A Legacy of Torture in Chicago

Police officers at the scene of a shooting on the North Side of Chicago
Carlos Javier Ortiz
Police officers at the scene of a shooting on the North Side of Chicago, 2009

Chicago has a police torture problem. The exact size of this problem is not known and perhaps never will be. What is known for sure is that between 1972 and 1991 at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city’s predominantly black South Side. Depending on the day and the officers involved, the victims were beaten, shackled to steaming hot radiators, electrocuted, and raped with sex toys. They were tortured into confessing, and sometimes tortured more afterward; these confessions were used to send them to prison, and in some cases to death row. The horrors of Area 2 have received the lion’s share of attention from activists, lawyers, and especially journalists. But few would argue that Area 2 is the whole story: there are also serious and credible allegations of torture on the city’s southwest side, at what used to be called Area 3, and more recently at Homan Square, an off-the-books interrogation site in the North Lawndale neighborhood. And over time, torture seeps into a community’s expectations, becoming one of the many silent threats accompanying every traffic stop. During the recent wave of protests set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it was obvious that, for many in Chicago, the city’s legacy of police torture was a palpable presence, informing the protesters’ anger—but also their anxiety about the fate of their arrested comrades.

In Chicago and beyond, the city’s history of police torture is indelibly associated with a single name: Jon Burge. Burge was a Chicago police officer who served at Area 2 from 1971 to 1988 and at Area 3 from 1988 to 1991, climbing the ranks from detective to commander. Before joining the force, Burge had served in Vietnam, which may have been where he learned about electroshock torture. At Areas 2 and 3, he was often personally involved in torture sessions, and as commander had a central part in encouraging torture, especially among an “A-Team” of officers who shared his sense that brutal violence was a necessary tool for the policing of black Chicago. Thanks to his leadership in both precincts, Burge has often been the figure at the center of victims’ legal complaints. He is the singular villain of the story as it tends to get told in the media, and almost equally so in the version historically preferred by the Chicago law enforcement establishment (when they are not absolutely denying that torture ever took place). After all, while one thoroughly rotten apple in a city is bad enough, it’s nothing compared to a barrelful: the entire legal system of a city ignoring the torture of black suspects…

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