Chicago’s Police Torture Reparations
The story of police torture in Chicago begins with Jon Burge. In 1972, Burge returned to his job as a detective on the South Side of Chicago after serving a tour as an interrogator in Vietnam.
The brutal techniques he had learned in Southeast Asia—electric shock, suffocation, beating the genitals with a rubber hose—were applied to hundreds of victims, almost all of whom were people of color. Burge obtained countless confessions that sent these victims to prison and even death row. For 20 years, authorities in the police, judiciary, and mayor’s office looked the other way as Burge’s hand-picked crew of officers terrorized the South Side, and Burge himself was rewarded with promotions and commendations.
This reign of terror began to come under fire in 1989 when one of the victims of Burge’s crew brought their behavior to light during a civil rights trial. Andrew Wilson sued Burge and several other Chicago police officials after he was arrested and tortured by having electric shocks applied to his genitals and being strapped to a hot steam radiator. During the trial, Wilson’s attorneys were contacted by an anonymous source close to Burge’s crew, and this source provided detailed information about the scope of the torture. This information was the basis of the effort to bring Burge to justice and undo the damage to his victims.
Several anti-torture and social justice groups began to campaign for a series of demands in the wake of the torture revelations. Their immediate goals were the firing of Jon Burge; new trials, exonerations, and pardons for torture victims, especially those who had been on death row; criminal prosecution of Burge; recognition of Chicago police torture by the United Nations Committee Against Torture; and a reparations regime for torture victims, their families, and their communities.
None of these goals were achieved easily or swiftly. Jon Burge retired as a police commander with a full pension, but by 2003, official inquiries into his behavior had begun. Finally, in 2010, Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and he served five years in federal prison.
In 2009, the state of Illinois enacted the Torture Inquiry and Relief Act, which mandated the review of torture claims and the reference of credible claims to the criminal courts.
Reparations proved to be the most difficult hurdle. First officially proposed by Black People Against Police Torture and the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 2006, the drive for reparations coalesced around a series of demands: a formal apology; financial compensation; free education at Chicago City Colleges for victims and their families; the construction of a center to provide psychological counseling, health care, and vocational training for victims; the teaching of the history of police torture in Chicago public schools; and the construction of a public memorial for torture victims.
Spearheaded by the activists at Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (“CTJM”), the push for reparations gained momentum over the next few years. Finally, after the movement gained the support of Amnesty International, the UN Committee Against Torture, and several Chicago city aldermen, the mayor’s office was ready to negotiate. The settlement was announced on May 6, 2015, before the full city council and included a powerful public apology by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. All the demands put forward by CTJM were met, including $100,000 compensation for surviving victims of torture.
Implementation has not been seamless, but mostly the work has gotten done. Money for victims was distributed in 2017, and the Chicago Torture Justice Center opened in the same year. Changing school curriculum met with some public resistance but was put in place in early 2018. A memorial has been designed, but as yet, no money is allocated for construction. The victory was put into perspective by torture victim Darrell Cannon: “something that sets a precedent ... reparations given to Black men tortured by some white detectives. It’s historic.”