Ignorance is Bliss: 20 Years and Running for Mayor Daley | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Ignorance is Bliss: 20 Years and Running for Mayor Daley

When the torture allegations first emerged one of the key figures on the side of justice was Richard M. Daley. Commentator Ron Litke has these thoughts about how the Mayor's actions exemplify his managerial style.

For 20 years, plaintiffs' lawyers have been after Mayor Richard Daley to learn why, when he was Cook County State's Attorney -- the chief prosecutor -- he didn't act decisively against Police Commander Jon Burge, and his crew of vicious torturers on the South Side.

It's not unfair to say that his nine-year term as State's Attorney is not considered to be among Daley's professional highlights.

He didn't do much to distinguish himself in the job, besides hiring Rod Blagojevich as a dashing young traffic court prosecutor.

For his part, the mayor has conveniently forgotten most of the era.

No matter who tries, nobody can catch Daley. If he's not above the law, then he abides in a space where law does not come into play.

Today, Jon Burge is finally going to trial, but only for perjury for lying about torturing prisoners. The mayor has called it, what is it – “the Burge era, or torture” – a shameful episode” in the city's history, without ever acknowledging his pivotal role in how it all happened.

Fortunately, it's not on his docket anymore. Turns out, he hardly knew there was a problem. Sound familiar? Just two weeks ago the City Council approved, and the mayor signed off, on $16.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit covering up to 12,000 people abused by the police while in custody.

My colleagues at WBEZ have passed along a sworn statement from questions by court-appointed special prosecutors about Daley's awareness of police torture, while he was State's Attorney, specifically about Jon Burge. The statement, taken four years ago but absolutely relevant today, details how he steered the big-city public law office through an emotionally turbulent crisis. 

Law & Order theme

No, no – not that. That's been cancelled. I'm talking about the real thing.

Perry Mason theme

In a 48-page court reporter's document of the special prosecutors' questions, the mayor didn't have an epiphany. Not even close. He rarely answered in more than one sentence.

Even with the aid of his corporation counsel, he answered the first question “I don't recall” and gave that answer more than 20 more times, among 80-some. But he also threw in a couple of “no comments” and a quartet of “I can't speculate” responses. His other answers reveal his unique style of crisis management.

For instance, as the State's Attorney at a time Chicago is being rocked by the shooting deaths of two officers, Daley says “I don't recall” to whether he remembers being informed that the “shooter had been picked up.”

About his rules for communication within the office about such a “heater” case, Daley responds in part: “As state's attorney, I would never interfere with a trial lawyer who had the primary responsibility in representing the people of Illinois in regards to any case.”

And another example: in February 1982, then-Police Superintendent Richard Brezeczek sent Daley a letter, along with a letter from a prison doctor, discussing what appeared to be heinous torture. The letters detailed burns and electric shocks, among 15 documented injuries, of Andrew Wilson. Wilson was arrested with his brother for killing two police officers. How did Daley react to its potentially catastrophic implications?

“If the letter came to me,” Daley said, “it would automatically go to the first deputy and others, and I would look at it, and then appropriately send it to the appropriate parties in the State's Attorneys office, as well as each police department dealing with any conduct of police officers; and it would fall to the responsibility within each police department to look at misconduct of any police officer, first and foremost.”

I'd like to see Elena Kagan compose an answer anywhere near that evasive, at her confirmation hearings.

And for all the attorneys who wanted to be in the Mayor's office asking the questions, the court-appointed special prosecutors were as obsequious as any mayoral sycophant. The follow-up question on the letter hit hard: “Do you actually remember receiving this in the mail?”

And here, Corporation Counsel Mara Georges really earned her pay: Daley begins, “I would have to receive it…so I would have to say…” And Georges jumps in and says to the mayor, “Just if you remember.” And then the mayor offers, “I don't remember today.”

And that's how Richard M. Daley guided the State's Attorney's office in tough times. It was the crucible to develop the resolute managerial imperative hands-on, responsibility-off style that he has imposed on the city at large ever since. And until he retires, it seems no one can do anything about it.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.