Burge Torture Cases: A Summary

"An open secret for nearly three decades ..." - Monroe Anderson


From 1973 to 1991, Police Commander Jon Burge and officers reporting to him tortured confessions from over 115 detainees during the midnight shift at the old Area Two police station at 91st and Cottage Grove on Chicago's South Side. A 1990 Chicago Reader cover story called it the "House of Screams," as it was known to many in the surrounding community. The victimized detainees were almost all Black males, some mere teens, and nearly all of the police were white. The torture included burns, beatings with phone books, rubber hoses, flashlights, and also "Russian roulette," with police putting *237 guns to arrestees' heads. Racist language and electric shock with cattle prods and the infamous "N-box" Black Box field generator, often targeting the genitals, was a key tactic of police torture, Chicago-style. In 1982 Andrew Wilson, convicted of killing a police officer, told lawyers and the examining physician that he had been burned, beaten, and shocked by Burge and detectives at Area Two.

Although the examining doctor wrote a letter revealing the situation to then police superintendent Richard Brzeczek requesting an investigation, Brzeczek forwarded the letter to then-Cook County State's Attorney (later Mayor) Richard M. Daley for further direction. There was, apparently, no response. As the truth of Wilson's story emerged through his testimony during his federal lawsuit against Burge and the City of Chicago, the police board fired Burge in 1993 amid acknowledgements by the city's lawyers that Wilson had been savagely tortured. Chicago taxpayers paid millions of dollars for Burge's defense in several federal lawsuits filed by his victims as well as his pension of over $3400 per month (which continues to this day, due to a contract loophole). The Chicago Reporter estimated that the cost exceeded $64 million in payouts for those tortured under Burge's reign of terror. After a four-year special prosecutorial investigation, which many now feel was part of a cover-up and conspiracy to allow the statute of limitations to run, the report *238 was finally released and concluded that torture had indeed been committed in at least half of the 148 cases reviewed. [The] report of the Special State's Attorney was released, dashing any doubts that the rumors were unmerited. Special Prosecutor Edward Egan, who led the four-year, $6.2 million investigation, found that in the ‘70s and ‘80s former Cmdr. Burge and his men tortured suspects into making confessions. ... In the meantime, 24 black men who were set up by Burge and his subordinates are still doing hard time. Unfortunately, the special prosecutor also declared that the statute of limitations had indeed expired during its lengthy review process, hence the wrongs to African American men and boys tortured into confessing to crimes could not be corrected: "regrettably we have concluded that the statute of limitations would bar any prosecution of any offenses our investigation has disclosed."


Many of these victims, who must also be considered survivors of Chicago Police Torture, continued to languish in prison or, if they were eligible for release short of a life sentence, spent decades incarcerated, often for crimes they did not commit. For those able to exit the system after twenty or more years, they did so with little to no support, financial or otherwise, to heal their trauma. The fact that they had been tortured, a gross human rights violation which carried a lingering impact, went unchecked. With all legal recourse exhausted, and with numerous legal and civil society groups having protested, marched, and complained for decades about this criminal police behavior and the tolerance of the administration sustaining it, little more seemed possible but to accept that the City of Chicago was determined to tolerate, protect, and in some cases even reward, the brutal and inhumane treatment of primarily Black men and boys by its police force. Case closed.

*239 Fast forward to June 2010, when former Chicago Police Department (CPD) Commander Jon Burge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying under oath that he and others did not engage in acts of torture. He was convicted, sentenced to four and a half years in prison, and released from federal prison in October 2014 after serving less than three and a half years for perjury related to his horrific treatment of fellow human beings. In May 2015, Chicago's current mayor and city council approved an ordinance and partial reparations package designed to partially address the history of police torture in the city in an attempt to put the issue behind them during a hotly contested election period.

What happened between the 2006 Special Prosecutor's report, which was too little, too late, and the recent 2016 headlines championing Chicago as a model for police accountability and reparations? We owe this seismic shift in the legal landscape for victims of Burge et al police torture in no small part to that phenomenon elevated by Frederick Douglass: the people of the affected community have a special role to play in demanding justice for their own and fighting for it against the odds and often at great cost. This is the spirit that drove Attorney Stan Willis of the National Conference of Black Lawyers to launch an international human rights campaign and to found Black People Against Police Torture. Willis was a partner at the People's Law Office when the cases originally broke and has long since founded his own firm, The Law *240 Office of Standish E. Willis, Ltd., in 1989. He was an active organizer in the Black community around issues of racism and law enforcement impunity, founding the following: African-American Defense Committee Against Police Violence (1991); The Riverdale Eight (1995) - a group of African-American women brutalized by Riverdale police officers; The African-American Committee to Free Mumia Abu Jamal (1995); and Black People Against Police Torture (BPAPT, formally established early in 2006). The collective work of the latter, a dedicated grassroots organization that was rooted in the affected community, infused new energy and ideas in the effort to secure justice in the Burge cases. Importantly, BPAPT brought the crucial perspective of Black thought leadership to the forefront of the Chicago Police Torture struggle after decades of many groups and individuals exhausting all traditional options.