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chicago's history of police torture

Chicago has a long history of torture, police violence, and cover-ups by police officers, rightly earning it the title "torture capital of the United States" (Flint Taylor). The murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969 were notorious examples of brazen police brutality in Chicago. In 1968, Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered Chicago Police to shoot to maim and shoot to kill "looters" in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Police torture has existed for decades, but it received renewed attention in the 1990s when the Chicago Reader released a series of articles exposing systemic patterns and practices of torture under police commander Jon Burge. The first of these articles, “House of Screams,” covered the case of Andrew Wilson, who in 1982 was so badly beaten and gruesomely tortured that the medical director at Cook County Jail Hospital was shocked and brought it to the immediate attention of the State's Attorney and CPD Superintendent. In 1989, Wilson sued the city of Chicago, but Burge and all the officers under his command were acquitted.

 

Jon Burge had become a Chicago police officer in 1970, after returning from serving in Vietnam. Beginning in 1972, Burge tortured Black and brown men until they confessed to crimes they did not commit, using torture tactics he was known to have perfected against prisoners of war during his time as a military police investigator in Vietnam. The high clearance rate he earned as a result meant that he went up the ranks quickly. In 1981, he began to serve as police commander. This is when he trained other officers to use the same disturbing torture tactics. 

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Chicago Reader, January 25, 1990

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CPD torturer Jon Burge

The officers under Burge’s command became known as the Midnight Crew. They went on to train others in practices of torture, perpetuating deep corruption across the city that included not only tortured confessions from suspects, but threats to their families, coercion of witnesses, and more. In our report, you can read the details of 407 cases of torture and wrongful conviction by CPD detectives. These patterns and practices both pre-dated and outlived Jon Burge, in the detectives that he trained, and in those who engaged his tactics without rising to his level of infamy. The false, tortured confessions these officers collected are still used to make and uphold convictions while the real killers go free. The police have never been interested in true justice. Their only goal is to humiliate, imprison and murder the Black and Latine people of Chicago. Click here to learn more about the torture detectives and their web of cooperation.

the movement to fight back

In response to this torture, activists, family members, and survivors chose to organize, to share their stories and make the issue public in the media, the courts, and the international community. As a result of this struggle, on May 6, 2015, the Chicago City Council passed historic legislation that provides reparations to the survivors of police torture in Chicago, making it the only city in the United States to pass legislation of this kind. 

 

In 2016, a torture prosecutor admitted in an FBI 302 report that the Englewood Four teens - Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, Harold Richardson, and Terrill Swift - were coerced into making false confessions, which were undermined by DNA evidence. The

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detectives involved in this case were the same Midnight Crew detectives that tortured, coerced, and framed hundreds of other men and women into false confessions. Many of these cases don’t have evidence against the wrongfully convicted besides the false confessions. 

 

Yet, the cops guilty of these actions are still on the force or retired without penalty, and there are still hundreds of innocent people in prison as a result of these police crimes. In the current system, there is an automatic assumption of police credibility that is nearly impossible to overturn. You can read more about the detectives involved in this torture here. These same police who have been proven to be involved in torture and wrongful conviction continue to be called as witnesses by special prosecutors and the States Attorney’s office, despite their well established pattern of perjury and torture. This is unconscionable. We are also calling on the State’s Attorney’s office move quickly to vacate the convictions for all those framed, tortured, and wrongfully convicted, particularly cases involving detectives where an established pattern of torture, forced confession, and wrongful convictions holds. You can read about our campaign pressuring the State’s Attorney here.

The actions of survivors, families, and of other advocates for justice also pushed lawmakers in Springfield to establish the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) in 2009. The TIRC is a commission appointed by the Governor that investigates claims of torture. We believe that this commission works in good faith and has enough validity within the current system to be a path for torture survivors to get out of prison. Still, many survivors whose claims of torture have been deemed credible by the TIRC sit behind bars. Click here to read stories that have been reviewed by the TIRC. The TIRC also remains underfunded, understaffed, and limited in scope, with a backlog of nearly five-hundred claims. Click here to read more about the amendments to the TIRC we’re fighting to pass through the Illinois legislature.

 

Governor Pritzker is the only person with the power to free these incarcerated survivors with the stroke of a pen. You can read about our campaign to pressure the Governor here.

 

 

A Report on the Pattern and Practice of Torture
and Wrongful Conviction by CPD Detectives (2021)

Appendix a: detective database

Appendix b: survivor database