Cash-strapped Chicago doled out $5.5 million in reparations on Monday to 57 victims of the Jon Burge police torture era after a painstaking claims process that will do nothing to heal the wounds of more recent police shootings.
When the City Council agreed last spring to make Chicago the nation’s first major city to pay reparations, there were high hopes that the $100,000 checks to individual torture victims would restore public trust between citizens and police in the African-American community so undermined by the convicted former Area 2 commander and his cohorts.
But damage done by the police dashcam video that showed white police Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 shots into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was black, has added a new and equally ugly chapter in the history of the Chicago Police Department.
So has the more recent police shooting of 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and the accidental shooting of LeGrier’s neighbor, 55-year-old Bettie Jones.
Still, Mayor Rahm Emanuel argued Monday that, before righting more recent wrongs in a Chicago Police Department now the focus of a sweeping federal civil rights investigation, the city must heal wounds inflicted decades ago.
All but five or six of the alleged torture victims got the full $100,000 share. The rest had received previous settlements and had those amounts deducted from their pro-rata share.
The checks are in the mail 44 years after the “first known instance” of torture by Burge and his midnight crew.
“Reparations is not a necessity. But it is a moral compunction and a moral reckoning to right a wrong. There is no statute of limitations on that,” Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Under siege for his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, Emanuel was quick to point out that he was “not the mayor” during Burge’s reign of terror.
“To the context that we’re in now, it says that the city is willing to hold itself accountable and be responsible in fixing something and having the determination,” he said.
“This could have been done by anybody over thirty years. It could have been done at the time. It could have been done in the ’90s. It could have been done in the first decade of the 21st Century. In three years, we settled up legally, reparations and a verbal apology what hadn’t been done in three decades. It does indicate that I [am] willing to be accountable and willing to be held responsible for the city and have the determination, the desire and the diligence to get it done.”
Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton added, “To a lot of members of the African-American community, my sense is this is really a meaningful thing. Now, is this going to make up for Laquan McDonald? No. It’s not. But, in terms of resolving some of those wrongs and particularly egregious ones, yeah. I think it does.”
Plaintiffs’ attorneys Flint Taylor and Joey Mogul said the “holistic model” pioneered by Chicago “should serve as a blueprint for how cities around the country — from Ferguson to Baltimore — can respond to systemic racist police brutality.”
But Taylor argued that multimillion-dollar settlements have not halted the “long reign of police abuse.”
“Reparations, although an historic accomplishment that recognizes that racist violence by the police is not a recent phenomenon, but rather spans many decades, can not heal the city without fundamental, systemic changes within the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County State’s attorney’s office and the Cook County criminal justice system,” he said.
One week after tensions between citizens and police boiled over last spring on the streets of Baltimore, the Chicago City Council agreed to provide financial compensation to Burge torture victims.
The $5.5 million authorized was a drop in the bucket 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 was something Chicago was not compelled to do made it a cathartic exercise.
The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Organization was given 45 days to provide the city with a list of individuals eligible for and interested in cash settlements. A notice was posted for 30 days on the city’s website.
According to Patton, the monthslong claims process started with 48 claims long identified by attorneys representing Burge torture victims. The Emanuel administration signed off on 42 of those claims and forwarded the six remaining cases to an arbitrator.
Retired U.S. District Court Judge David Coar, who donated his time, ruled in favor of five of those six plaintiffs and found the sixth claim “not credible.”
Fifty additional torture victim came forward in response to notices placed on the Law Department’s website. Those cases were referred to Daniel Coyne, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kent School of Law.
After researching those 50 claims, Coyne and his law students disallowed 39, either because victims had never before made torture claims, had identified the wrong officers or claimed to have been abused after Burge had already been fired from the Chicago Police Department.
Of the 11 claims that remained from that group, seven were approved by the city, four went to arbitration and one withdrew before the arbitrator ruled. All three won their decisions.
Now that the reparation checks are in the mail, Patton said the city plans to turn its attention to the other forms of compensation promised to Burge torture victims, including job training, free City Colleges tuition, psychological, family and substance abuse counseling.
The city also has promised to create a “permanent memorial” to them to educate future generations of Chicagoans. Already, “curricula about the Burge case and its legacy” is being taught in eighth- 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 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 he got time off for good behavior. He was recently released from a halfway house near his home in the Tampa area.
Last spring, Burge 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 co-horts stuck on his genitals. Likening Burge and his “midnight crew” to the Ku Klux Klan, Cannon claimed he was “tortured by a New Wave Klan” that “wore badges, instead of sheets.”
On Monday, Cannon said, “Reparations is only the first step to healing the City. We still have a long way to go. . . . No one should forget that Burge torture took place with the knowledge and complicity of Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and States Attorney [Richard] Devine.”