House of Screams: Torture by Electroshock: Could it happen in a Chicago police station? Did it happen at Area 2?

John Conroy, House of Screams: Torture by Electroshock. Chicago Reader. 25 January 1990. “Torture by Electroshock: Could it happen in a Chicago police station? Did it happen at Area 2?… What if a parade of men arrested by detectives at Area 2 over the course of a decade…claimed that they had been interrogated by electrical means, or had plastic bags put over their heads, or had their fingers put in bolt cutters, or were threatened with being thrown off a roof? What if there was no connection at all between the alleged victims, no evidence of any collusion among them, and yet they kept pointing to the same police station and the same group of officers?”

We expect charges of corruption to surface periodically on any big-city police force, but normally we can take comfort, at least, in the way the charges come to our attention–an honest cop wears a wire; a federal agency does its job; a brave state’s attorney decides he can’t look the other way; or a newspaper commits great resources to an investigation. But the charges of torture at Area 2 did not get a proper hearing until a convicted cop killer filed a civil lawsuit.

Andrew Wilson’s suit came to trial last February 13 [1989] in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Brian Barnett Duff. It charged that various policemen beat Wilson after his arrest and arrival at Area 2; that they put a plastic bag over his head so he could not breathe; that they burned him, first with a cigarette and later on a radiator; that Detective John Yucaitis began the electric shock and Lieutenant Jon Burge carried it to great lengths; that detectives Patrick O’Hara and William McKenna participated in the conspiracy by making no mention of the torture in their reports on the case; and that it was a de facto policy or custom of the city of Chicago and the Police Department to mistreat persons suspected of killing police officers–in other words, that the ill-treatment was widespread and well-known, even at the highest levels of the department, and nobody did anything about it. Wilson was asking for $10 million in damages. The outcome would have no effect on his criminal conviction.

[Dr. Robert Kirschner said to John Stainthorp] ‘This guy [Andrew Wilson] has been tortured. I think there is a very high degree of medical certainty to say this man has not only been beaten and/or kicked, which, let’s face it, occurs in custody, but that this man has received electric shock.'”

In that deposition, Kirschner went on to say that Wilson’s description of what had happened to his body and his difficulty in telling the story without breaking down were consistent with the experiences of others who had been tortured with electric shock. “These are not the kinds of things that are faked,” Kirschner said. “This is not general knowledge . . . or things you pick up through your general reading. . . . This is not information that I would expect to be floating around the prisons, passed from one prisoner to another. . . . These are things that you have to delve into Amnesty International reports or other human rights reports. These aren’t the sort of things you pick up on the newsstand or [are] going to find in medical or law journals for the most part.”…

In the end, however, the judge sided with Kunkle [defender of the four accused policemen]. Kirschner was allowed to testify as an expert in identifying burns but was not allowed to say anything about torture or about the credibility of Andrew Wilson’s account. Duff also ordered that Kirschner’s curriculum vitae should be purged of any mention of torture and human rights activity before it was submitted to the jury….

In and around Wilson’s account, the policemen’s stories, and the medical testimony, there was also a case building against the city of Chicago. Wilson’s suit alleged that there was a custom, policy, or practice of allowing police officers to “mistreat those persons suspected, charged with, or otherwise allegedly connected with the shooting or killing of Chicago police officers” and allowing the police to “exact unconstitutional revenge, punishment, and retribution.” To that end, Wilson’s attorneys produced four victims of the Police Department’s enthusiasm in searching for the killers of [police officers] Fahey and O’Brien….

It often seemed there were two cultures in conflict in the courtroom. One was black, poor, given to violence, and often in trouble with the law. The other was white, respectable, given to violence, and in charge of enforcing the law. The city’s attorneys wanted the jury to doubt the victims because they had criminal records or associations. Wilson’s attorneys wanted the jury to conclude that in February 1982, the police could and did run amok. Ideally, some impartial arbiter might have sorted out the claims before they were aired in federal court. In this city, however, the agency established to fill that role is the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, an office that does little to contradict the notion, voiced by Mrs. Davis, that the police can do anything they want. In 1982 the OPS rejected 96 percent of the complaints filed against policemen, and there has been no substantial improvement since. One can conclude either that the overwhelming majority of citizens who complain are liars or that the system does not work….

In closing arguments, Wilson’s attorneys went back to their opening theme, reminding the jury that the case was not about the murder of the two policemen, that it was not about whether Andrew Wilson was a nice man, rather it was about whether the prisoner had been tortured and deprived of his constitutional rights after his arrest….

The Federal Rules of Evidence usually forbid the use of prior crimes or actions to sully the character of the accused; the reasoning is that a man on trial for bank robbery should not be convicted of the robbery at hand simply because he has been convicted of some crime in the past. However, the rules allow such evidence to be introduced if it tends to prove facts at issue in the case, including motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, or identity….

This case, despite its inherent drama and the clash of personalities in the courtroom, was no different than others in that much of the proceeding was tedious, and while I waited for the attorneys and the judge to emerge from their innumerable sidebars my mind wandered. I often found myself speculating about the big question, the one that was never asked. Dr. Kirschner, the torture expert and deputy chief medical examiner, had said that Andrew Wilson’s testimony was consistent with what is known about torture victims. No one asked him if the behavior of the police was consistent with that of torturers, or if the city itself resembled the sort of society where torture might take place….

