The Scourge of Police Abuse in Chicago

Written by: Bailey Yellen, CMC ’16

On October 2, 2014, ex-police commander Jon Burge was released one year earlier from federal prison than his four and a half year sentence dictated. Burge oversaw the torture of more than 100 black men in the City of Chicago’s police custody, for which he was never prosecuted. The 66-year-old is now free to live the remainder of his life with a $4,000-a-month pension, while as many as 20 of his torture victims remain incarcerated.[1] The inability to prosecute Burge for his use of torture represents a greater failure within our legal system- the use of police torture in the United States is not a federal crime. Instead, individual states have different policies regarding police brutality, which leaves room for perpetrators, such as Burge, to escape justice for their crimes.[2] Federalizing police brutality crimes would create a uniform solution to promote the moral character of our law enforcement system, ensure police accountability, and give victims the ability to bring their perpetrators to justice.

Chicago’s complicated relationship with police brutality began before Burge’s entrance to the police force. On August 28, 1968. The Democratic National Convention met in Chicago to select a Presidential nominee. Tens of thousands of men and women flocked to the city not to participate in the Convention, but to protest the Vietnam War. With the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley, knew there was a possibility of violence, so he deployed 12,000 Chicago police officers and 15,000 state and federal officers to maintain order. The peaceful protest soon turned violent; cameras captured police officers beating, gassing, and dragging protesters through the streets while demonstrators yelled, “The whole world is watching!” This riot became known as “The Battle of Michigan Avenue” and is still viewed as one of the most shocking displays of police brutality in the United States.[3]

Since the Democratic Convention in 1968, the Chicago has developed an even more notorious reputation for police misconduct that has cost taxpayers $521 million dollars in brutality-related lawsuits, including $84.6 million that was paid in 2013 alone. [4]As the financial awards Chicago pays to those illegally imprisoned continues to rise with no immediate sign of slowing down, it is becoming clear that the city’s police practices are unsustainable and in need of reform. The psychological and physical damage sustained by these victims of torture cannot be solely attributed to the abuse of power by a handful of officers, but instead represents a problem deeply ingrained within the city’s police culture.

At the heart of these scandals in Chicago is former police Commander Jon Burge who, along with his “Midnight Crew” of detectives, is responsible for about 15 percent of the city’s total loss in settlements, legal fees, and other expenses. Burge and his men used extreme measures to torture and coerce confessions from suspects in the South Side of Chicago between the years of 1972 and 1984.[5] After hundreds of allegations about Burge’s sadistic methods, the Chicago Police Department was forced to conduct an internal investigation, which ultimately validated many of these claims of police brutality.[6]

Burge joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970 at the age of 22 after several years of military service in South Korea and Vietnam, and was assigned to detective and reassigned to Area Two Robbery two years later.[7] In the early 1970s, Area Two, a territory expanding across 60 square miles in the South Side of Chicago that included Burge’s high school and parent’s home, was experiencing a dramatic demographic change and subsequent social and racial tensions. Segregation of African American communities led to poverty and an increase of violence due to the poor school systems, lack of resources, and an absence of economic opportunities.[8] As a member of this neighborhood, Burge witnessed these changes and probably felt an inherent need to protect his community, an urge that may have driven him to use excessive police measures to do so.

Although allegations of Burge’s use of torture date back to the early 1970’s, the most infamous example occurred on February 9, 1982.[9] Burge, now the commanding officer of Area Two Violent Crimes, investigated the murder of two police officers, Richard O’Brien and William Fahey.[10] Eyewitnesses claimed that the two men responsible for this crime were black, so Burge led a frantic manhunt to find the killers of these two officers. Police officers zealously kicked down doors, arrested young black men on the streets, and used excessive force with individuals who had no connection to the shooting in order to find the murderers. Chicago became a war zone as the police attempted to question and intimidate as many African American men as they could find thinking that they would eventually discover the guilty parties.[11]

Following up on several leads, Burge and his officers arrested brothers Andrew and Jackie Wilson on February 14, and brought them to an Area Two station for questioning. The brothers confessed to killing O’Brien and Fahey and were found guilty after a trial in 1983. [12] Andrew Wilson was sentenced to death, while his brother received a life sentence. Both of these convictions were eventually overturned, and Andrew Wilson was reconvicted in 1988. The jury could not agree whether Wilson should receive the death penalty, so by law, life in prison was his only possible sentence.[13]

