It’s been 24 years since former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge was fired by the city for overseeing a “midnight crew” that systematically tortured African-American suspects.
Still, beleaguered Chicago and Cook County taxpayers are paying the price for the Burge era — to the tune of $111 million and counting in settlements, judgments reparations and legal fees.
On Tuesday, the City Council’s Finance Committee reluctantly added $4 million to the mountain of Burge-era debt that’s certain to get even higher.
That money goes to Shawn Whirl, who spent 24 years in prison after being tortured into confessing to the 1990 murder of a cabdriver by an Area 2 detective who had worked under Burge.
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“We are still paying the dues and repercussions of that approach to policing,” said Ald. John Arena (45th).
“What’s concerning to me is that [these same] officers have been involved in other settlements related to the Burge era totaling up to $30 million collectively.”
He added, “The fact that somebody had to spend 24 years in jail — that’s incredibly concerning to me. Are there others? We have to make sure that, going forward, that’s not the price that people are paying for being a citizen of this city and caught up in false policing.”
First Deputy Corporation Counsel Jenny Notz acknowledged that the parade of pay-outs stemming from Burge-era torture has not ended. Not by a long-shot.
“We have two [more] cases pending … in which there are allegations against Jon Burge,” Notz said.
“We have 25 wrongful conviction cases. Not all of them involve Burge or officers who served under him.”
South Side Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) was “troubled” to hear that assessment.
“This seems like it’s never going to end,” she said.
“That’s a lot of taxpayer money to be responsible for paying [to] people who have been tortured or mishandled by the Police Department. And that’s not to mention other cases that might be lurking that we don’t know about.”
Burge, the former Area 2 commander, was finally brought to justice in 2011. Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for lying under oath in civil lawsuits connected to the torture, but he got time off for good behavior. He was released from a halfway house near his home in the Tampa area in October 2014 and from home confinement a few months later.
Retiring Corporation Counsel Steve Patton has blamed the steady stream of Burge-era settlements on “serious, ugly exposures” inherited from and frozen by former Mayor Richard M. Daley. Daley was mayor when Burge was fired, but state’s attorney during much of the alleged torture.
Patton set out to clear the decks of those cases. He also painstakingly negotiated a deal that awarded $5.5 million in reparations to victims tortured by Burge and his co-horts.
On Tuesday, Dowell pointed the finger at Daley for the still-mounting legal tab.
“We should have put more energy into settling these cases. It seems like we’re still dealing with this decades even after the incident has occurred,” Dowell said.
Cabdriver Billy Williams was a father of three who was shot in the head in his cab in the Far South Side’s Pullman neighborhood.
Whirl was 20 when he was arrested for the murder. He had been a passenger in Williams’ cab on the day of the murder. His fingerprint was found on the outside of the taxi.
Whirl claims he was taken to Area 2 headquarters, handcuffed to a wall and tortured by Detective John Pienta, who had worked under Burge. He said he was slapped in the face repeatedly and that Pienta dug a key into a leg wound he had before the torture began. He also claims the detective put a bag over his head to muffle his screams.
The alleged torture continued, even after Whirl confessed — offering details being fed to him by the detective.
Whirl maintained his innocence even after pleading guilty to murder and armed robbery to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
The Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission breathed new life into Whirl’s torture claims after his initial appeals were denied.
In 2015, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned Whirl’s conviction.
The appeals court ruled that Pienta had been involved in a “pattern of torture” and concluded that the case against Whirl was “non-existent” without the coerced confession.
A special prosecutor subsequently opted not to re-try the case. Whirl was released in October 2015 after serving more than 24 years in state prison.
The $4 million settlement was one of two approved by the Finance Committee involving alleged police misconduct.
The other settlement — for $750,000 — goes to the family of a 25-year-old man who was shot to death in 2010 by police after a foot chase.
Police claimed Willie Miller pointed a gun at them during the chase, and they shot back in self defense.
Witnesses maintained that Miller had no gun. A gun found 15 feet away did not have Miller’s fingerprints.
Aldermen also signed off on a $495,000 settlement to a former watchman for the Department of Fleet and Facilities Management.
George Ferguson accused the city of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Ferguson, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, slipped and fell at work in 2012 and said he remained on the ground for 30 minutes before getting medical assistance. He was not allowed to return to work.