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The Chicago Files

Police Torture in America

by ERIC RUDER

During the last four years, a court-appointed special prosecutor has spent more than $5 million investigating a police torture ring that terrorized nearly 200 Black men on Chicago’s South Side during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

But the report has still not seen the light of day–kept under wraps by the efforts of some of the city’s most powerful politicians.

Edward Egan, a former Illinois appellate judge, issued subpoenas, reviewed records of all sorts, heard testimony and finally wrote a report documenting the findings of his investigation into the torture of African American suspects in custody at Area 2 and Area 3 police headquarters.

Judge Paul Biebel, who appointed Egan, ruled that the report should be released, calling the torture allegations an "open sore on the civic body of the city of Chicago which has festered for many years." Biebel wrote that the "interests of justice require the full publishing of the special prosecutor’s report." But the police under investigation and their allies in the city’s political machine have so far kept the findings under wraps.


The torturers

The facts of the Chicago police torture scandal are well established. Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers working under him used a variety of torture techniques–Russian roulette, electroshock, suffocation and beatings–to extract "confessions" during interrogations at Area 2 and 3 police stations.

For more than a decade, the officers suffered no consequences for their crimes. In fact, they were often promoted for "getting the bad guys" and "closing their cases" with speed and certainty, at a time when politicians nationally were declaring a "war on crime."

Even if their victims did come forward, the detectives reasoned, who would take the word of poor, Black "criminals" over white cops? That assumption served them well–until an anonymous tip written on a Chicago Police Department (CPD) letterhead landed on the desk of Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office.

Taylor was representing Andrew Wilson, who was beaten so badly by detectives investigating a 1982 double police murder that he had to be hospitalized. After Taylor filed a civil rights lawsuit on Wilson’s behalf, he received the tip, which encouraged him to interview Melvin Jones, then being held at Cook County Jail. Jones suffered a torture session so similar to Wilson’s that it stunned Taylor.

Taylor himself uncovered 60 cases going back to 1983, and the numbers have only increased since.

After Wilson won his suit, the CPD’s own internal affairs division launched an investigation. In his 1990 report, CPD investigator Michael Goldston not only concluded that the torture had occurred, but that the cover-up reached far up into the chain of command.

"The preponderance of evidence is that abuse did occur and that it was systematic…that the type of abuse described was not limited to the usual beatings, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture…and that particular command members were aware of the systematic abuse and perpetuated it, either by actively participating in some or failing to take any action to bring it to an end," wrote Goldston.

Grayland Johnson was one of the victims of this "planned torture." Police handcuffed him to a metal ring in a wall and beat him with a telephone book. They placed the book on his head and hit it with a long flashlight, which produces an excruciating crushing sensation. Next, they put a plastic typewriter cover over Grayland’s head until he nearly suffocated.

Because Grayland still refused to confess and kept asking for a lawyer, the cops hung him out a bathroom window, threatening to drop him and make it look like he died during an escape attempt. When they brought him back inside, they forced his head into a toilet that an officer had just urinated in.

They continued with the typewriter cover, and Grayland could hear people laughing as he was gagging for air. "Guess who, nigger?" said the detective who took the bag off his head.

Grayland ended up on death row. Prosecutors went so far as to use someone else’s medical records to cover up the abuse inflicted on Grayland.

Like many victims of torture, Grayland, who is still behind bars, carries a sense of shame about what happened. "No, I don’t like remembering what they did, nor the fact that I was scared to tell the doctor all they had done, because the police were there, and I feared they would take me back and finish," said Grayland. "I don’t like to remember because I was such a coward not to make them kill me right there."

The cover-up

In all likelihood, Burge learned about electroshock while torturing Vietnamese prisoners before he was honorably discharged from the military in 1969–and brought the method back to Chicago’s South Side.

On one end of the device he and his officers used are alligator clips, which are attached to the ear lobes, testicles or limbs, or inserted into the rectum. On the other end is a black box with a hand crank that acts as a generator. The pain is intense.