In his book The Nazi Doctors, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton points out that although we prefer to see torturers as palpably evil and mentally deranged, in fact psychopaths are unfit for the job and torturers usually turn out to be quite normal people. Psychologist Mika Haritos-Fatouros studied 16 former members of Greece’s Army Police Corps, the group that tortured Greek citizens for the junta that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974, and found no indication that any of the former torturers were sadists, no indication even that they had been particularly aggressive as children. Torture, they said, had just been part of their job, and they had seen the people they were torturing as threats to Greek civilization…. The literature on torture indicates that those who do it often develop the attitude that the people being tortured are less than human.

Police Torture in Chicago: An archive of articles by John Conroy on police torture, Jon Burge, and related issues. 23 articles published between January 1990 and March 2007 in Chicago Reader.

Steve Bogira, Revisiting John Conroy’s journalistic odyssey into police torture. Chicago Reader, 13 October 2011. “Twenty-one years ago, ‘House of Screams’ launched a decade of stories that ended with the imprisonment of police lieutenant Jon Burge.”

Don Terry, Justice for John Conroy. Columbia Journalism Review, 15 July 2010. “John Conroy spent years exposing police torture in Chicago. Now the alleged leader is on trial, and the reporter is laid off.”

TimeLine Theatre Company, My Kind of Town, by John Conroy. Directed by Nick Bowling. World Premiere. May-July 2012. “My Kind of Town puts a human face on the police torture scandal that has plagued Chicago for more than three decades. Veteran investigative journalist John Conroy covered the story, challenging public indifference to become one of the leading voices drawing attention to the charges. My Kind of Town is his passionate, groundbreaking new drama revolving around one imprisoned man’s fight for justice, inspired by the stories of numerous victims, police officers, prosecutors and families whose lives have been poisoned by the allegations. With interlocking storylines that humanize the play’s issues of corruption and responsibility, My Kind of Town sets the stage for a new conversation about today’s culture of law and order.” Study Guide prepared by Maren Robinson, Dramaturg, 2012.

See also: John Conroy, Town Without Pity. “Police torture [in Chicago]: The courts know about it, the media know about it, and chances are you know about it. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?”

Update: Zach Stafford, Spencer Ackerman and Joanna Walters, Chicago agrees to pay $5.5m to victims of police torture in 1970s and 80s. The Guardian, 6 May 2015: Chicago approved an unprecedented deal on Wednesday to compensate victims tortured in police custody in the 1970s and 80s under the regime of a notorious former police commander, in an attempt to close a dark chapter in the city’s history. A historic package of reparations will be paid out to living survivors, in the first gesture of its kind in America. Chicago city council voted to award a total of $5.5m to help survivors, almost all African American men, who were mistreated in a long episode of police brutality that ran throughout the 70s and 80s under Jon Burge. The funds will be used to pay up to $100,000 per individual for living survivors with valid claims to have been tortured in police custody during Burge’s command. The package also provides for a public memorial and access to services including counselling and free tuition in city colleges for both survivors and their immediate families.”

Update: Jackie Spinner, A photojournalist tells the stories of Chicago police torture victims. CJR, 16 June 2016. “[Chicago photojournalist Amanda Rivkin is] summarizing the stories of people like Darrell Cannon, one of the scores of black men who have told of abuse and torture at the hands of Chicago police from the 1970s through the early 1990s. Their accounts, which have led to tens of millions of dollars in civil settlements, center around Commander John Burge and the so-called “midnight crew” of detectives under his command, who used violent tactics to coerce confessions. Last year, the City Council acknowledged allegations of torture and abuse from “more than 100” African-Americans in a resolution offering a formal apology and reparations to the victims.

Now Rivkin, who grew up in the city, plans to spend the next year photographing these men and recording their stories. The project, supported a recent grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, is designed to culminate in a multimedia exhibit that will be shown to the public in Chicago sometime later this year or early next.

“I want to hear their story in their words,” she says. “I am facilitating them getting their story out there. I am recording their voice and editing it for public consumption. But I’m not altering it.”…

No one did more to expose and advance the story of Burge and his torture ring than Conroy and the Reader, with essential reporting from other media outlets that followed. The Chicago Tribune contributed pivotal work about systemic corruption that stretched from prosecutors to the judges on the bench….

In spite of the time that has passed, her project does not feel dated. The reparations deal came just months before the city lost a court battle to keep private a video that showed a Chicago police officer gunning down teenager Laquan McDonald. The dash-cam video showed a different story than the one police initially told about how the 17-year-old died. It has renewed national scrutiny of the Chicago police and a justice system that continues to be tainted by charges of corruption. Last week [early June 2016], a county judge ordered a special prosecutor for the murder trial of the police officer who shot McDonald….

Rivkin says she’s read and viewed most of the media coverage around Burge, who in 2010 was convicted of lying about the torture in a civil lawsuit—but not of the torture itself, as the statute of limitations had passed—and spent nearly four years in prison and the rest of his sentence in a halfway house.

The stories of victims have been told in that coverage. But often, Rivkin says, the reporting has focused on a corrupt system, with victims’ accounts filtered told through the courts, through lawyers. She sees her work as a sort of oral history….