When cops torture, an apology isn't enough

By News | Last updated: Sep 23, 2013 - 9:58:55 AM

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Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge Photo:
Chicago media quickly and widely reported Mayor Rahm Emmanuel saying “sorry” to the victims of a police torture ring that engaged in a reign of terror for 2 decades. Led by Commander Jon Burge, who is now in prison under a short sentence for perjury and lying about the torture, the unit forced Black men to confess to crimes that they did not commit, wrecking lives, destroying families and leaving the real robbers, rapers and killers on the streets.

The shameful episode was expensive costing the city between $85 million and $100 million over the years as victims, and refusing-to-quit lawyers like Stan Willis and People’s Law Office attorney Flint Taylor fought in the courts and advocates like activist Wallace “Gator” Bradley and Nation of Islam Prison Reform Minister Abdullah Muhammad supported street organizing, and fighting from the grassroots level and from inside penitentiaries.

The victims of the Burge torture unit endured having guns thrust down their throats, having electro-shocks applied to their genitals, were handcuffed to hot radiators, suffocated with plastic covers from typewriters and suffered other hellish doings under color of law.

Mayor Emanuel’s Sept. 11 apology came as the financially-strapped city coughed up another $12.3 million to two men who said city cops tortured them. Ronald Kitchen and Marvin Reeves spent just over 2 decades in prison, but were exonerated and let out four years ago. They were unjustly convicted of killing women and children in 1988.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Mayor Emanuel described the scandal that happened before he took office as a dark chapter” in city history and a stain on its reputation. “I am sorry this happened,” said Mayor Emanuel. He followed the apology with a declaration that the city should move on.

According to media reports, Atty. Taylor was “gratified” by the mayor’s words, but called for a $20 million fund that would help victims of torture try to reclaim their lives. The fund would pay victims, offer health care and provide job training to torture victims. And, Atty. Taylor told reporters, it equals the amount of money the city spent defending now-retired Commander Burge, who is White, and others accused of torture.

Rev. Ira Acree, the co-chairman of the board of The Leaders Network, a social-justice organization made up of clergy from approximately 30 churches, agreed with Atty. Taylor that a fund should be set up. The mayor gets credit for making the apology, but an apology alone is “too short,” said Rev. Acree.

One reason is Chicago police problems don’t just exist yesterday, they persist today: Rev. Acree’s group held a Sept. 6 press conference calling for a “role in the selection of  a director of the Independent Police Review Authority.”

The request didn’t spring from the Burge terror, but an $8.5 million jury award to the family of Aaron Harrison, a young Black man killed by Chicago police 6 years ago. A jury in a wrongful death suit didn’t agree with an authority ruling and police claim that the 18-year-old was shot after raising a weapon at officers. Five witnesses testified that young Harrison did not have a gun and did not point one at an officer, the ministers said.

The mainly West Side church leaders say the Independent Police Review Authority isn’t independent of the police department and is another reason the community has little faith that police misconduct will be addressed.

According to Rev. Acree, the Independent Police Review Authority has a worse record for holding officers accountable than the Office of Professional Standards, which it replaced as part of so-called reforms.

Only about 1 percent of cases in which officers are accused are upheld, said Rev. Acree.

His group wants a public hearing before the city names the new director of the Independent Police Review Authority. “That position is vacant and community leaders believe more community involvement in that selection would help to avoid costly litigation from families seeking justice for police misconduct and to improve relations between police and the community,” said the group in a statement.

And with schools shutdown, teachers laid off, community mental health centers shuttered and few youth jobs and recreation programs, the millions spent defending the city against charges of torture matter and they matter a lot.

“Chicagoans should take it personally,” said Rev. Acree, of the tax dollars sucked up by legal fees and settlements. If we can clean our house up and not just reconcile the past but prepare for the future, those resources can make a difference in people’s lives, he said.

We agree. And while love may mean never having to say you are sorry, an apology from the top political leader of a major city isn’t worth much, if good words aren’t followed by serious reforms and good public policy.