What seemed like a victorious end to the unjust murder of two officers soon became known as a “dark period in Chicago’s history” when Andrew Wilson filed a $10 million civil suit against four detectives from Area Two, a former Police Superintendent named Richard Brzeczek, and the city itself in 1986.[14] According to Wilson, Burge and his subordinates tortured him in order to obtain a confession; other Area Two officers allowed the torture to happen and did not mention it in their reports; and the City of Chicago purposefully ignored evidence of the police’s ill treatment of people suspected of killing officers. The decision of this suit would not affect Wilson’s previous criminal conviction.[15]

The trial began in February 1989 and the case did not look promising for Wilson from the opening arguments: Wilson a convicted killer was accusing a decorated military veteran of unfathomable violence. It seemed impossible to believe an agent of the state could participate in such abhorrent practices.

Public opinion began to change, however, when Wilson took the stand seven days into the trial and began to testify about the events that occurred in 1982. According to Wilson, he was arrested upon leaving an apartment building on November 14, and was immediately taken to a small room in Area Two for questioning. Wilson claimed that Burge told him his reputation was at stake, so he needed a confession for the murders. Burge and his officers then began to torture Wilson. The suspect was beaten, nearly suffocated with a plastic bag, and subjected to electric shocks in his genitals, nose, ears, and fingers by two different devices. During the duration of his testimony, Wilson almost lost control of his emotions when his attorneys asked him about Burge’s electroshock tactics. “I wasn’t paying no attention [to the radiator], but it burned me still. But I didn’t even feel it… That radiator… it wouldn’t have mattered. That box… took over. That’s what was happening. The heat radiator didn’t even exist then. The box existed.”[16]

Wilson confessed to the murders of officers O’Hara and Fahey after 13 hours in Burge’s custody, after which he was taken to a nearby hospital because of his physical state. A doctor and nurse who were working at the hospital later testified that officers brought Wilson to the emergency and warned him against accepting treatment by threatening him at gunpoint. Wilson refused treatment and was then escorted to lockup.[17] The following morning, Wilson was arraigned and admitted to Cook County Jail where his injuries were well documented. These images later presented in court became some of the most incriminating evidence against Burge. The pictures showed severe burn marks on Wilson’s chest and thigh, as well a mysterious u-shaped scab on his ear that supported Wilson’s testimony about electrocution.

During their investigation, Wilson’s lawyers also discovered more than 20 other individuals who claimed to have been tortured by police officers in Area Two. The accounts were eerily similar to Wilson’s: these men alleged to have been beaten, threatened with mock executions, and electrocuted. Wilson and 12 of these individuals reported this mistreatment to the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the body responsible for investigating complaints against the police, but they were all dismissed as “not sustained” despite an alarming amount of evidence.[18]

The defense’s response to Wilson’s testimony was to call Burge to the stand as their first witness. While Wilson appeared soft spoken and nervous during his testimony, Burge confidently denied all of Wilson’s claims of abuse and insisted that he did not witness any other officers participating in such misconduct.[19]  Following Burge’s testimony, charges against Sergeant Thomas McKenna, Detectives John Yucaitis, and Patrick O`Hara were dropped in March 1989; the jury, however, was unable to reach a decision regarding Burge. One juror was sure that “something happened to [Wilson],” but the jury seemed reluctant to award the ‘cop killer’ any money for his injuries, which the same juror stated may have been self inflicted.[20] U.S. District Judge Brian Duff eventually declared a mistrial and ordered a retrial for Burge and the city.[21]

As the second trial began, the jury was instructed to answer three questions in order to decide whether the city had a policy of torturing suspects, which all had to be answered affirmatively for Wilson to prevail. In response to the first two questions, the jury answered yes- Wilson’s constitutional rights were violated on the day of his arrest and the City of Chicago did have a de facto policy in 1982 that allowed policemen to abuse suspects of killing policemen. The jury found, however, that Wilson was not subjected to excessive force because of this policy.[22] Burge and the city were once again cleared.[23]

The result of this second trial seemed contradictory, the jury acknowledged that the city’s policy condoned the use of torture on people suspected of killing police officers, and recognized that Wilson’s constitutional rights had been violated in some way during the interrogation, but there seemed to be disagreement about the source of this abuse.[24] In an interview after the second trial, 28-year-old juror Alan Gall stated that the jury was at a deadlock over whether they believed Wilson was tortured by Burge and his men: “We believe that he did sustain these injuries from the police, some of the injuries, but there wasn’t enough evidence to show that he got all of the injuries from the police. As to whether or not he was actually tortured, there is not enough evidence either.” [25]

Burge’s second trial ignited further investigation into Wilson and other’s claims of torture, and caused many individuals to petition for disciplinary actions against the Chicago Police Department. In 1990, the human rights organization Amnesty International released a report that called for the investigation into the claims of police brutality by 200 black men in the South Side of Chicago. The evidence against Burge was becoming overwhelming with these new revelations and Burge was eventually fired in 1993.

