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Column Wed Nov 12 2008
Chicago attorney and victim's rights advocate Tamara Holder is the bearer of bad news, and fresh lawsuits, for embattled former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge. Holder is preparing to file new federal lawsuits against Burge, his associates (or "henchmen," as she termed them to me), the city, the Chicago Police Department, and the office of the State's Attorney of Cook County — the office occupied by one Richard M. Daley at the time Burge was allegedly torturing confessions out of Chicagoans. Burge's recent indictment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges by Northern District Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald dragged him out of his Florida retirement and put him back on display, and cops across the city squirmed to see one of their own facing a judge.
Holder, an expungement specialist who owns the domain xpunged.com, was contacted by a Latino man who claims he was held and brutally beaten by Burge and his associates in 1983, when he was 14 years old, in order to extract a confession to a murder.
"He contacted me to clear his name, because I specialize in expungements," she told me. "But his story is really just terrible."
Holder would not release the name of the man, as the lawsuit has not yet been filed, but she shared some of the details of the case. Holder alleges that her plaintiff had a co-defendant whose confession bore a statement by the State's Attorney's office clearly outlining that the document was for the purpose of a confession to a crime and that the attorney present was not the suspect's attorney. Her client's statement, however, did not feature any such disclaimer. According to Holder, the plaintiff's attorney at the time moved to have the confession suppressed on the grounds that it was coerced, but the judge refused.
As an unfiled suit, obviously all skeptical instincts should kick in. These are allegations relayed by the attorney representing the plaintiffs in a suit. The legal process will ferret out the truth, hopefully. Further, neither nor Burge nor any of his associates have been convicted of the crimes now indelibly associated with their names.
Holder appeared with Rep. Danny Davis, Jesse Jackson, and others at a Rainbow-PUSH event to highlight the ongoing Burge controversy in late October. Holder, who runs an expungement clinic through Rainbow-PUSH, expressed a desire to see not only Burge but his associates brought to justice. Rep. Davis made police abuse an issue in the 1991 mayoral election, a particularly thorny issue for Mayor Daley, who was the State's Attorney for much of the period in question, and, therefore, the prosecutor who benefitted from the extraction of confessions from murder suspects. Then-mayoral candidate Daley obviously greatly benefitted from a "law-and-order" image at a time, the late 1980s, when the city was mired in the crack wars and Chicago approached 1,000 homicides a year. That systematic abuse may have taken place, and convictions followed, is an understandable outrage in Chicago's minority, low-income communities. It is a twofold outrage: first that basic human rights could be so baldly violated, and second that the search for the actual perpetrators took a back seat to "juking the stats."
Ms. Holder's client's suit and its details could be explosive for the city and our police department, at a time when morale is rumored to be at its lowest point in years. The torture and forced confession of a minor is a human rights violation that simply cannot be shrugged off. Meanwhile, Chicago's homicide rate is still at twice that of New York City and nearly twice that of Los Angeles, and has seen a steep increase as the economy has declined. For cops on the beat, there is a dangerous tipping point between public confidence in the law and an assumption that the law is corrupt. When that tipping point is reached is when the tenuous peace of the streets turns into chaos. That is when cops start dying.
Jon Burge's alleged treatment of Chicagoans for nearly 20 years as a detective in Area 2 is a horrific story. Phony tough guys who abuse their authority on defenseless people are parasites on a law-and-order society. And unfortunately, the story of torture under Burge has been reasonably well established; the report by Special Prosecutor Ed Egan, released in 2006, found improprieties that could not be prosecuted due to the applicable statutes of limitations. In 2005, after years of brilliant reporting on the issue, the Chicago Reader ran a story linking Burge's alleged torture techniques to interrogation methods used in Vietnam. Burge has maintained his innocence.
In our outrage at the treatment of suspects in police custody, it is easy for a "people against the police" framework to develop. This is not the only way to think about it. The fact of torture is, of course, abhorrent, but Burge's alleged conduct should be considered in a different light. Torture of suspects in police custody — and any undue treatment of suspects in police custody — demeans our police officers, too. It corrupts good police work, it provides cover or comfort to legitimate criminals, and it undermines public confidence in working men and women who put their lives on the line every single day to keep the peace in our communities. Good cops doing hard work are kneecapped by stories like these, and a tendency to heap unction on lowlifes and career criminals emerges, making life on the street even harder for cops. This is not just a "few bad apples" argument, but something deeper. Top-heavy political control of the police force leads to a lack of transparency and a fiendish need for "better numbers."
Many CPD officers have a reflexive defensiveness when it comes to issues like this. They argue that the fear of lawsuits and a lack of backup from political leadership makes cops unwilling to do the rough police work necessary to get information from the streets and keep run-of-the-mill hoods in line. And seeing the media and the public through them swoon in defense of roughed-up hoods can be extremely isolating for the boys and girls in blue who day in and day out deal with the worst in human nature.
Rank-and-file cops themselves realize that that atmosphere makes good police work difficult, or impossible. As we find with most public service, a combination of transparency and peer control of policy, rather than increased politicization through increased bureaucracy, would do more to "clean up" the force than anything else. Instead, accusations of "police torture" pinions rank-and-file cops into "defending" a torturer, and pointing out that, hey, some of these guys may have been guilty anyway (and, indeed, Patrick Fitzgerald has reopened a case against Madison Hobley, who won a lawsuit against Burge and the city), and very few of them were angels. None of this, of course, justifies robbing any U.S. citizen of his/her Constitutional rights.
As a public that relies on the police for our own peace of mind and body, we should never forget that it is almost always political leadership and a politicized bureaucracy, not rank-and-file cops, who must be the focus of our rage when the rule of law breaks down and scandals like this become apparent.
The ongoing Burge case is complicated psychologically, if not ethically. No Burge apologist — including cops — can reasonably claim to be for "law-and-order." If the allegations against Burge and his unit in Area 2 are true, they are criminals themselves and, therefore, cannot by definition be on the side of law. By the same token, nobody indicting the CPD or "cops" in general can claim to be on the side of "the victims," because only the police can fairly deliver justice for victims, and undermining confidence in the police force weakens the social order. We have to find a way to be advocates for rank-and-file cops while unreservedly condemning the types of inhumane activities Burge has been accused of.
While Burge's most immediate victims would be the men he may have tortured, his fellow officers are not far behind.