HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

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The repeated practice of torture by Chicago police came to light in the late 1980s and early 1990s.3 One case involved Andrew Wilson, who was accused (and later convicted) of shooting and killing police officers William Fahey and RichardO'Brien on February 9, 1982.4 When Wilson was questioned on February 14 at the South Side Area 2 station, he suffered multiple injuries: he claimed that officers supervised by Commander Jon Burge tortured and brutalized him during an interrogation that lasted for seventeen hours.5 He claimed electric shocks were administered to his head and genitals and that police cranked a "black box" to produce electric currents after clips were attached to parts of his body; Wilson was also allegedly stretched over a hot radiator and burned.6

The People's Law Office, an activist firm, conducted an investigation and identified sixty-five suspects who were tortured by Burge or other officers and detectives between 1972 and 1991 in Areas 2 and 3.7 A report by the police investigatory agency, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), found that physical abuse "did occur and that it was systematic....[T]he type of abuse described was not limited to the usual beating, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture. The evidence presented by some individuals convinced juries and appellate courts that personnel assigned to Area 2 engaged in methodical abuse."8

After the city settled the claim of thirteen-year-old Marcus Wiggins, who alleged electric shock by Burge's detectives, the attorneys representing Wiggins fought for the release of the department's internal documents related to the case and its investigation, noting that the police are public servants and that issues of public safety and general public interest were at stake. The city and police union had argued to protect the privacy interests of the officers named in the files and a supposed chilling effect that would negatively affect future police internal investigations.9 The court found in favor of the public's right to know, stating:

    No legitimate purpose is served by conducting [police internal] investigations under a veil of near total secrecy. Rather, knowledge that a limited number of persons, as well as a state or federal court, may examine the file in the event of civil litigation may serve to insure that these investigations are carried out in an even handed fashion, that the statements are carefully and accurately taken, and that the true facts came to light, whether they reflect favorably or unfavorably on the individual police officers involved or on the department as a whole.10

Andrew Wilson's first civil case alleging torture by the police resulted in a hung jury; his retrial did not find the officers personally responsible but did find a de facto policy within the Chicago police department to ill-treat certain suspects. After a complicated series of court challenges, Wilson won a judgment of over $1.1 million ($100,000 for damages and $1 million for attorneys' fees).11 At least three otherplaintiffs were awarded damages in civil lawsuits related to the torture allegations for an additional $250,000.12

In March 1994, the city argued that Burge and other detectives were not acting within the scope of employment when they abused Wilson, and that the city should not have to pay any jury award against those officers; instead the payment should come from the officers themselves. In practice, this would mean that the victim would not be compensated appropriately. The city's court pleading stated, in part, "[I]mmediately following his arrest, plaintiff Wilson was placed in the custody of Chicago police. While in police custody, defendant Burge physically abused plaintiff Wilson by a variety of means including kicking him, electro-shocking and burning him by attaching him to a radiator...."13

After the Wiggins case in September 1991, and long after the Wilson allegations of torture, Burge was dismissed and two detectives involved in the Wilson case were suspended by the Police Board.14 According to insider and press reports, as of 1997, no other detectives or others on the force had been disciplined for any of the other sixty-four cases where torture was alleged.15 Indeed, several of Burge's colleagues involved in the torture cases had been promoted, commended or allowed to retire with full benefits.16 OPS investigators reopened twelve of the torture cases andreportedly recommended discipline for several officers, but the OPS director overruled the recommendations.17 In the cases of two sergeants identified as abusers involved with Burge, OPS investigators sustained complaints and recommended discipline; instead one sergeant was decorated for valor by the mayor (who also recommended him promoted to lieutenant) while the other retired with full benefits.18

No criminal prosecutions were pursued against the officers involved in the torture incidents. The U.S. Attorney's office reportedly learned of the Area 2 torture cases after the five-year statute of limitations for civil rights cases had passed; when it was suggested that conspiracy charges could still be brought against those involved who continued to cover up their involvement, there was still no action toward pursuing the cases.19 Meanwhile, prisoners remain on death row following confessions forced by Burge and others on the police force through torture techniques.20 Burge attempted to get reinstated, but his dismissal was upheld in February 1994. The police union expressed outrage when he was not reinstated: "This we feel is a miscarriage of justice.... In this entire case, there is not one shredof evidence. It's strictly a political victory and that's what this is, political."21 Union officials further claimed the dismissal of Burge was an effort to "neutralize law enforcement."22

3 Torture by police officers is not, strictly speaking, use of excessive force, but is an unjustified and criminal assault. Torture is prohibited by international human rights treaties by which the U.S. is bound, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

4 Amnesty International, "Allegations of Police Torture in Chicago, Illinois," December 1990 (hereinafter Amnesty International, "Allegations of Police Torture"); Ken Parish Perkins, "The bane of brutality," Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1994.

