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Police Torture in Chicago

The Chicago police department has a problem. They say it’s fixed, but local African American residents can’t be blamed for being skeptical. The problem is torture. And of course the Chicago PD is not one bad apple in the nation’s police departments, because when it comes to police brutality, the whole barrel is rotten. Chicago is just an extreme case.

“Between 1972 and 1991, approximately 125 African American suspects were tortured by police officers in Chicago,” Princeton anthropology professor Laurence Ralph writes in his new book “The Torture Letters: Reckoning With Police Violence.” More than 400 cases currently await investigation by the Illinois torture inquiry and relief commission, “which also gets three to five new torture claims each week.” From 2004 to 2016, Chicago police paid $662 million in police misconduct settlements. Torture has not been unusual in the Chicago PD and elsewhere, nor is the next level of violence – murder of suspects, of people stopped at traffic lights or just walking down the street. Stop and frisk often means stop and kill

For decades, Chicago’s Area 2, where officer Jon Burge’s seven-member “A-Team” took their suspects, was a notorious torture site. An anonymous police department whistleblower named Burge as a perpetrator in 35 torture cases, Ralph reports. “A total of 67 officers were identified by survivors as having direct knowledge of torture.” The torments included beatings, being shackled to a hot radiator, mock suffocations and electrocutions from Burge’s infamous black box. Once knowledge of this dreadful little machine seeped out and Burge was defending himself in the courts, he “is rumored to actually have thrown his torture device in Lake Michigan from his boat, named ‘Vigilante.'”

Another torturer was Richard Zuley, a Chicago police officer from 1977 to 2007, with a sabbatical as an interrogator at Guantanamo. Ralph sums up Zuley’s worldview: “Zuley said it did not matter to him whether this man was innocent or guilty. It didn’t matter because to Zuley, this was a bad guy.” And therein lies the problem: the good guy/bad guy mentality, which pervades all American police departments, the military and – to judge from Trump’s repetition of the phrase “bad hombre” – the executive branch of the U.S. government. Ralph argues that morally, no one, no matter what they have done, deserves the cruel and unusual punishment of torture. But many who consider the world riddled with bad guys disagree. That includes Trump and many in the former Bush administration. If torture yields a false confession, so what? The victim is a bad guy, and even if he’s punished for something he didn’t do, the reasoning goes, he was guilty of something. So instead of serve and protect, the Chicago police hunt and torture.

The good guy/bad guy dichotomy is the death of morality and the death of thought. It kills morality by eliminating justice based on an individual’s innocence or guilt of a specific crime. It kills thought, as “The Torture Letters” demonstrates, by recounting how police ignore leads and clues to the true perpetrator, because they already plan to ensnare one particular bad guy. Careful, patient, rational police-work goes out the window.

It’s also a quick step from seeing some people as bad guys to generalizing about groups and thence to racist stereotypes. Once the police regard young African American and Latino men as bad guys – the result of Bloomberg’s notorious stop and frisk policy – pretty much anything goes, including framing them for murders they didn’t commit, because they’re “bad guys,” who have committed other crimes anyway.

This diseased mentality stigmatizes whole communities. “Just because someone killed two police officers,” Ralph writes, “doesn’t mean that an entire community should be treated as if all members were murderers.” But that’s what has happened in Chicago. When a crime occurred, the police could pick whomever they wanted from this stigmatized group, regardless of evidence. The crime became an excuse to brutalize someone, anyone from the pool of those considered bad guys. This attitude goes to the top. When confronted with the lack of proof that Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was planning attacks on Americans – the initial stated cause of assassinating him – Trump waved that away, said it didn’t matter, because Soleimani was a bad guy. But one person’s bad guy is another’s heroic soldier. This way of thinking is a highway to hell.

Burge’s “A-Team epitomized everything wrong with the Chicago police department: it is racist, it is secretive and…believes that the police department has the right to operate above the law,” Ralph writes. These are the same police videotaped “gunning Black Chicagoans down on the street,” like Harith Augustus in 2018, Paul O’Neal in 2016 and Laquan MacDonald in 2014. It is not even a short step from torture to murder; the two go hand in hand. No wonder African American residents are leaving Chicago in droves. Though one has to wonder – is this what the city’s powerful wanted all along?

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.

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