supreme Court in 1961, had his conviction overturned because he was held incommunicado for so long (the United States Supreme Court refused to examine his claims of physical torture). Verburgh, who was arrested during the investigation into the Susan Degnan murder, received a settlement from the city of Chicago after filing suit in the 1940s. My own research uncovered several other cases where suspects made similar claims.

The ACLU report described the arrest, detention, and mistreatment of Leslie Wakat, who was arrested by the Chicago police in 1946. Wakat claimed, ultimately successfully, that he falsely confessed to burglaries after being held for six days, during which time he was beaten repeatedly (pp. 15-17) In the end, Wakat’s claim was successful because he had obviously physical evidence to support his claims of mistreatment at the hands of the police. He was, as the ACLU report described it, “suffering from broken bones in his right hand, multiple bruises on his chest, arms, buttocks, shins and shoulders, and from injuries to his left leg and knee so serious as to require eight months’ treatment” (p. 16). In an all too familiar maneuver, police witnesses claimed that those injuries were a result of Wakat’s attempt to escape custody. According to one of the police witnesses “he grabbed my revolver and we both tangled and feel down the stairs about 25 or 30 feet” (p. 17). Other evidence undermined those claims.

The ACLU report argued that its data proved that Wakat’s case was an exception that demonstrated that greater protections for suspects and arrestees were needed. Many of those recommendations, stricter laws relating to detention, prosecution of officers who violate the civil rights of prisoners, and an independent bureau to investigate complaints against police officers (pp. 32-33), sound all too familiar.

Posted by Elizabeth Dale on October 20, 2017 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

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