For many anti-torture advocates, the biggest disappointment came after Cook County Special Prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle issued a report in 2007 that confirmed Burge’s use of torture.[26] This report should have been the definitive proof needed to convict Burge, but Egan and Boyle’s findings were released after the statute of limitations had expired. Even though Burge’s crimes were now being publically acknowledged, he could not be prosecuted for the physical and psychological damage he inflicted on hundreds of individuals. The public was outraged and calls for Burge’s prosecution grew louder, leading to his arrest in 2008 for lying under oath about torture allegations during civil lawsuit in 2003.[27] He is currently serving four and a half years in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice. The cases involving Burge continue to psychologically scar those involved and financially cost the city $70 million in legal fees and settlements, and yet the citizens of Chicago are required to continue to pay $3,000 a month for his pension.[28]

Following the inability to prosecute Burge for torture after the release of the Special Prosecutors’ report, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC) was signed into law on 2009 to respond to the numerous claims of torture. The intention of this state agency was noble, but ultimately ineffective, due to underfunding and a lack of legislative support. Under the TIRC Act, all claims of torture had to be filed by August 10, 2014, after which the TIRC could no longer accept new cases. Although they will continue to investigate the cases that were filed before that date, the organization’s future is unclear once they have completed these pending cases.[29] There are currently no plans to create a state sponsored entity to handle the remaining claims of police torture.

With the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, it is clear that the relationship between the police and the community- especially minorities- is broken. How the City of Chicago chooses to respond to the continual onslaught of torture claims related to Burge could be used as a turning point to improve the relationship between the police and racial minorities in this country, or continue to allow minorities to be tortured, wrongfully imprisoned, and even killed. Retroactively compensating victims of police torture does nothing to change the factors that permitted and possibly encouraged the abuse. Police officers are the men and women our society trusts to uphold our justice system, and should therefore be held to the highest possible standards. Recently, Chicago Mayor Rham Emanuel made substantial efforts to compensate Burge victims by paying 94 men, who could not sue because of the expiring statute of limitations. With this development, Mayor Emanuel acknowledged that the city was not doing enough to compensate victims, and allowed for the possibility for greater future action.[30]

Burge and his actions represent one of the most pressing issues with Chicago and our nation as a whole, but his crimes also present the city with an opportunity for tremendous growth. This is an opportunity for Chicago to lead a national effort to rebuild these infrastructures by comprehensively funding programs that provide financial relief, health care, education, job opportunities, psychological counseling for the victims of police brutality, and possibly most importantly, establishing an independent entity that’s sole purpose is to investigate and handle these types of claims. Prosecutors are too reliant on state and local police departments to objectively pursue these types of cases: A private entity charged with the responsibility of ensuring police accountability would not have these same allegiances and, therefore, could be much more effective in bringing corrupt officers to justice.

There are still hundreds of men currently in prison who may have been wrongfully placed there by Burge and his men who deserve the right to have their cases investigated and their voices heard. Only when Chicago has appropriately handled the remaining Burge cases, properly compensated the survivors of police mistreatment, and eliminated the policy of police torture can the city truly clear its conscience and heal. [31]


[1]Kim Bellware, This Cop Oversaw The Torture Of More Than 100 Back Men. Now He’s Out After Less Than 4 Years In Jail. The Huffington Post (2014),

[2] Askia Muhammad, Legislation proposed to prevent domestic torture The Final Call (2012),

[3] Aug 28, 1968: Proests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago, History.,

[4] Andy Shaw, City pays heavy price for police brutality Politics Early & Often (2014), 1.       Aug 28, 1968: Proests at Democratic National Convention in Chicago, HISTORY.,

[5] Ibid.






[11] Jesse Jackson in ;



[14] Rahm Emanuel in


















Leave a Reply