Police torturer arrested on federal charges

October 22, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on the long-awaited arrest of the man who oversaw torture in Chicago police stations.

THERE MAY finally be some long-overdue justice for the victims of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge, after he was arrested October 21 at his Florida home on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to his role in the systematic abuse of prisoners.

The name "Burge" is synonymous with torture in the city of Chicago. As an officer in the Chicago Police Department, Burge oversaw the beatings and torture of dozens of suspects, all of them Black men, at Area 2 and 3 police headquarters during the 1970s and '80s. Most were railroaded into prison, and even onto death row, as a result of confessions extracted from them through abuse, suffocations and electroshock.

A $7 million special prosecutor's inquiry released in 2006 found credible evidence of torture in more than 70 cases, though activists say the real number is much higher--certainly in the hundreds.

"While not all the officers named by all the claimants were guilty of prisoner abuse, it is our judgment that the commander of the Violent Crimes section of Detective Areas 2 and 3, Jon Burge, was guilty of such abuse," read the report's conclusion. "It necessarily follows that a number of those serving under his command recognized that, if their commander could abuse persons with impunity, so could they."

Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge
Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge

Dozens of Burge's victims remain in prison today. Despite repeated calls by activists, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has not pressed for new trials.

In 2002, Madigan took over prosecution of many of the torture cases when a Cook County judge declared that State's Attorney Dick Devine had a conflict of interest because he had represented Burge in a civil suit related to torture allegations. When she ran for office that year, Madigan claimed she "would never stand in the way of justice." But in more than five years on the job, she hasn't initiated even one evidentiary hearing.

BURGE WAS fired in 1993 after the Chicago Police Review Board ruled that he tortured Andrew Wilson into giving a confession. Despite this, Burge had remained free, collecting a city pension of more than $3,500 a month and receiving taxpayer-funded legal representation while living a comfortable retirement in Florida (where he keeps a boat named the "Vigilante").

Prosecutors in Chicago had claimed that Burge and his men were untouchable, because the statute of limitations governing their crimes had run out.

But federal investigators believe there is evidence to make a case against Burge on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. According to prosecutors, Burge lied when he claimed he never witnessed and did not have any knowledge of physical abuse and torture on the part of Chicago police officers during a deposition in lawsuit filed against him on behalf of former death row prisoner Madison Hobley.

Hobley was convicted of setting a January 1987 fire that killed his wife, infant son and five others. In a pattern of abuse that would become familiar as more cases came to light, Hobley was suffocated by Burge with a plastic typewriter cover. Police then falsified his confession. Hobley was convicted and sentenced to death in 1990. He spent more than 12 years on death row before he was exonerated and pardoned, along with three other men, by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.

"If Al Capone went down for taxes, it's better than him going down for nothing," federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said in a press conference announcing the arrest. As he concluded, "For his lies about this torture and abuse, we intend to hold him accountable."

Darrell Cannon, a Burge torture victim, told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm thankful to be an American today because...the man that has been skating for so long, riding in his boat, catching fish and everything else--well, now he's in jail, killing roaches. And that's exactly where he belongs."

After his arrest, Burge appeared before a federal magistrate, who set bond at $250,000 and released him. Burge is expected to be arraigned in federal court in Chicago October 27.

Federal prosecutors are hinting that other charges may be forthcoming, with Fitzgerald warning that other police involved in torture should not pin their hopes on police refusing to talk about their colleagues. "If their lifeline is to hang onto a perceived wall of silence, they may be hanging on air," Fitzgerald told reporters.

FOR NOW, the charges are against Burge, but many others are implicated in this scandal and should be brought to justice. That includes Burge's fellow officers who participated in the torture and other law enforcement officials who knew what was taking place--among them, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was Cook County State's Attorney when Andrew Wilson was tortured in 1982.

At the time, then-police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek sent a letter to Daley, with a letter from the director of Cermak Prison Health Services, detailing Wilson's injuries and Wilson's claims that he was electro-shocked. Brzeczek requested "direction as to how the Department should proceed in the investigation of these allegations."

According to special prosecutors who oversaw the investigation, the letter "was probably discussed" with both Daley and his then-First Assistant (and the current State's Attorney) Richard Devine--but Daley "has no current memory of how the letter was processed."

Now, with Burge's arrest, Daley is once again claiming he had no knowledge or responsibility for the systematic abuse that took place in Chicago police stations. "I was very proud of my role as prosecutor," he told the Tribune when Burge was arrested. "I was not the mayor, I was not the police chief. I did not promote this man in the 80s, so let's put everything into perspective."

While the arrest of Jon Burge is welcome, federal prosecutors are not condemning the system, but attempting to preserve it--by pointing to Burge and his men as "bad apples.

"According to these charges, Jon Burge shamed his uniform and his badge," Fitzgerald said. "The last time he wore that uniform and that badge was more than 15 years ago. It is important that the public respect that, when we bring these charges, they should not judge the people who walk the streets in a uniform and badge today to try and serve and protect."

But Chicago police have been involved in a number of recent incidents that should give pause to anyone who thinks abuse is a thing of the past. In a two-week span in June, for example, Chicago police were involved in eight shootings--five of them fatal--including Devon Young, a 26-year-old Black man who was shot by police in the back of the head.

A Justice Department report released in July detailed ongoing human rights abuses against prisoners at Chicago's Cook County jail. The report detailed inadequate health care leading to prisoner deaths and a culture of abuse among prison guards.

Such incidents aren't "exceptions to the rule," but part of a culture in which police consider themselves to be above the law. The arrest of Jon Burge is a welcome development--but only the tip of the iceberg in terms of getting real justice for all of the victims of the Chicago police.

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