Chicago’s city council just took a major step in closing a dark and costly police saga that has “stained the city’s reputation,” in the words of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The plan, which passed unanimously on Wednesday, will set up a $5.5 million compensation fund for victims of a rogue torture program run by the city police force from the early 1970s through the early 1990s.
During that time period, police are believed to have used torture to illegal coerce confessions out of as many as 120 victims. Many of those victims, who are mostly black men, have already settled with the city and had their charges dropped, some after spending over 20 years in prison stemming from those confessions.
By the time the last settlements are paid out, the program will have cost the Chicago taxpayers an estimated $100 million, according to the Chicago Tribune.
In addition to the dollars that will be made available to victims, the plan, brought forth by Mayor Emanuel, also provides funding for a "permanent memorial" for torture victims to be built in the city. And it ensures that the era will not be forgotten by requiring that all Chicago public schools teach the shameful program and its legacy in 8th and 10th grade history classes.
"This is another step, but an essential step, in righting a wrong — removing a stain," Mayor Emanuel said of the passing of his plan. "Chicago has finally confronted its past and come to terms with it."
The program is believed to have started in 1973, with the alleged torture of Anthony Holmes, then a leader of the Black Gangster Disciples gang. Former Cmdr. Jon Burge arrested Holmes at his home and took him to a South Side police station for questioning in a murder case. While in custody, Burge and officers under his command hooked Holmes up to an electrical box, used a plastic bag to suffocate him, and shocked him all over his body until he confessed to the murder, Holmes testified at a trial against Burge in 2010. The confession was the only evidence used against him in that murder case.
"It feel like a thousand needles going through my body," Holmes said at the time. "It feel like something just burning me from the inside, and I shook, I gritted, I hollered, then I passed out."
Others after him claimed that police shocked their genitals with cattle prods, held mock executions, and beat them with phone books, among other things.
Holmes' allegations of torture have not been settled in the courts, since the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit had already expired by the time he was released from prison in 1983. Others could still potentially file suit, but have not done so. These many unaddressed cases are what Wednesday’s legislation aims to address.
The city believes there are 55 of these cases remaining, which explains why it included a payment cap at $100,000 per person, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Plaintiffs' attorneys said they believe there might be as many as 80 remaining victims, in which case the money will be equally distributed among all victims.
Burge, the commander who ran program, never faced criminal charges for crimes directly stemming from the violence. But in 2010 he was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury, after lying in a civil lawsuit about the torture program. He served four and a half years in prison, but he was released in 2014.
Today, he continues to receive a police pension of over $4,000 a month.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.