Disgraced police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who recently died in Florida, cast a long shadow of fear and distrust over the city of Chicago.
But his legacy, ironically — because his behavior was brought to light — is a sweeping police reform movement that continues to this day.
The most lasting reforms, in fact, might be just beginning, though that’s of little solace to Burge’s victims.
Burge’s practice of torture and deceit over many years forced our city to peel back the police veneer of “serve and protect” to confront racism, abuse of authority and a politicized criminal justice system.
There’s no small symbolism in the fact that Burge died just as the case of Jason Van Dyke, the police officer accused of murdering Laquan McDonald, unfolds in a Cook County courtroom. Much of the public anger that swirls around that trial — and the passionate demands for justice — can be traced straight back to Burge’s torture room in the basement of a Chicago police station.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Burge and his “midnight crew” of South Side detectives subjected African-American men to electric shocks to the genitals, smothering with plastic bags and beatings with phone books to elicit confessions. In doing so, once the scandal got out, they shattered much of the belief among African-Americans in Chicago that a black man could get a fair shake from the cops and courts.
To this day, in part because of Burge’s misdeeds, tens of thousands of men and women who live in Chicago’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, where police protection is most needed, view the men and women in blue with suspicion. We can’t blame them, but it makes the hard job of policing even harder for the cops who do police work right.
To this day, as well, we’re digging out of the very specific damage done by Burge. Lawyers continue to sort through the cases of hundreds of men who are in prison because, they claim, Burge and his crew tortured them into making false confessions. Some such men already have been freed, their lives destroyed by decades in prison, while others await their day in court.
There has been a cost to the taxpayers, too: Some $100 million — and counting — in legal fees and reparations.
Burge himself paid a price. Though he never was charged with torturing anyone, he was convicted of perjury on 2010 for “lying in a deposition in a civil case about torture and abuse of suspects by Chicago Police Department officers,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. He was sentenced to four-and-half years in prison.
Our city has paid a high price for Burge’s actions. But, thankfully, it has learned some lessons.
The legacy of Jon Burge, fortunately, is the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which spends its days sifting through the evidence in cases in which defendants say they were tortured by the police. After Burge, nobody could pretend such things don’t happen.
The legacy of Jon Burge, fortunately, is a federal consent decree, just agreed upon by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to overhaul the Chicago Police Department.
The legacy of Jon Burge, sadly, also is a deep community distrust. It is Black Lives Matter.
Our whole city is watching its police officers closely.
The legacy of Jon Burge, we would hope, is that our city will never stop watching, our eyes now wide open — or stop caring.
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