The Goldston report led to Burge’s forced retirement in 1993. But to this day, Burge receives a police pension, enjoys the Florida sun and spends time on his boat–aptly named The Vigilante–while many of his victims still languish behind bars. Only two other officers were "disciplined" along with Burge, and they were reinstated after serving relatively brief suspensions.

How could torture carried out by Chicago police over two decades and corroborated by the CPD’s own investigation result in nothing more than this? Goldston’s report acknowledged the complicity of senior commanders, but the report didn’t say anything about the role of even more powerful people outside the police department.

In 1980, Chicago’s current Mayor Richard Daley was the Cook County State’s Attorney. As the city’s top prosecutor, he added to his resumé convictions against defendants who had "confessed" during torture sessions conducted by Burge and other officers. In 1989, Daley left the State’s Attorney’s office to become mayor.

Dick Devine was Daley’s right-hand man when the two held jobs at the prosecutor’s office, and he was eventually elected as Cook County State’s Attorney, a position he holds today.

How much did Daley and Devine know about Burge’s activities? We may never know the full extent, but we do know that former Chicago police Superintendent Richard Brzeczek, now a criminal defense lawyer, received a letter from Cook County Jail’s chief physician documenting "electric shocks" to a suspect’s mouth and genitals.

Brzeczek wrote to State’s Attorney Daley, seeking his direction on proceeding with an investigation. "I will forbear from taking any steps until I hear from you," wrote Brzeczek. Daley never responded.

"I think he was more concerned with making political decisions as to what would be appropriate for his political career, rather than the appropriate legal decision," Brzeczek told a reporter in May.

We also know that the city of Chicago spent more than $1 million in legal fees defending Burge from torture allegations. And we know that Dick Devine personally represented Burge in federal court on at least one occasion–and that Devine billed the city $4,287.50 in fees for legal work on Burge’s behalf.

Daley and Devine have a lot to lose and nothing to gain from a new report detailing the complicity of police and prosecutors in torture.


The struggle

For years, activists, lawyers and family members of torture victims organized press conferences, pickets and lawsuits to publicize the allegations against Burge. Their efforts paid off when a court ruled that Dick Devine’s conflict of interest in the case warranted the appointment of a special prosecutor.

Recently, a series of pickets outside the special prosecutor’s office calling for the release of the report got headlines and lead coverage on the local news. With all the attention, the campaign to get the report out has taken on a life of its own.

In late May, Frank Sirtoff became the first independent eyewitness of the torture to come forward. In 1975, he was a 14-year-old Boy Scout. Along with his cousin, he regularly visited his scout leader, who was a detective at Area 3 headquarters.

One day, they stumbled on a horrifying scene–a Black man strapped to a chair with wires all over his body. "I’ve tried to put it in the back of my mind most of the time and tried to live my life as good as I could," said Sirtoff, explaining his decision to put aside his fear and come forward after all these years. "But after seeing something like that, it’s a life-changing experience."

The United Nations Committee Against Torture released a report in May, noting "the limited investigation and lack of prosecution in respect of the allegations of torture perpetrated in areas 2 and 3 of the Chicago Police Department" and calling on authorities to "promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of acts of torture" and to "bring perpetrators to justice."

So far, a string of legal motions–first by police and now by the State’s Attorney’s office–have bottled up the special prosecutor’s report.

Darby Tillis, who spent more than nine years behind bars–several of them on death row–before he was exonerated and released in 1987, has been centrally involved in the struggle to expose police torture.

"One of my biggest concerns is the men rotting away in the penitentiary," Darby said of the delay in the release of the special prosecutor’s report. "If they can stall for two or three years and get it tied up in the Illinois Supreme Court, that’s two or three years that innocent men will remain behind bars."

But with continued pressure, many think the report will come out sooner–perhaps this summer. It’s time that Jon Burge faces prosecution–and that all the other powerful men who built careers by victimizing poor Black men finally pay a price.

ERIC RUDER is a reporter for the Socialist Worker.