Witness Report

Monday, November 1, 2010

Photo used with permission of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

Editor's note: Jon Burge's sentencing was postponed to January 21, 2011, at which time he was sentenced to 54 months in prison.

This Friday, November 5th, Jon Burge, former commander of the Chicago Police Department, decorated Vietnam veteran, will be sentenced on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Burge was convicted of lying about torturing suspects and coercing their confessions. When he was found guilty in late June, many in the city—and human rights activists around the world—breathed a collective sigh of relief: after more than twenty years, Burge’s story had finally reached a conclusion. But even though Burge was found guilty of lying about torture, he has never been criminally prosecuted for the torture itself. Many of his accomplices have still not faced any real justice. And more than twenty men are currently serving life sentences that were based on confessions extracted by Burge and his crew. These are just a few of the many potent reminders that this is a story of loose ends and unfinished business.

For me, Burge’s guilty verdict hasn’t offered closure or any deep sense of satisfaction. This pronouncement is just another marker in a long-term relationship that began two decades ago. Although we have never met, never exchanged words, never even been close enough to touch, Jon Burge and I are deeply connected. In 1990, I investigated allegations against Burge for the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards, the civilian unit that investigated complaints of excessive force—everything from too-tight handcuffs to shootings. In 1993, based on my investigation, Burge was fired from the CPD. I had found him guilty of abuse and torture, which led to his police board hearing. I can still recall Burge turning toward me during one of the sessions: He stared at me with piercing eyes. Although he was seated, and at least ten yards away, I felt suffocated by his imposing presence. And even though I was in a crowded courtroom, I felt uneasy.

But the story began much earlier. The original allegations against Burge, then commanding officer of Area Two’s violent crimes unit, were made by Andrew Wilson, a career criminal, who, along with his brother Jackie, fatally shot two police officers on February 9, 1982. After a five-day manhunt led by Burge, Wilson was arrested. Wilson alleged that during his fourteen-hour detention at Area Two on the city’s south side, while in Burge’s custody, he was electroshocked, smothered with a plastic bag, beaten, kicked, held against a hot radiator, and forced into confessing to the double cop-killing.

The day after Wilson’s arrest, a doctor who treated inmates at the county jail wrote a letter reporting that Wilson’s skin was blistered with lesions, that his face and body were bruised, and that the injuries lined up with Wilson’s story of abuse. After receiving the doctor’s letter, then superintendent Richard Brzeczek notified the state’s attorney, Richard M. Daley. This letter generated the first OPS investigation. At the time I had not yet begun my career at OPS, but I had read about the brutal murders and the notorious citywide dragnet to capture the killers.

In July 1985, more than three years after the doctor filed the complaint, OPS recommended in a one-page report that all allegations of torture and abuse be “not sustained”: there wasn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove Wilson’s complaint of torture. In 1990, when the case landed on my desk, the first thing I learned was that the investigation had been reopened due to mounting public pressure, as well as some new evidence that had been exposed in Wilson’s recent civil trials. In the years since the first investigation, a long lineup of similar torture allegations by other African Americans had surfaced, drawing the attention of Amnesty International, Citizens Alert and other local watchdog groups, lawyers, community activists, and a reporter, John Conroy. Earlier that year, Conroy had authored a powerful Chicago Reader story about Area Two, “House of Screams,” which served as a roadmap for my investigation—and for another OPS investigation that began looking at patterns of abuse by Burge and his team.

By 1990 I had been on the job only three years but had already handled my fair share of sensitive, high-profile cases. I had dealt with ugliness, but nothing on this scale. The details of the murders were chilling. The two officers that Wilson and his brother gunned down had pulled them over on what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. Wilson grabbed one officer’s gun, shot him in the head, and then shot his partner five times. Wilson’s complaint and the other torture allegations that my colleague was tracking, some dating back to the early 1970s, were the stuff of remote Third World regions and wartime intelligence-gathering scenarios. The stakes were also higher: it wasn’t just my boss or the superintendent or parties in the case that cared about the outcome—it seemed as if the whole city was watching.

Almost immediately people took sides, lining up in one of several camps. Whether it was in the waiting room at OPS, in casual conversations with friends, or during meetings with other cops, I observed that most people saw the story in terms of good and bad. There were those that looked at Burge as the crusading antihero in a dirty world filled with remorseless cop-killers and liars who manufacture stories to avoid justice. Then there were others who saw Burge as the antagonist, a sadistic villain who needed to be brought down. A third camp also presented itself: those who saw Burge as the scapegoat victim of a vile system that needed someone to pay for its inherent corruptness. Given the gravity of the allegations, the circumstances that led to Wilson’s arrest, the eight-year gap since the original events, and Burge’s larger-than-life persona, it’s easy to understand why many viewed this case as unique, unrelated to the normal machinery of police culture.

