Chicago Police Torture Probe Closes with Cases Pending

June 6, 2012

Mark Clements, an alleged victim of torture by Jon Burge, cries after the former police commander was sentence at the Dirksen Federal Building, Friday, Jan. 21, 2011, in Chicago. (AP Photo/The Chicago Sun-Times, John J. Kim)

In a scandal that’s unraveled over decades, a longtime Chicago police commander and some of his subordinates allegedly tortured more than 100 people — all of them black and some of them teenagers — into confessing to murders and other crimes in the 1970s and ’80s.

Now, after pursuing only a fraction of the cases, the commission set up to investigate the abuse victims’ complaints is set to close later this month due to budget cuts.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission was established in 2009 after reports emerged that Jon Burge, a Chicago police commander, and some of his subordinates had beaten, suffocated and in a few cases, submitted suspects to electrical shocks to force confessions.

David Thomas, the inquiry’s executive director, said Wednesday that he’d been given 48 hours notice of the loss of funding. The budget for the first year was $150,000, but it was set to rise to $235,000 this year. “I’ve heard it was a question of priorities and allocation of money,” he said. “We don’t have a big political constituency. Our clientele, so-to-speak, is in prison.”

One state senator, Dick Duffy, said on his website that he opposed funding the commission because it was wasting taxpayer money and wasn’t producing results.

“It is irresponsible to let the culture of corruption in Illinois dictate state spending,” he said in the statement. “This commission is just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of useless boards that are diverting state funds that could be used for more important things like paying down our debt and addressing our ever-growing backlog of bills.”

The office of Gov. Pat Quinn, who initially signed the commission into law, told FRONTLINE in a statement that it had proposed the full $235,000 to fund the commission this year. “We do not have the authority to restore funding to the budget, but we feel this issue needs further examination due to the important mission of the Torture Commission,” it said.

The commission only recently referred its first five cases to a trial court, which will determine whether to reopen them or take other action. There are still another 25 to 30 cases currently under investigation out of a total 110 complaints, Thomas said. The rest haven’t yet been pursued.

The torture allegations began to emerge in 1972, shortly after Burge was promoted to detective, according to a timeline from the University of Chicago’s human rights program. By 1992, city lawyers admitted [PDF] before the city police board that evidence established “an astounding pattern or plan . . . to torture certain suspects . . . into confessing to crimes or to condone such activity.”

Burge was convicted in 2010 of lying about the torture. A special prosecutor who looked into the claims found 135 cases of torture and abuse under his command, according to the timeline documentation, but failed to bring any prosecutions. In 2003, former Gov. George Ryan pardoned four men on death row who he found had confessed to crimes under torture.

Thomas said the abuse claims he has investigated allegedly happened while suspects were being interrogated in police custody. He said the cases involved several allegations of physical abuse, including that police beat detainees with a baton or a nightstick. In other cases, suspects were suffocated by a potato-chip bag or a typewriter cover pulled over their faces.

Some with preexisting injuries had keys dug into their wounds, or stitches ripped out. In rare cases, people were tortured with electrical shocks. Several were simply beaten.

Thomas said it’s not clear what will happen to the rest of the cases that inmates have filed, though he’s planning to speak with law firms who are already working pro-bono on the open cases.

“Our files are electronic, so they’ll be preserved,” he said. “But what’s going to happen after that, your guess is as good as mine.”

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