What Chicago’s Ultimate Bad Cop Taught Me About Police Reform

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Author: Natasha Korecki
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CHICAGO — It was October 2008 and I was inside the federal courthouse in Tampa, Fla., blinking back disbelief. Across the courtroom, a white-haired older man, overweight and unremarkable in a denim short-sleeved shirt, complaining of a bad knee, sat in the defendant’s chair. This was the infamous Jon Burge, a former Chicago police commander whose misdeeds, alleged in countless civil lawsuits, I had covered for years. Now the man who had once seemed untouchable was in custody.

Burge wasn’t just any old corrupt cop. His maniacal methods of torturing black men into confessing in the 1970s and '80s had been the subject of scores of complaints. Suspects described mock lynchings, electroshock, beatings and burning—all at the hands of Burge and his team of rogue underlings. He was the sadistic monster who played the starring role in the “House of Screams,” as the legendary Chicago Reader would put it.

Though he had been fired 15 years earlier, Burge had never really been held accountable for his misdeeds, shielded by a police code of silence that protected its own. Burge retired to Apollo Beach, just south of Tampa, working as a security consultant while Chicago taxpayers footed the bill for his $4,000-a-month pension. After all the millions of dollars the city had spent defending him, the pension was a final outrage.

I found myself thinking about Burge in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, as protests have raged in Chicago and across the country. So much of the public anger has been directed at the way police for decades have covered up their worst behavior and blocked efforts to reform. And I also heard people try to explain away killings of black people by police as isolated incidents, not evidence of patterns of racist behavior that had endured over decades.

But the Burge saga refutes the idea of isolated incidents. His years of violent abuse, and the cover-up inside the department that enabled it, stained the Chicago police force long after Burge was convicted and sent to prison. As a longtime reporter in Chicago, I would argue that a more or less direct line can be drawn between Burge and another high-profile case of police misconduct: the 2014 shooting of a black teenager Laquan McDonald. The same reflexive urge of officers to protect their own—even when they’ve done wrong—and a political infrastructure too jittery to take on the same police organization it relies on to defend its streets.

“Jon Burge is a symbol—just like a burning cross is a symbol, just like a swastika is a symbol— of police lawlessness fueled by racism, in Chicago and throughout the nation,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) told me. The Burge-era cover-up only hardened an internal police culture whereby cops didn’t call out the bad apples, but protected them, Rush argued, singling out the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police. “They were protecting Jon Burge then and they protect lawbreaking police officers now.

“'N-----, look around,” one of the detectives said to the handcuffed man. “Nobody’s gonna see or hear anything we do to you today.”

It was Nov. 2, 1983, when Chicago police picked up Darrell Cannon, 32, for questioning in a gang-related murder and drove him to a desolate spot on the city’s South Side.

What happened next caused Cannon to weep in the retelling, even 32 years later.

“They pulled my pants and shorts down, they took an electric cattle prod … turned it on and he stuck me on my genitals with that cattle prod,” Cannon would testify at a City Hall hearing where Burge’s victims sought reparations in 2015. “I had never in my life experienced that kind of pain.”

The detectives were part of the so-called midnight crew, a group of cops who took orders from Burge, a burly, fierce-eyed Vietnam vet who had joined the department in 1970 and risen to control the Area 2 district on the South Side, an area historically plagued with crime and gang warfare. Burge’s solve rate was celebrated within the department.

But on the street, he was feared. For years, complaints poured in: of Burge forcing arrestees to play Russian roulette, suffocating them with plastic typewriter covers, handcuffing them to a radiator and shocking them. “He tried to kill me,” one suspect would later testify in federal court. “He laughed while he was torturing me.”

Internal inquiries went nowhere. Chicago’s superintendent of police turned a blind eye to Burge’s practices, doing little to investigate reports of brutality. In 1982, he did forward a doctor’s letter describing one suspect’s unmistakably fresh wounds while in police custody— including those consistent with radiator burns—to then-state’s attorney Richard M. Daley. Daley did not investigate and the superintendent didn’t follow up. Daley was later elected mayor in 1989, serving for 22 years.

Burge wouldn’t be fired until 1993, at the age of 46, after more than 50 complaints had been filed by suspects who say they were coerced into confessing, including Cannon. Some of the coerced confessions had led to convictions that put men on death row.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney who headed the Chicago Police Board, the department’s civilian oversight body, and chaired the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, noted the significance of Burge’s expulsion from the force. “At that time, the firing of a police commander was essentially unheard of,” she said this week in an interview with POLITICO.

But unprecedented as it was, Burge had largely escaped accountability. As he continued to cash his pension checks over the years, and traveling to Las Vegas to work private security jobs, the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes was ticking away. A special prosecutors’ report issued in 2006 detailed a pattern of abuse, but pursued no charges. The statute of limitations on torture had run out.

Burge was the subject of hundreds of complaints, dozens of lawsuits, a full special prosecutor’s investigation; he was the reason four death row inmates were freed from prison and an impetus for Illinois halting its executions.

