Moral Low Ground

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Chicago Offers $5.5 Million to Police Torture Victims

Reparations protest, Chicago, Dec. 16, 2014 (Caroline Siede)

Reparations protest, Chicago, Dec. 16, 2014 (Caroline Siede)

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and several Chicago aldermen are offering a $5.5 million reparations package for people who were tortured during the tenure of former police commander John Burge.

In addition to financial compensation of up to $100,000 per victim, the Chicago Tribune reports the city will also offer free city college tuition for victims and their families, free counseling for psychological issues and substance abuse and other assistance to more than 50 potential victims. The city would also issue a formal apology, establish a memorial to the victims and educate middle and high school students about one of the darkest chapters in Chicago—and US—police history.

Torture victims who have already received $100,000 or more in compensation—the scandal has already cost Chicago taxpayers more than $100 million in lawsuit settlements, judgments and other legal costs—will not be eligible for the new reparations package.

Burge led a crew of detectives who terrorized the city’s predominantly black South Side, torturing more than 100 black males from 1972-1991 in order to force confessions to crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Initial interrogation practices included shooting pets, handcuffing suspects to objects for days, and pointing guns at heads of children. Victims were burned with cigarettes and radiators, suffocated with plastic bags and subjected to electric shocks, sometimes administered to the genitals. Brutal beatings were a regular part of interrogations.

Burge was fired in 1993 after he was linked to the brutal torture of police slaying suspect Andrew Wilson. But numerous police superintendents, Cook County prosecutors and a cover-up implicating former longtime mayor Richard M. Daley protected Burge from prosecution; no charges were filed against him.

In 2006, an investigation by the Cook County prosecutor uncovered evidence of widespread abuses committed by Burge and his “Midnight Crew,” but the statute of limitations had expired. He was, however, convicted in 2010 of obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about the torture he supervised. Federal prosecutors secured a four-and-a-half year prison sentence for Burge, who was released in October 2014.

In a silver lining, the fact that Burge used torture to elicit confessions, including in death penalty cases, was a major factor motivating former Illinois governor George Ryan’s decision to declare a moratorium on executions in 2000. Three years later, Ryan commuted the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates to life imprisonment.

Mayor Emmanuel, who was recently re-elected, said the proposed reparations package is part of an effort to correct past mistakes.

“Jon Burge’s actions are a disgrace to Chicago, to the hard-working men and women of the police department, and most importantly to those he was sworn to protect,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Today, we stand together as a city to try and right those wrongs, and to bring this dark chapter of Chicago’s history to a close.”

“While the Burge era may have ended years ago, today we finally and fully address the ramifications of his terrible actions,” said Alderman Howard Brookins, chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus. “Under Mayor Emanuel, we have seen Chicago own up to its past and find justice for those who were wronged by Jon Burge so we may move forward together as one city.”

Attorneys Joey Mogul and Flint Taylor of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials and the People’s Law Office, who represented many of Burge’s victims, expressed their satisfaction with the proposed settlement.

“We are gratified, that after so many years of denial by many, that Mayor Emanuel has acknowledged the harm inflicted by the torture and recognized the needs of the Burge torture survivors and their families by negotiating this historic reparations agreement,” they said in a statement. “This legislation is the first of its kind in this country, and its passage and implementation will go a long way to remove the longstanding stain of police torture from the conscience of the city.”

But recent revelations that Chicago police ran an alleged secret ‘black site’ at Homan Square station, where suspects were held incommunicado and subjected to interrogation abuses that have drawn comparisons to the US military and CIA torture and mistreatment of detainees in the War on Terror, demonstrate the lingering high level of citizen mistrust of those who are tasked with serving and protecting them.

The connection between Chicago police torture and Washington’s ‘War on Terror’ is more than an analogous—Guantánamo Bay detainee Mohammedou Ould Slahi, who has been imprisoned for more than 12 years without charge or trial, details in his memoir how he was tortured by former Chicago police detective Richard Zuley, who was sent to GITMO to assist with interrogations there.

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