How the Truth about the Racist Police Torture Came to Light

The first case of torture that garnered significant publicity was that of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was accused of killing two white Chicago Police officers, William Fahey and Richard O'Brien, on February 9, 1982. Shortly after the police officers were shot on the street, the Chicago Police Department launched a vicious manhunt to capture those responsible, during which scores of African-American homes on the South Side were ransacked, people were stopped and frisked on the street, and several young Black men were dragged into Police Headquarters and tortured to learn the whereabouts of the prime suspect, Andrew Wilson.

On February 14, 1982, Wilson was found, arrested, and transported to Area 2 Police Headquarters where Burge and others handcuffed him across a hot radiator in an interrogation room. The officers then electrically shocked Wilson's ears, lip, genitals, back and fingers with the electric shock box, causing him to flinch and sustain burns to his chest, thighs, and chin from the radiator. The detectives also used a plastic garbage to suffocate him, beat him about the head and body, and burned him with a cigarette.

After Wilson confessed, he was transported to Cook County Jail where, for the first time since his interrogation, he received a full physical examination and medical treatment for his injuries. Dr. John Raba, the head of the medical unit, noted that Wilson sustained several physical injuries, including a battered right eye, bruises, swelling and abrasions on his face and head, and blisters on his right thigh, cheek and chest that were consistent with radiator burns. Unlike so many of the other torture survivors - whose torture was concealed by methods that intentionally left no marks - Wilson sustained visible injuries, providing irrefutable proof that he was tortured.

Troubled, Dr. Raba wrote the Superintendent of the CPD, Richard Brzeczek, demanding that Brzeczek conduct an investigation into Wilsons' allegations of electric shock and physical abuse. Brzeczek, in turn, wrote to the head of the Cook County State's Attorneys' Office who, back in 1982, was Richard M. Daley, who later became Chicago's longest serving Mayor. Brzeczek forwarded Dr. Raba's letter to Daley and informed him that he would not conduct an investigation into Wilson's allegations of torture and abuse unless advised to do so by Daley, expressing a desire not to interfere with Daley's prosecution of Wilson for the murders of Fahey and O'Brien. Daley and his office never responded to Brzeczek's letter and neither Daley nor Brzeczek conducted an investigation into allegations of torture or the officers' crimes. Instead, Daley and his staff repeatedly denied Wilson was tortured, successfully opposed his motion to suppress his confession and, in successfully doing so, used Wilson's confession against him to convict him and obtain a death sentence. As a result of Daley and Brzeczek's refusal to take any action whatsoever, at least seventy more Black men were tortured by Burge and men under his command over a twenty-year period.

Wilson subsequently filed a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit seeking vindication for the torture he endured and sought the assistance of lawyers to represent him. Despite the unpopularity of Wilson's cause, Jeffery Haas, John Stainthorp and Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office (PLO) agreed to represent him. In the course of the civil litigation, the PLO received letters from an anonymous police source--subsequently dubbed "Deep Badge"--who disclosed a wealth of information about torture practices under Burge's command at Area 2, including names of officers who engaged in torture, nicknaming them "Burge's asskickers." Deep Badge also identified Melvin Jones as a man who was tortured by Burge only nine days before Wilson's interrogation.

Following Deep Badge's leads, Haas, Stainthorp and Taylor tracked down twenty-five other Black men who alleged they were tortured at Area 2 Police Headquarters, confirming that Wilson's torture was not an isolated incident, but simply one instance in a larger racist pattern and practice of torture. This was powerful evidence to corroborate Wilson's allegations and that have been admitted pursuant to FED. R. EVID. 404(b) at his civil rights trial. The judge presiding over Wilson's civil proceedings, however, would not admit this relevant and damning evidence. Instead, the judge allowed Burge's defense counsel to present a slew of irrelevant evidence relating to the murders of Officers Fahey and O'Brien. Consequently, Wilson did not prevail in the trial court.

Fortunately, the struggle for justice was not confined to the courtroom alone. Citizens Alert, a police accountability organization, along with the Task Force to Confront Police Violence, armed with the evidence from Wilson's civil case and exposés by journalist John Conroy on Burge's reign of torture, demanded that Burge and other implicated detectives be fired from the CPD. Their campaign was endorsed by fifty local organizations, ranging from Clergy and Laity Concerned to Queer Nation, who joined them in demonstrations at the federal courthouse, Police Headquarters, and Chicago's City Hall. They were relentless in their efforts to hold Burge and others accountable.

Eventually, the political winds began to change. The Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the department responsible for investigating allegations of excessive force by members of the CPD, re-opened its investigation and sustained Wilson's allegations of torture. OPS also conducted a larger investigation into allegations of torture and abuse from Area 2 and concluded, in what is now referred to as the Goldston Report, that the abuse at Area 2 Police Headquarters was "systematic," and that "[p]articular command members were aware of the systematic abuse and either actively participated in it or failed to take any action to bring it to an end."

The CPD initiated disciplinary hearings and subsequently terminated Burge from the department in 1993, representing a significant victory for accountability that could not have been achieved through civil litigation alone.