City Council approves $5.5 million in reparations for Burge torture victims

SHARE City Council approves $5.5 million in reparations for Burge torture victims

If there is such a thing as closure for torture victims, it happened Wednesday for those allegedly tortured by convicted former Area 2 Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his cohorts.

To the cheers of the victims, their attorneys and City Council allies, Chicago became the nation’s first major city to dole out reparations — $5.5 million, to be exact — to police torture victims.

To say it was a cathartic exercise would be an understatement. It’s the boldest step the city has taken to remove what Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called “this stain” on the Chicago Police Department.

Prior to the unanimous vote, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) read the names of a few of the Burge torture victims, several of who were in the City Council chambers for Wednesday’s vote.

When Moreno finished, a cheer went up from the glass-enclosed balcony as aldermen stood to applaud.

Emanuel then put it all in perspective.

“This is another step but an essential step in righting a wrong, removing a stain on the reputation of this great city,” the mayor said.

“Chicago finally will confront its past and come to terms with it and recognize when something wrong was done and be able to be strong enough to say something was wrong.”

The mayor then directly addressed the torture victims and their families.

“I want to thank you for your persistence. I want to thank you for never giving in and never giving up and allowing the city to join you on that journey to come face-to-face with the past and be honest enough and strong enough to say when we are wrong and try to make right what we’ve done wrong. This stain cannot be removed from the history of our city. But it can be used as a lesson of what not to do and the responsibility that all of us have.”

<small><strong>The Chicago City Council gives the survivors of police torture a standing ovation at Wednesday’s council meeting. | Brian Jackson/For The SunTimes</strong></small>

The Chicago City Council gives the survivors of police torture a standing ovation at Wednesday’s council meeting. | Brian Jackson/For The SunTimes

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, applauded Emanuel for having the “political courage to stand up and do the right thing in the face of opposition.” Implied, but not stated, was the fact that former Mayor and State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley had neither apologized nor entertained the possibility of reparations.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) then directly confronted the elephant in the room. He talked about the fact that, “for too long,” City Hall had “turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the atrocities that occurred on their watch.”

The $5.5 million is a drop in the bucket, when compared to the $100 million that Chicago taxpayers have already shelled out to settle Burge-era cases and pay associated legal expenses.

But the word “reparations” and the fact that it’s something the city did not have to do but did because, as Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton put it, it’s the “right thing to do,” that makes it so important.

If Emanuel has any hope of revitalizing community policing and getting the public cooperation police need to solve crimes, the first order of business is to restore public trust between citizens and police in the black community so undermined by the Burge torture era.

Wednesday’s historic vote is a giant step forward toward accomplishing that goal.

That’s no small feat at a time when the bond between citizens and police across the nation has been strained by the disparate treatment of African-Americans and just one week after tensions boiled over on the streets of Baltimore.

“This is a very historic event that’s happening here in the city that will have impact across the country and across the world,” plaintiffs’ attorney Flint Taylor said earlier this week.

“I don’t think this or anything else can prevent by itself . . . what happened in Baltimore. But it is a beacon to people in this city and across the country that there is a different way to deal with police violence and police brutality.”

The reparations fund was negotiated with plaintiffs’ attorneys in lieu of a stalled ordinance backed by 26 aldermen that called for the city put $20 million behind Emanuel’s public apology.

The new agreement includes a $100,000 cap on individual awards. If the $5.5 million fund is insufficient to pay all claims, it will be divided evenly among the victims.

It defines victims as “any individual with a credible claim of torture or physical abuse by Jon Burge or one of the officers under his command at Area 2 or 3 between May 1, 1972 and Nov. 30, 1991.”

Criteria to be considered in determining whether a claim is credible include: “when and under what circumstances the claim of torture or physical abuse was first made or reported to someone; the consistency of the claim over time; and any credible affirmative proof rebutting the claim” other than denials by Burge and cohorts, who have repeatedly invoked their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid being questioned.

“Using these criteria, if an individual is deemed to have a credible claim, he or she shall be entitled to financial reparations. . . . The nature and severity of the torture or physical abuse and the claimant’s guilt or innocence of the underlying crime shall not be considered when determining either eligibility for or the amount of financial reparations,” the ordinance states.

The mayor’s plan gives the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Organization that was a prime mover behind reparations 45 days after City Council passage to provide the city with a list of individuals eligible for and interested in cash settlements. A notice will be posted for 30 days on the city’s website.

The city has pegged the number of potential recipients at 55. Plaintiffs’ attorneys have said it would be as high as 80.

After receiving that list, the city will have 45 days to sign off on the names or dispute them. If there is no dispute, the claims will be paid with victims waiving their rights to future claims against the city.

If there is a disagreement, an “independent third-party arbitrator” chosen by both sides will resolve the dispute.

The deal includes more than money to close the books on the Burge era.

Burge torture victims, their immediate family members and grandchildren will receive other forms of compensation, including job training, free City Colleges tuition, psychological, family and substance abuse counseling.

The City Council will also issue a formal apology to Burge torture victims while the city creates a “permanent memorial” to them to educate future generations of Chicagoans. The ongoing education will include incorporating “curricula about the Burge case and its legacy” into 8th- and 10th-grade history classes at all Chicago Public Schools.

For decades, Burge was accused of overseeing a “midnight crew” that systematically tortured African-American suspects. The 66-year-old former Area 2 commander was finally brought to justice in 2011 when he was convicted of perjury for lying in civil lawsuits connected to that torture.

Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for lying under oath about police torture, but got time off for good behavior. He was recently released from a halfway house near his home in the Tampa area.

At a City Council hearing last month, torture victim Darrell Cannon was reduced to tears as he described the game of Russian Roulette played with him and the electric cattle prod that Burge and his cohorts stuck on his genitals.

Likening Burge and his “midnight crew” to the Ku Klux Klan, Cannon said, “I was tortured by the New Wave Klan. The New Wave Klan wore badges, instead of sheets.”

He added, “I cry — not because I hurt. I cry because I’m mad. I’m still mad today because of what happened to me and I’ll stay mad. Can’t no one tell me to forgive, forget or anything else because you do not expect for people who have a badge to treat you in that manner.”

But thanks to the reparations ordinance, Cannon’s testimony did not end in tears. It ended in laughter.

“Today is a historic day. It’s a historic day because we are about to do something that’s never been done in any other city in the United States. . . . No longer will it be swept under the rug Jon Burge & Co.,” Cannon said.

“I’ll tell you what I intend to do whenever you give me a little piece of money. I’m gonna buy me a motorcycle and I’m gonna ride around City Hall one time. I’m gonna do a lap and say, `Hey. Thank you for finally stepping up and doing the right thing.’ For too long now, this has been an ugly situation in our history.”

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