Former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge died this week, but his legacy of torturing more than 100 black men will live on and continue to haunt the city for many years to come.
Decades later, the torture remains a sore point in efforts to repair the long-fractured relationship between police and the city’s black communities. It continues to be a spark for reform efforts questioning the city’s system of police accountability. And despite its tremendous toll of financial and human costs, the legacy of torture could grow as some torture victims still remain behind bars.
From 1972 to 1991, Burge and officers under his command tortured black suspects at police stations on the South and West sides. The torture included electric shocks, using 7-Up to waterboard, and suffocation with typewriter bags.
“They played Russian Roulette with me with a shotgun, tried to hang me while my handcuffs were behind my back, and used the electric cattle prods to shock me on my genitals, testicles, everything,” Darrell Cannon, one of Burge’s torture victims, said at a roundtable years ago describing the torture he suffered in 1983.
Men like Cannon were tortured into making false confessions and sent to prison, including several to death row. Cannon and some others were released after spending years — even decades — in prison after the torture came to light.
Attorney Standish Willis, founder of Black People Against Police Torture, still represents imprisoned men who were brutalized by Burge and his subordinates.
“Police didn’t have a great reputation before we learned about Jon Burge,” Willis said. “But when we learned about Jon Burge and learned that there were other police that worked with him and was under his command, nobody did anything nobody came forward.”
For the men released, nagging questions of what should justice look like persisted. Some received financial settlements as they were exonerated. But a bigger project was underfoot: reparations.
Activists took their cause to City Hall and even the United Nations.
The result was a 2015 reparations package passed by the Chicago City Council, legislation unlike anything ever seen in the United States.
It provided $5.5 million to be split among survivors, free city college tuition to survivors and their families, and a new counseling center for them. The package also calls for a public memorial, that’s yet to be built, and for the Burge saga to be taught to all eighth- and 10th-graders in Chicago Public Schools.
For torture survivors and their families, Burge’s death will surely spur a range of emotions, but not closure, said Rodney Walker, who runs the Chicago Torture Justice Center that handles the counseling.”Nor does it cancel out the institutionalized racism experienced by survivors and their family members and the community.”
Born in 1947, Burge grew up in a white ethnic enclave in the South Deering community. He joined the Chicago Police Department after serving in Vietnam. The police board fired him in 1993, but he got to keep his pension.
Burge later spent 4 1/2 years in prison — not for the torture but for lying about it under oath.
At least $131 million in taxpayer dollars has been spent defending Burge and paying for his wrongdoing. He died at age 70 in Florida where he’d been living.
Police accountability is still a major issue in Chicago today. Burge’s death comes during the week white Police Officer Jason Van Dyke stands trial for shooting and killing black teenager Laquan McDonald. Police dash cam footage of the shooting made headlines around the world and sparked intense protests across the city.
Walker said the trial and Burge’s death are triggers for torture survivors and other victims of police violence and raises questions about how to help them cope and move forward. “How do we help build resiliency in the community?” Walker asked. “How do we help individual survivors tell their stories, because for so many years, no one believed them. And then, how do we look at changing some of our public policies?”
For many, a start is ensuring Burge’s brutality is never forgotten so it won’t happen again.
Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.