A Local Legacy of Torture: The Sgt. Burge Scandal

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

showing the systematic torture of
detainees by United States military
forces, the American public was shocked
and outraged. Subsequent exposes
detailing the horrific uses of waterboarding
and the degrading treatment of prisoners
at Guantanamo Bay have continued to offend American
While these examples have dominated the media and
focused the issue to American torture in foreign countries,
citizens of Illinois should know that “interrogation” tactics
and methodical torture have had a local presence for
decades. From 1973 to 1991, Sergeant Jon Burge of the
Chicago Police Department and other officers in Area Two
Police Headquarters used electric shock, mock execution
and suffocation to elicit confessions from approximately
100 African Americans.
Jon Burge served in the United States military during
the Vietnam War as a military police officer where he
received training in interrogation. Burge learned of the use
of electric shocks as an interrogation technique during his
service in Vietnam. It is common knowledge that US
forces used field phones to provide electro-shock torture
to suspects in Vietnam. Other veterans in Burge’s company
have reported that they participated in the electrical torture
of Viet Cong suspects using hand cranked field
phones. A fellow MP serving at a similar time with Burge
stated: “It would not take much effort however for someone
like Burge to pick up this knowledge, even if he were
not directly involved. It’s not rocket science.”
Burge returned to Chicago as a highly decorated war veteran.
He then became a police officer for the Chicago Police
Department in 1970. During Burge’s first years on the force,
he again earned numerous commendations for his work.
Jon Burge was soon promoted to detective and sent to Area
Two Headquarters as the Commander of the Violent Crimes
Unit. Burge’s return to Area Two not only marked his promotion
but also a return to his neighborhood.
In Burge’s youth, the area was 93% white. It had undergone
a population shift to 14% white by Burge’s arrival as
an Area Two Commander in 1972. Many in Burge’s community
were upset at the “infiltration” of minorities into
what was traditionally a white community. Soon after his
promotion, Area Two Police Headquarters received the
“House of Screams” moniker, due to the systematic torture
promoted by Burge and his fellow officers.
Starting in 1972, African Americans began alleging that
Commander Burge and fifteen other officers were engaging
in the use of electrical shocks via hand cranked field
phones, suffocations using plastic bags and typewriter
bags, mock executions, and beatings in order to elicit confessions
for trial. Courts, judges and lawyers often would
not believe the torture victims because there were no
marks showing evidence of abuse.
Most of those alleging abuse were poor African Americans
and they were accusing middle class white policemen,
so their claims were frequently discounted. Prosecutors
used the confessions and those alleging abuse were
sentenced to lengthy prison terms, some even receiving
the death penalty. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was
State’s Attorney when these abuses took place, has denied
Burge and his fellow officers tortured. Then, things began
to change.
In February 1982, Andrew Wilson killed two police
officers after a robbery on the South Side of Chicago. In
response, Burge and the Chicago Police engaged in a draconian
dragnet to find the killers. As a detective who
worked for the Chicago Police said, “It was a reign of terror.
I don’t know what Kristallnacht was like, but this was
probably close…Their idea is you go out and pick up
2,000 pounds of nigger and eventually you’ll get the right
one.” The Police caught Wilson not due to the dragnet but
because one of the many innocent African Americans
caught up in the dragnet happened to know Wilson had a
car that fit the police description. Wilson was brought to
Area Two, interrogated, and confessed to the murders of
the two police officers.
But during his trial, Wilson alleged that the police had
used torture to get him to confess. Wilson stated that he
was physically assaulted and received an eye injury.
According to Wilson, officers also suffocated him with
plastic typewriter bags to make him pass out. He also told
how Burge and his subordinates used electric shocks via
hand crank field phones to his genitals, fingers and ears.
When Wilson was able to dislodge the field telephone wire
clips from his ears, Burge’s officers handcuffed Wilson to
two rings across the room. This positioning caused Wilson
to sustain burns on his chest caused by the room’s radiator.
Wilson was still found guilty and sentenced to prison.
In 1989, Wilson sued the Chicago Police Department
for their use of electrical shocks. The People’s Law Office
represented Wilson in this lawsuit. Soon after the lawsuit
started and the torture of Wilson was revealed, the People’s
Law Office began receiving anonymous letters from the
Chicago Police Department. These letters gave explicit
details of Burge’s torture of African American suspects.
One letter stated Burge had a group of “asskickers” who
engaged in torture and “weak links” who were not
involved in the systematic abuse of suspects.
The anonymous writer also stated that the hand crank
field phone and bags belonged to the Sergeant and that
Burge encouraged their use. It was also alleged that State’s
Attorney Richard Daley chose not to investigate complaints
against police. The communications concluded by
suggesting the names of others who were in jail due to torture.
When the Peoples’ Law Office spoke with these men,
they found out Burge and his fellow officers tortured those
men as well. The list of those alleging abuses by the Chicago
Police Department quickly ballooned.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that defendants
received their injuries while in police custody. Juries
concluded that constitutional rights were violated and
that there was a policy whereby the police were allowed
to abuse certain suspects. The City of Chicago even
admitted that “savage torture” took place under Burge’s
command at Area Two. A special prosecutor from the US
government said that one would have to be a “chump”
to deny that torture took place. But what has come of
these admissions?
Due to Wilson’s suit and the anonymous letters that
exposed “Burge’s asskickers” and their systematic torture,
Burge was removed from the police force in 1993. Two
other officers were suspended without pay. As of 2007, the
City of Chicago has had to pay out over $20 million to the
victims of “The House of Screams.” Yet, there has been no
criminal accountability. No charges were ever filed against
Jon Burge or any of the 15 officers accused of the brutality,
because the statute of limitations for assault and battery
has elapsed. Yet, the officers have not yet escaped prosecution.
The US Attorney in Chicago subpoenaed five to ten
officers to bring them before a grand jury in June to see if
they engaged in perjury and obstruction of justice, by
denying their use of torture for decades.
The City of Chicago has spent over $9 million defending
the officers after admitting that these officers engaged
in “savage torture.” Their costs will continue to skyrocket
defending these officers against impending federal perjury
and obstruction charges. Mayor (and State’s Attorney
during the Burge torturing) Daley was outraged
when former Governor Ryan pardoned four of Burge’s
victims and commuted seven others to life imprisonment.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan is currently fighting
fiercely against those calling for new trials for the 25
victims of Burge torture, who currently languish in Illinois
jails. Should these be cases that Chicago should
spend money on to defend? Should they even be cases
that the City wants to win?
The use of torture, guilty or innocent, is antithetical to
American values enshrined in the Constitution. It is antithetical
to the presumption of innocence. If we are to say
that torture at Guantanamo Bay and other US sites
abroad is morally wrong, then we must also apply a similar
standard to Chicago officials and those officers who
engaged in torture.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.