5 Ibid., John Gorman, "`Police tortured me,' cop killer says at suit hearing," Chicago Tribune, February 24, 1989; John Gorman, "`Torture' charged in rights suit," Chicago Tribune, February 16, 1989; Ken Parish Perkins, "The bane of brutality," Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1994; John Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader, January 12, 1996.

6 Ibid.

7 Telephone interview with attorney G. Flint Taylor of the People's Law Office, October 23, 1997; list of sixty-four alleged victims in Affidavit of G. Flint Taylor, Illinois v. Patterson, No. 86-C-6091 (Cook County Cir. Ct. filed November 13, 1996); Statement of G. Flint Taylor, before the Congressional Black Caucus, September 12, 1997, p. 2. For a detailed description of many of the torture allegations, see Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader; and Conroy, "The shocking truth," Chicago Reader, January 10, 1997.

8 Office of Professional Standards report by investigator Michael Goldston, September 28, 1990 (hereinafter "Goldston Report"), p. 3. Goldston's report listed the names of fifty alleged victims of torture and brutality, the names of detectives who had been involved, and stated: "Particular command members were aware of the systematicabuse and perpetuated it either by actively participating in same or failing to take any action to bring it to an end." Ibid.

9 The contract between the city and the police union prevents the disclosure of the names of officers under investigation "unless there has been a criminal conviction or a decision has been rendered by the Police Board." Andrew Martin, "Badge shields cops accused of misconduct," Chicago Tribune, August 6, 1995. When names of officers are disclosed, they are usually provided by prosecutors' offices.

10 Wiggins v. Burge (Slip Op. At 6,) quoting Mercy v. County of Suffolk, 93 F.R.D. 520, 522 (E.D.N.Y.)

11 Telephone interviews, G. Flint Taylor, October 31, 1997 and January 15, 1998. Wilson's $100,000 was awarded to the estate of one of the police officers he was convicted of killing.

12 Amnesty International, "Allegations of Police Torture," p. 2 and telephone interview with G. Flint Taylor, October 31, 1997.

13 See para. 11 of the Cross-Claim of the City of Chicago against Officer Jon Burge, Wilson v. City of Chicago, No. 86-C-2360 (U.S. District Court, N.D. Ill. filed April 18, 1996). The judge ruled against the city. See also Charles Nicodemus, "City appealing brutality award," Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 1997 and Conroy, "The shocking truth," Chicago Reader.

14 The Police Board issued its decision in February 1993; in December 1995, the officers' court appeals were exhausted and the punishments were upheld. Burge was dismissed for participating in and not stopping the abuse of Wilson, and the detectives were suspended for failing to stop or report the abuse. All three were found guilty of failing to obtain medical attention for Wilson. Supt. Matt Rodriguez reportedly attempted to also demote the detectives, but the punishment was overturned because the police union contract allows only one punishment for an infraction. Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader, January 12, 1996.

15 Taylor, statement before Congressional Black Caucus, p. 3, and Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader.

16 Taylor, statement before the Congressional Black Caucus, p. 3.

17 No investigation was reopened in the Melvin Jones case. Jones alleged that he was electric-shocked by Burge in the presence of several other detectives, and the city of Chicago reportedly admitted in court pleadings that Jones was tortured. See Local Rule 12 N Statement of the City of Chicago in Opposition to Plaintiff Andrew Wilson's Motion for Summary Judgment against the City of Chicago, Complaint, Andrew Wilson v. City of Chicago, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, No. 86-C-2360, para. 26, May 15, 1995: "Nine days before plaintiff was abused, defendant Burge electroshocked Melvin Jones on the genitals and thigh with a device in a wooden box and threatened him with a gun, while he was an attempt to coerce a confession from him...." City's answer: "The city admits the statements contained in para. 26." See also G. Flint Taylor, "Two significant decisions in Chicago torture cases," Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Reporter, vol. 5, issue 10, July/August 1997, p. 109.

18 One of those involved in the torture incident, Sgt. Peter Dignan, was promoted to lieutenant in 1995. When questions were raised about Dignan's connection with several allegations of brutality and torture - as established in OPS reports and publicized civil cases against the city - Superintendent Rodriguez told reporters that he was not aware of allegations against Dignan when he made his promotion selections. Charles Nicodemus, "Brutality rap hits merit cop," Chicago Sun-Times, March 18, 1995.

19 Conroy, "Town without pity," Chicago Reader.

20 According to attorney G. Flint Taylor, ten such prisoners remain on death row. A press report placed the number at six. Editorial, "Probe Illinois justice," Chicago Sun-Times, July 16, 1997.

21 Andrew Fegelman, "Cop firing in torture case upheld," Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1994.

22 Perkins, "The bane of brutality," Chicago Tribune.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch