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?

John Conroy, Town Without Pity: Police torture in Chicago. Chicago Reader, 11 January 1996. “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?”

What if…a whole city [walked] past more than 50 men who say they were tortured, some of them languishing in jail for crimes they may not have committed, a good number of them scheduled to be executed? It seems a fair question to pose here, in this city, because there is no doubt that such a situation exists. The legal community knows about it, members of the media know about it, government officials are aware of it, and probably you, the reader, are at least vaguely aware of it as well. Yet virtually all of us walk on, untroubled, ignoring the situation.

The long list of alleged torture victims was compiled in the course of the investigation of Jon Burge, the Chicago police commander who was expelled from the force in February 1993 after members of the Police Board became convinced that he had physically abused suspects in the Area Two police station.

The Police Board had been moved to hold hearings after receiving two reports from the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. In one report, OPS investigator Francine Sanders concluded that while interrogating Andrew Wilson, a man who had killed two policemen, Burge applied electric shock and burned Wilson’s face, chest, and thigh by holding him against a hot radiator. In the second report, OPS investigator Michael Goldston concluded that Burge and other detectives at Area Two had engaged in “systematic” abuse, including “planned torture,” for at least 13 years. Goldston listed the names of 50 alleged victims, grouped them by techniques applied (electroshock, suffocation, hanging by handcuffs, etc), listed the names of detectives that had surfaced in connection with the victims’ complaints, and concluded that “particular command members were aware of the systematic abuse and perpetuated it either by actively participating in same or failing to take any action to bring it to an end.”…

A list compiled by Flint Taylor, John Stainthorp, and Jeff Haas, attorneys with the People’s Law Office who represented Andrew Wilson, contains the names of 59 men and women who, over the course of 18 years, have alleged that they were tortured or beaten or otherwise physically abused.

Although the city fought hard to keep the Goldston report secret, a federal judge ordered that it be made public, and the investigator’s revelations–reported in some detail by local journalists–have now been publicly known for several years….

…[W]hy do we fail to see Hobley and Patterson and the other victims as men in need of help? At least ten of the Area Two victims face the death penalty. At least nine others are serving life sentences. Furthermore, most of the detectives involved in these cases are still on the job. Why do we not recognize this situation as an emergency?

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In part, our seeming lack of concern is the result of a certain faith that we live in a society with reasonably just institutions. We trust that the media and various community groups will act as our eyes, pointing out unjust situations, and that the courts and various other governmental bodies will then respond as our heart, correcting whatever needs to be corrected. Psychologists who study social responsibility have noted that most humans have a certain trust that “experts” will sort things out. Furthermore, if those experts do not sort something out we believe there is some good reason, that they know more than we do. We carry this faith despite ample evidence that these “experts” have often failed us in the past.

The press and electronic media–this paper and writer included–who might have raised public pressure by repeatedly exposing the abuse and the small group of abusing detectives, have treated the Area Two cases as the story of an errant commander. Once that commander–Jon Burge–was dealt with, the story was seemingly finished….

In August 1989 Citizens Alert, a police accountability group, put together a coalition of more than 50 community organizations (ranging from Clergy and Laity Concerned to Queer Nation) to pressure the Police Department to pay attention to the charges against Commander Burge. Citizens Alert coordinator Mary Powers and her colleagues wore themselves out with their multiyear effort, and after Burge was dismissed they focused their energy on complaints filed by individual citizens who came to them for help and on building a national coalition of police accountability groups, all the while assuming that justice would be done in the Area Two cases without additional pressure from the public. In a recent interview, a reflective Powers characterized that assumption as “foolish,” adding that the governmental agencies involved “are never going to do anything unless the public is banging at the door demanding action.”…

The Area Two revelations did prompt some legislative action–a bill, signed by Governor Jim Edgar in 1992, not to aid victims but to shield perpetrators. The legislation established a five-year statute of limitations on administrative proceedings for police brutality. Commander Burge was brought up on disciplinary charges nine years after he tortured Andrew Wilson, and the supporters of the bill felt that was unfair….

In societies where torture has been systematic, the judiciary has almost always been far more likely to side with the torturers than with the victims, and that has been the case here.

One explanation for those judicial sympathies is that it is not easy to put together a strong case against a torturer, as torture usually occurs in closed rooms and often leaves no physical marks on the victim….

A more common explanation for a judiciary’s sympathies lies in the fact that in societies where torture occurs the tortured class is usually not held in much respect; the victims are rarely the pillars of the community but rather its agitators, its poor, its heretics, and those viewed as a threat to the society at large. Torturers, on the other hand, often represent popular belief. It is not unusual for them to come from the ranks of honored military men who have served their country in time of need…. A judge or jury choosing between an erect and courageous torturer and an unpopular victim often has an easier time identifying with the torturer….

No doubt it would be easier for the judiciary to acknowledge the systematic abuse found by OPS investigator Goldston if more immediate bystanders had stepped forward and testified. It may be that racism has been a factor in the silence of the Area Two detectives who were aware of the brutality but never participated in it. The vast majority of Chicago police detectives are white, and 49 of the 50 victims named by Goldston were black. The police bystanders, however, are perhaps equally likely to be motivated by fear. The police officer who wrote the anonymous letters about “Burge’s asskickers” indicated that his or her great fear was of being “shunned like Officer Laverty.” In 1982, in a case in which a young man named George Jones faced the death penalty, Area Two detective Frank Laverty testified that Jones’s arrest had been the result of mistaken identity. Laverty said he had written a memo stating precisely that and naming the man he thought was the real culprit, and he said the other detectives involved in the case were well aware of the contents of that memo. Laverty’s commanding officer admitted that he had locked the memo in his desk. In the wake of Laverty’s testimony, the judge dismissed the charges against Jones, saying that the other detectives’ behavior in the case “borders on deliberate misconduct.” The Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division subsequently conducted an investigation, not of the detectives whose behavior the judge had excoriated, but of Laverty. In a civil suit that came to trial in 1987, Jones was awarded $801,000 in damages. Laverty, however, fared not so well. He was shunned at Area Two, requested a transfer, and was assigned to police headquarters, where he was given the job of watching police recruits give urine samples.

The Area Two cases illustrate the interdependence of us all. The judiciary might have been less blind if a single policeman had come forward. A policeman might have come forward if pressure had been brought by prosecutors. Prosecutors and politicians might have shown more interest if the media were on the case. The media might have been on the case if the public had demonstrated significant outrage or if individual reporters had felt some kinship with the victims. The end result is that the Area Two victims have been almost entirely dependent upon their attorneys, often public defenders with tremendous caseloads who have no centralized, up-to-date data bank from which they might call up a list of brutality cases involving a particular policeman and who may have no idea of the patterns at Area Two, or who may know of those patterns but be prevented from introducing it into evidence by judges who don’t want to hear it.

The legal community as a whole has been strangely unresponsive.

See also: John Conroy, House of Screams. “Torture by Electroshock: Could it happen in a Chicago police station? Did it happen at Area 2?” Chicago Reader, 25 January 1990.