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Justice for Jon Burge’s Victims?

BY Salim Muwakkil

In the face of such charges of police torture, it seems odd that a group representing law and order would associate with the torture ringleader.

U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald dominates the news these days for his arrest and probe of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But the aggressive prosecutor is also pursuing a case that finally may bring justice to an infamous story of nearly two decades of police abuse in which more than 100 black men were gruesomely tortured.

Last October, Fitzgerald arrested and indicted Jon Burge, a retired Chicago police commander long accused of leading a corps of torturing cops. Fitzgerald charged Burge with obstruction of justice and perjury in a three-count indictment.

At a news conference, he said Burge “broke the law when he was supposed to uphold it,” and he warned that others who lied about torture could eventually be charged.

According to several independent investigations, between 1972 and 1991, Burge and detectives under his command routinely tortured black males. A 2006 probe led by a court-appointed special prosecutor found that Burge and his men used torture techniques that included electro-shocks to the genitals, burning skin on radiators and mock suffocations with plastic bags. However, the statute of limitations prevented prosecution.

Fitzgerald’s indictment hurdles that legal barrier by charging Burge with perjury instead of actual torture. While answering questions in a 2003 lawsuit filed by one of the alleged victims, Burge denied using torture methods. The recent indictment cites those answers as evidence.

Fitzgerald’s action justifies the strategy pushed by attorneys for many of Burge’s victims, who felt frustrated by the special prosecutor’s report that detailed torture, but provided a legal sanctuary.

The charges also echo a strategy urged by five Chicago City Council members in a Sept. 20, 2007, letter to Fitzgerald. “We believe that federal prosecution of Burge and his men is possible and that the five-year federal statue of limitations would not be a bar,” they wrote. “Burge and the others could be prosecuted for perjury, for obstruction of justice and for an ongoing conspiracy to cover up their torture scheme.”

Although Fitzgerald’s action indicates progress, members of the group Black People Against Police Torture are not mollified.

“Burge is still free,” says Patricia Hill, executive director of the African American Police League.

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan freed four death row inmates after he concluded their confessions were brutally and illegally coerced. More than 25 inmates remain imprisoned because of confessions extracted in Burge’s torture chambers.

The latest wrinkle in the saga is the news that the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents thousands of officers below the rank of sergeant, voted to pay for Burge’s defense in his upcoming federal trial on perjury and obstruction of justice.

G. Flint Taylor, an attorney for the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, who has pursued the Burge case for more than two decades, calls the FOP’s action “outrageous.”

The notorious police union has long been an outspoken Burge supporter. In 1993, the group provoked controversy by attempting to enter a float honoring Burge into the South Side St. Patrick’s Day parade.

By footing Burge’s legal bills, Taylor says, the FOP “continues a sordid and racist history for … the FOP of defending police torture in the city.”

But the police group itself is also being sued for its support of Burge. One current and one former Chicago cop, both African Americans, recently filed a lawsuit against the FOP for racial discrimination. They say the union refused to pay their legal fees, while at the same time funding Burge’s defense.

In the face of such plausible charges of police torture, it may seem odd that a group representing the forces of law and order would willingly associate with the torture ringleader. But Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police apparently has another motive.

“The FOP was created in the 1960s by the South Side Irish to protect the fraternity of what was mostly Irish cops in those days,” explains Brendan Shiller, an attorney for one of the black police officers suing the group. “Although the police force has become a bit more diverse since then, there has been little change in its political power dynamics, and the FOP’s agenda reflects those persisting forces.”

Despite those complications, Fitzgerald’s aggressive indictment gives hope to many that Burge and his boys may finally face the music, even if the song is a bit out of tune. 

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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