Thursday, July 30, 2009

They don't do this here

On July 22, Jon Burge had a status hearing in his perjury case. The trial date is set for January 11. Judge Lefkow wants this to be a firm date, so we may, finally, get some public attention paid to the torture that (allegedly) was systematic and epidemic in Area II interrogation rooms for almost 2 decades.
As retired sergeant Doris Byrd explained to the Chicago Reader--which has tirelessly followed this story since 1990--everyone could hear the screams in the building when Burge's so-called A-team were on duty--after midnight. Prisoners complained of being suffocated in plastic bags, of waterboarding, and of having electrodes attached to their genitals, while a field telephone was handcranked to run a current through their bodies--a form of torture Americans used in Vietnam, where Burge served before joining the police.
Someone who is being tortured will confess to pretty much anything, and the people in Burge's custody did. Many of them are still in prison, despite the fact that their coerced confessions made up the only evidence against them--and despite the fact that in a number of cases, other people have been convicted of committing the crime for which they're serving time. It was Dr. Robert Kirschner who did the first forensic work proving the existence of police torture in Chicago. He was the deputy chief medical examiner at Cook County when he was asked to look at the file of one of Burge’s alleged victims, Andrew Wilson.

"I said I would review it ...[but] that I was very skeptical because I have been around the medical examiner's office for ten years, lot of close contact with the police, and... I just never heard of anything like this in Chicago, and I said that it does seem very unlikely to me that this would be the case. But... I read [Wilson’s medical records and his deposition] . . . and I said, 'This guy has been tortured....there is a very high degree of medical certainty to say this man has not only been beaten and/or kicked, which, let's face it, occurs in custody, but that this man has received electric shock.'"

Mayor Daley was the State's Attorney back then, and he was informed of around fifty cases of torture taking place in Chicago police stations, but chose not to act. Nor did his successors, one of whom actually defended Burge the first time he stood trial on these charges. The city is still stonewalling the production of evidence and the production of witnesses in a myriad torture cases.

I live close to two of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods, half a mile from WEst Englewood, about a mile from South Shore. I know one of the cops who works West Englewood and it is a tough assignment, made harder by a willful code of omerta among the residents, who won't testify against murderers in their midst.

On the other hand, when the locals know that officers like Burge can do as they please with a suspect in custody, it can be a hard sell to persuade people to turn each other in. Even though Burge has been out of police work for 16 years, Chicago's elite tactical unit had to be disbanded two years ago after it became clear that they were preying on the people they'd been sent to protect. A west side precinct housed a police robbery ring that was finally exposed and shut down this past spring.

We ask the cops to do a difficult and dangerous job. But if we think it's okay for them to rob the community or brutalize suspects, then we're really saying we don't care about the rule of law.


23 comments:

Michael Dymmoch said...

Well put, Sara.

Libby Hellmann said...

Isn't that why Jody Weis was brought in? To restore the reputation-- amd behavior -- of Chicago cops? ANd didnt he begin by the wholesale firing of commanders, thereby plunging the force into a period of its lowest morale ever? I'm not saying it's easy to change course in midstream, but I'd be curious to know whether bringing him in has made any difference...

David Heinzmann said...

Just as damaging as the Burge-era conduct is the very steady string of abuses by special units in neighborhoods. Sara mentioned Englewood, where the tactical team led by Broderick Jones and Corey Flagg ran amok for several years, doing the bidding of one gang against other gangs, making phony arrests, planting evidence, stealing money and drugs. Busted by the FBI in 2005, Jones and Flagg were basically gang members with badges.

The enormous Special Operations Scandal, which is still simmering, had a similar effect on Hispanic communities on the Southwest and Northwest sides.

The 22nd District tactical team of Doroniuk and Shamah were busted for shaking people down farther south on the South Side in 2006.

In the mid-90s it was the Austin 7 shaking people down on West Side. And the infamous Joe Miedzianowski ran a drug trafficking operation from the Gang Crimes North offices in the 90s, as well. He had so much protection that when two ATF agents tried to blow the whistle on him, Miedzianowski was able to launch a counter-investigation of the agents by CPD's internal affairs division. He's doing life in a federal supermax prison.

And to Libby's question, Weis was brought in to repair the department's reputation. Changing behavior is a different issue. He did demote lots of top-ranking police officials. But many cops I talked to didn't see much difference in the replacements. What the department hasn't done is fundamentally change it's training practices, and retraining, practices.

And it's hard to blame cops for being skeptical of so-called reforms coming down from the Daley Administration, when U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald basically has an open-ended corruption investigation going on anything and everyting related to City Hall, from public contracts to hiring, to--as my colleagues at the Tribune reported today--admissions practices at Chicago's elite magnet schools.

Sara Paretsky said...

Dave, thanks for spelling all that out. The Chicago police force has about 13000 people on its roster, a little bigger than the corporation I used to work for. We had a major downsizing in the wake of a takeover, and it was handled pretty much the way Weis handled the demotions at the CPD--it created uncertainty and mistrust for years (in our case, when the CEO came over the loudspeaker at Christmas and told us to "look around, because your co-workers may not be there in the new year," we were very unmotivated to work hard, or to trust senior staff.)
I think the City Hall problems generate a good deal of the corruption in the CPD. in American Pharaoh, Elizabeth Taylor spells out how Daley, Sr disbanded one of the best and toughest units in the country, the so-called Scotland Yard division of the CPD, which was corruption free, and deadly on organized crime. But Acardo and his 1st Ward friends had been major backers of Daley's first campaign, and he rewarded them by making sure they could operate without let or hindrance from the law. It's been half a century, but I'm not sure we've ever recovered from the Mob corruption he allowed to flourish. Dave, I'd be really interested in your take on that point.

Judy Alter said...

This isn't appropo to the subject, but I remember when South Shore was an upscale neighborhood, and as a child I thought the South Shore Country Club was the most elegant place I'd ever been. How sad.

Sara Paretsky said...

Judy, I lived across the street from the South Shore country club--in an apartment that by then was pretty seedy. I love being able to go into the place now, but I do miss the beautiful shops that used to line 71st Street

David Heinzmann said...

To Sara's point about trying to recover from the Outfit influence in government in decades past, I think everybody should read Bob Cooley's book WHEN CORRUPTION WAS KING, about just this subject--mob influence in the police department, the courts and City Hall.

The first name that came to mind when I thought about this today was Bill Hanhardt, the former CPD chief of detectives who was convicted in 2002 of running an Outfit-connected jewelry theft ring. Hanhardt was beloved by many in the department, and some of the people he promoted continued to climb the ranks for years after went to prison.

Thinking about his made me go back and look at some of the old stories in the Tribune and I found a John Kass column quoting Joe DiLeonardi, who was a mob-hating police superintendent until organized crime bosses persuaded Jane Byrne to dump him.

This was what he told Kass about those days in the 70s and 80s.

"There were police officers who were Organized Crime guys with badges. They were hit men. There were guys who at scenes of attempted Outfit murders told the victims to keep quiet," DiLeonardi said. "Did that bother me? It just tore my guts out. I mean, whose side are you on?"

One other point I'll make to bring it forward a bit. Probably the most embarrassing moment for the current Mayor Daley in the 2007 Family Secrets federal trial came over the testimony of Outfit hitman Nick Calabrese, that the mayor's friend and fundraiser Fred Barbara had strong ties to the Outfit's Chinatown crew, including allegations he even took part in the firebombing of a restaurant with Angelo "The Hook" LaPietra.

And so it goes...

Sara Paretsky said...

Dave, important and depressing information. I hope anyone who wants to write about chicago, police, mob, etc is reading your posts.

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