My goal wasn’t to nail cops or to prove their innocence: it was to get at what really happened. By the time I was done, after seven months working exclusively on the case, I had reviewed thousands of pages of trial transcripts, medical records, and police documents. Unfortunately, the eight-year delay took its toll: Area Two headquarters was no longer CPD property—the building had been turned over to Streets and Sanitation. One of the assistant state’s attorneys at Area Two during Wilson’s detention had died; so had one of the squadrol officers who drove Wilson to the lockup. My conclusion, based on the documents I reviewed, new interviews, and other evidence, resulted in a sixty-six-page report. I concluded that Wilson had been beaten and kicked, shocked with electrical devices, and burned against a hot radiator by Burge or members of his command. I recommended a finding of “sustained.” In a land of gray, where most cases resulted in an inconclusive finding—not enough evidence to prove or disprove the complaint—it felt good to reach a definite finding. Still, even then, I knew that the word sustained did not adequately reflect the complexity of this story. I also knew that the story was not over.

And now is no different. When the guilty verdict was announced in June 2010, I heard many reactions—all delivered passionately and with great conviction. Many people, specifically those who felt that Burge deserved the guilty verdict, seemed content. The word guilty meant that the evil had been exorcised. The monster had been destroyed. Order had been restored. We could move forward. The word guilty seemed to shut down an examination of the deeper underlying issues and the context for what had happened: race, class, police culture, and human nature.

This response is understandable. When Nixon resigned in the swirl of the Watergate scandal, many felt that the “rotten apple” had been thrown out and the nation could proudly hold up its head once again. But others knew differently: the culture of conspiracy and cover-up that allowed Watergate to take place—the system that enabled Nixon to maintain his reign of misconduct so effectively for so long—had not changed. That system—and the weaknesses and limitations of human nature that fueled it—was still intact, breeding other disturbing behavior, perhaps not as extreme but just as dangerous.

Had I not experienced this world and witnessed this culture from inside, I, too, might be able to characterize the Burge case as an aberration, a glitch in a system that basically works. I, too, might be tempted to believe that was then and today is different. But my experience—conducting hundreds of excessive force investigations over eight and a half years—compels me to think differently.

I am not a social historian who can provide an in-depth look at the historical context. I am not a person of color who has connections to this history (police brutality is among other things usually an issue of race) or someone who has been on the receiving end of police brutality. I am not a police officer who has been part of this cycle, inside or on the sidelines.

I am a white woman who was raised on Chicago’s north shore and whose early exposure to people of color was limited to our house painter, Archie, our cleaning lady, Nettie, and the handful of Asians and blacks in my high school, one of whom ended up as a close friend. I fondly recall Archie and Nettie, but I can’t help thinking that my ability to recall their names after forty years has something to do with the fact that they were such unusual figures in the landscape of my youth. I can’t recall Nettie’s last name. I recall Archie’s, but I’m sort of surprised. Even though I addressed most other nonfamily adults as Mr. or Mrs., I knew Nettie and Archie only by their first names, because that was the unquestioned custom.

Although my perspective—and exposure—was broadened during college, my postcollege move to the city, some foreign travel, and various workplaces in early adulthood, it wasn’t until I joined the CPD that I really understood the concept of “us and them.” I joined the department in 1987, just a handful of months before the death of the city’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington.

The mayoral campaigns and Washington’s two terms in office had reawakened the city’s deep racial divisions and were sad reminders of the work still ahead of us. Still, I was surprised by the hostility I witnessed—not just on the streets when I interviewed people who had complaints about cops, or from the cops as they sat across from me responding to allegations, but also in more insidious daily comments and remarks, some by my own fellow investigators. Racism, anger, “attitude” was rampant. It wasn’t just the daily on-the-job reminders—filling in “Hispanic” or “African American” or “Caucasian” in blanks on myriad police documents. I had entered a world where race and class were always part of the equation.

As a Jew, I had had a taste of what it feels like to be the “other,” but I had never been so close to so many people who saw the other as the enemy. I was surprised when during a day of OPS fieldwork, another investigator, a Hispanic and someone I considered a friend, made a racist comment about an Asian driver in a car we passed. I didn’t expect to hear Mexican colleagues put down Puerto Rican coworkers or the Puerto Ricans make similar remarks about the Mexicans. And although the city had put a black mayor into office, the police department’s top official was black, and a black woman was our new unit chief, I saw no evidence that tensions between blacks and whites were on the decline.

