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

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Cash-strapped Chicago on Tuesday took a $5.5 million step toward restoring public trust between citizens and police in the black community undermined by the Jon Burge torture era, but plaintiffs’ attorneys warned that it’s no “panacea.”

The City Council’s Finance Committee unanimously approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to create a $5.5 million “reparations” fund to compensate victims allegedly tortured by the convicted former Area 2 Commander and his cohorts.

Prior to the final vote, gang enforcer-turned-”urban translator” Wallace “Gator” Bradley complained that the extraordinary ordinance did not go far enough. He demanded to know why the heirs of Melvin Jones, Grayland Johnson and as many as 18 other Burge torture victims who have since died would not share in the reparations.

“Melvin Jones is the same individual that, when the city wanted to fire Jon Burge, they used his testimony. Melvin Jones is the same individual . . . who was a star witness against Jon Burge to send him to the penitentiary,” Bradley said.

“The audacity to have his name on a memorial and, because he’s dead, it means nothing to his family. . . . Don’t taint a good ordinance by denying the family of a torture victim who died homeless when everybody else has gotten rich off what he helped them do.”

Gang enforcer-turned-“urban translator” Wallace “Gator” Bradley complained that the heirs of Burge torture victims who have since died should share in the reparations. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said scholarships, counseling and job training are open to the heirs of deceased torture victims.

“It’s only the financial reparations that are limited to living victims. . . .We had a limited pool of money and the collective view was the money should go the people who are still alive,” Patton said.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Joey Mogul called it an “unfortunate compromise in light of the financial constraints of the city.”

The ordinance now on track for final approval by the full City Council on Wednesday 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.

Attorneys Flint Taylor (left) and Joey Mogul represented torture victims. Mogul called it an “unfortunate compromise” due to “the financial constraints of the city” to limit cash reparations to living torture victims, excluding heirs of those who have died. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

The mayor’s plan gives plaintiffs’ attorneys 45 days to provide the city with a list of individuals eligible for and interested in cash settlements.

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 one of the ugliest chapters in the history of the Chicago Police Department.

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.

Chicago is believed to be the first major city to dole out millions in reparations to police torture victims.

It comes 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 onto the streets of Baltimore.

“We don’t believe . . . that somehow this is a panacea in terms of what’s going to happen in this city. But we do feel it’s a significant act and a significant recognition by the city of serious wrongdoing and violence by the Police Department in the past that, hopefully, will have some impact on the Police Department in the future,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Flint Taylor.

Mogul said she hopes other cities will follow Chicago’s lead.

“What we see in Baltimore, Ferguson and other cities is that this doesn’t just effect a random few individuals. This really seeps into the entire community. . . . It’s not enough to just look at these cases individually. [It’s important] to deal with them in a systemic way and realize their systemic harm. That’s what is truly profound about this reparations package,” she said.

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