Police Abuse in Chicago – Part I: The Jon Burge Era of Torture in Chicago

Deceit, abuse, and torture have taken place within the Chicago Police Department (CPD) for decades, and recent reports published in the Guardian about the Homan Square police station “black site” demonstrate that these injustices continue to the present day. Since the 1970s, when Detective Jon Burge imported torture methods learned in Vietnam to the streets of Chicago, to the early 2000s, when Detective Richard Zuley intimidated and duped his victims in Chicago and Guantanamo Bay into false confessions, incessant abuse has made obvious the presence of institutionalized racism within the department. This racism is exacerbated by the militarization of the police and perpetuated by the systematic failure of those in charge to intercede. Part I of this series on the history of Chicago police torture will give a brief summary of the career of Detective Jon Burge. Parts II and III will discuss the case of Detective Richard Zuley and the recent reports about Homan Square Station.

An internal investigation found that from 1972 to 1991, Detective Jon Burge was responsible for orchestrating, perpetrating, and covering up the torture of roughly 120 individuals in the South Side of Chicago, at least 110 of whom were African American males. He and his midnight shift officers forced confessions—many of them false—from their suspects using electrocution, beatings, suffocation with plastic bags, simulated shotgun executions, and a myriad of other internationally outlawed methods of torture. While investigating a murder on November 2, 1983, Burge and his crew of police detectives interrogated Darrell Cannon, an African American man from the South Side of Chicago. When he claimed he was innocent, they told him they had a “scientific way of questioning n*****s” before forcing a shotgun into his mouth and firing empties three separate times. They proceeded to restrain him in the backseat of a car and shock his genitals with a cattle prod until he confessed falsely. Darrell spent the next twenty-three years in prison, where he picked up Hepatitis C from shared razors, won a grand total $1,247 in compensation for his abuse after a lawsuit, and missed the death of his parents, brother, and adopted son.

Anthony Holmes had a similar experience during a murder investigation in 1973. He recalled that Burge told him, “You going to talk, n****r, you going to talk,” before electrocuting and suffocating him:

“It feel like a thousand needles going through my body… And then after that, it just feel like, you know—it feel like something just burning me from inside, and um, I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out…They put the bag back on me, took me through the same thing again. They did that I don’t know how many times…I said to myself, ‘Man, he trying to kill me.’ And I thought I was dead because all I could see was blackness, and I said, ‘Man, this is it. I’m gone.’ When I looked up, they brought me back again. Burge was the one that was…bringing me back. Every time I come to, he be the one standing over me.”

Holmes’s confession was forty pages long and included doubtfully trustworthy information about entirely separate, unsolved crimes. Consequently, Burge received a department commendation for his “skillful questioning.” In 1985, Shaheed Mu’min was also coerced into confessing after a game of authentic Russian roulette that ended with Burge saying, “You will talk, you black mother f****r,” and repeatedly suffocating him. Similarly, in 1982, Andrew Wilson had to be checked into the hospital, where a doctor documented fifteen separate burns and gashes, including mysterious U-shaped punctures that Wilson attributed to alligator clips attached to a hand-cranked electrical box. He later recalled how ten or eleven different officers were involved in the beating, kicking, and electrocution. After years in jail and multiple civil trial attempts, Wilson finally won his case seeking restitution, and inspired someone within Burge’s department to send Wilson’s law firm an anonymous letter that claimed “Burge hates black people” and provided leading tips. These tips eventually lead to the uncovering of Burge’s “torture ring.”

Later investigations revealed that Burge refused to assign his black detectives homicide cases and gave them low performance ratings. Some considered that Burge might have learned torture techniques during his military service in Vietnam, where he served as a member of the military police and was responsible for processing, guarding, escorting, and transporting prisoners. Multiple Vietnam veterans admit to having used a torture method called the field phone interrogation, wherein an electrical shock is delivered to victims from a hand-cranked field telephone, a process that bears a striking resemblance to the technique described by Wilson and others tortured by Burge. In addition, Officer Walter Young later admitted to hearing the term “Vietnamese treatment” being used around the department. Despite all of this, neither Burge nor any of the other officers involved were ever convicted for torture because the statute of limitations expired by the time the abuses were revealed. According to the Huffington Post, the city “expended at least $125 million in settlements, legal fees, and police pensions” while defending Burge and compensating his victims. He himself spent only three and a half years in prison on perjury and obstruction of justice charges (after he lied about torturing while under oath). He was released this past October and still receives his police pension after the Chicago Police Pension Board voted to sustain it and a subsequent Illinois Supreme Court lawsuit failed to revoke it. Meanwhile, nineteen people convicted with confessions garnered by torture still remain in prison.

All along the way, indifference and willful ignorance on the part of those in charge permitted Burge and his men to perpetrate these atrocities and escape scot-free. When Anthony Holmes complained about being tortured to his parole board, they told him he had “jailhouse slick.” Andrew Wilson’s doctor never asked any questions about his numerous suspicious injuries, and after Wilson claimed he had been tortured, the chief of the felony review board, Larry Hyman, neglected to ask him if he had willingly confessed to the murder, even though it was a routine question. Other officers later admitted to remaining quiet about screams they heard from the interrogation rooms. Cook County State Attorney Richard M. Daley continued using confessions obtained through torture as a means to convict Burge’s victims, even after the allegations were made public, and Daley never launched a formal investigation. Moreover, according to local lawyer Flint Taylor from the People’s Law Office, President Obama conspicuously avoided the issue of police torture during his career in Chicago. Rahm Emanuel has also neglected to address the issue to the extent that it deserves, and has yet to voice his support for an ordinance introduced to Chicago City Council by Aldermen Joe Moreno and Howard Brookins that would, among other measures, compensate Burge’s victims and provide them and their families with free tuition at Chicago city colleges. The ordinance has finally been granted a hearing that will take place on April 14 of this year. Lastly, and perhaps most insultingly, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police attempted to incorporate a float honoring Burge into the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Chicago after he was fired in 1993.

Amnesty International’s UChicago Chapter is proud to present a column focused important human rights developments globally, nationally, and locally. If you are interested in contributing to this column, please contact rienayu@uchicago.edu.

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