But it wasn’t until 2008 that federal prosecutors under U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald found a way to charge him for lying when he gave a false written answer in November 2003 in an ongoing federal civil lawsuit. Prosecutors put victims on the stand to describe the torture. But even then the case hit a snag: The first officer to ever crack and testify against Burge in front of a grand jury backtracked in the public trial.

“I've changed my mind about this,” he testified. “I don't think there was abuse in any way.” The prosecutor read back his own damning grand jury testimony of witnessing Burge’s tactics. They convicted Burge and the judge sentenced him to 4½ years in prison.

“I think it's important to send a message to people that this sort of thing doesn't happen in a civilized society, it doesn't happen in our law enforcement system,” Fitzgerald said after Burge’s sentencing. “It should never happen again.”

Burge got out of prison after three years. He died in 2018. His legacy lived on, and not in a good way.

Among the lessons of Burge’s legacy was that without consequences for his enablers, the pattern of police wrongdoing was simply passed down the line. Even today, with overwhelming pressure to hold police accountable, charges have come only in the face of incontrovertible video evidence.

It was a video, of course, that led to murder charge against the Minneapolis officer. The initial account of George Floyd’s death by police officials said Floyd had died of a medical condition, making no mention that an officer had pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. An initial police account in Buffalo, New York, said a protester was injured after he tripped and fell. Video evidence widely redistributed over social media showed that it was an officer who pushed the 75-year-old man to the ground, leaving him there as blood pooled around his head. The city apologized, and the officers were swiftly charged.

The tentacles of Burge’s behavior were far reaching, starting with sowing deep distrust between the black community and its police force. The city of Chicago paid at least $120 million in legal fees and settlements and it established a reparations fund to specifically compensate Burge’s victims. Gov. George Ryan, in 2003, cited allegations of coerced confessions when he took the extraordinary move of pardoning four men from death row, freeing them immediately and halting all executions in Illinois.

Yet despite all the negative consequences stemming from Burge’s misconduct, one fundamental problem inside police culture never changed: the willingness of officers to cover for each other even when they know it’s wrong.

It would come to bear in 2014 when a police shooting rocked the city. Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot to death 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, firing 16 bullets at him even as he lay on the ground. Chicago police officers falsified reports to cover up for Van Dyke, who claimed McDonald had lunged at him. They falsified their reports even though there was a dash-cam video that showed a very different and much more damning version of events. Fortunately, for the officers, City Hall fought its release until a judge ordered it to do so more than a year after the shooting.

Then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez had both the statements from the police and the contradictory video in hand, but for 13 months didn’t announce charges against Van Dyke. After a court ordered the video to be made public, Alvarez, in a move viewed with great cynicism, rushed to announce first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke. Three officers were charged with trying to cover up for Van Dyke but were acquitted. Four other officers were fired for lying about the shooting.

Unlike Daley, who held the same post decades earlier, Alvarez paid with her job after critics accused her of trying to protect police until the publicity of a video forced her hand.

Before she was elected mayor last year, Lightfoot headed the police accountability task force, charged with reviewing police practices in the wake of McDonald’s killing. “Videos really changed everything,” she said. “The reality is for far too long, the union coached their members to lie and not very well. It continues to be a problem now.”

While on the task force, Lightfoot pushed for a set city policy that would publicly release video in high-profile cases and make public initial police reports.

“I wanted officers to understand, that if they lied in those initial police reports and there was video and audiotape that contradicted their statements, that there were going to be consequences,” she said. It’s important to say there’s a process by which we and the public will be examining what you do. But we wanted to make sure that individual police officers understood that they shouldn’t go along and get along and sign their name to anything. That didn’t make any sense and wasn’t truthful. There would be real consequences if they lied.”

Still, the protect-one-another culture played out again just last week, when as many as 13 Chicago police officers were captured on camera lounging in Rush’s Chicago office, each covering for one another as they popped popcorn, napped and made coffee, when they were supposed to be out on the streets dealing with looters who tore up storefronts nearby.

Now mayor, Lightfoot called the officers’ behavior indefensible. The video from the incident was immediately made public. At a news conference on Thursday alongside Rush, an emotional Lightfoot recalled the injustices from Burge that still haunted the city.

“One of the things that continuously troubles me is thinking about Jon Burge. Jon Burge caused immeasurable harm to so many people, even if you calculated the dollars, this city has probably spent $200 million related to conduct by Jon Burge and his midnight crew,” Lightfoot said at the end of the news conference last week. “And every minute, he enjoyed his police pension. There’s nothing right about that. That’s offensive.”

Natasha Korecki is a national correspondent for POLITICO.

She previously worked as chief political writer at the Chicago Sun-Times where she wrote a reporting-based Sunday column. Before that, she covered federal courts and law enforcement during a golden age of political corruption prosecutions in Chicago. Korecki reported on the criminal trials of two consecutive governors – George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich – and created the “Blago Blog,” which drew a national following.

She is the author of Only in Chicago (Agate) based on the Blagojevich probe and trials.

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