I was disappointed to see so many people who were entrusted with the responsibility of making determinations about people’s lives teeming with hate, anger, and their own prejudices. I’m not just talking the insensitivity of coworkers announcing within earshot, “Let’s go to Jew-town,” but more substantial comments that denoted something deeper. Something that could easily seep into an investigation and shape its outcome. As one of the minority whites in the office, I felt—perhaps for the first time in my life—the color of my own skin.

Before OPS, I had also never been exposed to a world where people regularly tangled with the police, where there was a palpable police presence, or where people I knew made complaints about the police. Except for one unfortunate experience with an Evanston cop who cited me for going through a red light when I was sixteen (I still say it was yellow), my exposure to cops was not only limited—it was absent.

Throughout years of investigating every type of excessive force allegation, I also discovered that few cases were just about physical excess. In the majority of incidents, things got out of hand because people didn’t know how to talk to each other. And most hostile verbal exchanges seemed to grow out of a power struggle—two people feeling challenged and tested.

I recall an investigation where a man told me he was standing on one side of a south side street when an officer told him, “Come here.” The man didn’t think he was doing anything worth talking about, so he just stood there. The cop again asked the man to walk over to him. “I asked you to get over here.” This time, the man responded: “You wanna talk to me, you come over here.” In my world, if a cop with a gun had called me over, I’d probably ask him what was wrong. If he asked me again, I’d probably be on the other side of the street before he had to ask again. But this wasn’t my world.

I had taken enough statements and investigated enough complaints to know how the rest of this story had played out. I still recall my first question—the one I didn’t ask, but thought: How many times did the cop hit you?

At the time, I was frustrated—I thought the situation could easily have been avoided. It seemed simple enough. As I look back, it was anything but simple. Both men were African American, and as in many cases, race may have been a factor. Also, while the man probably saw the officer’s behavior as demeaning and confrontational, things probably looked a lot different on the cop’s side of the street. I’m sure the cop knew that his request read like an order—it was. From his perspective, the man wasn’t complying. He was challenging his authority, disrespecting him.

I can’t help thinking about the Memphis garbage workers who protested unfair wages and unsafe conditions in 1968—their signs didn’t scream for fairness or peace or workers’ rights. They simply said, “I Am A Man.” We all want dignity in our lives.

I’ve never had to plead for my dignity—it was handed to me early on. No questions asked. I will probably never know what it’s like to be looked at as someone less than, or someone threatening. No one’s going to cross to the other sidewalk when I approach, or pass me up when I try to hail a taxi late at night, or clutch their purse a little tighter when I brush by them on the El. I don’t know what it’s like to be called over to the other side of the street.

In another investigation, one involving two middle-aged white men, a man in his car and a cop on foot patrol, the man said that everything started when he asked the officer if he could double-park while he ran into a building. The officer told him no, whereupon he called the cop a “jerk.” The man drove off. He said that a short time later, he was waiting at a red light and saw the same officer running toward his car. He thought the officer was writing him a traffic ticket. He opened his car door, stuck his head slightly above the car’s roof, and asked the officer what he was doing. The cop, who was now standing near his front passenger window, didn’t answer. The man again called the cop a “jerk.” As he started to reenter his car, the officer ran over and slammed the car door against the man’s face.

The man said he later went to the emergency room, where he received fifteen sutures to his chin and three to his left eyebrow. The doctor I interviewed told me that a “significant amount of force” would have been required to cause the wounds. The officer, however, said that the man’s injury—which he referred to as minor cuts on his chin and forehead—was an accident. He offered several versions of the incident, but he consistently said that the injury occurred due to the man’s own actions: he had hurt himself as he swung his body back into the car while simultaneously closing the car door. The officer said, “My body might have touched the car door,” but he denied pushing the door into the man’s face.

Although the case ended up being “sustained,” I felt little satisfaction. This just shouldn’t have happened. Interestingly, the man who made the complaint told me that after the cop slammed the car door into his face, the officer told him that he was going to arrest him. When he asked the officer why, the officer said, “You know what I want.” The man interpreted this as a request for an apology. He told the officer, “I’m sorry,” and the officer then waved him off. There was no arrest. But I can’t help wondering: if the man had apologized sooner, or if the cop had defused the situation before it escalated, things might have gone down differently. The officer might not have ended up with a “sustained” in his personnel jacket nor the man with eighteen stitches on his face.

I recall another case that was part of my crash course in human nature. I had asked a young man, the alleged victim in the case, to slow down in his account of what happened. He had mentioned being punched by a cop almost as a throwaway. “Wait,” I said. “Let’s back up a minute. You said the officer punched you.”

“Yeah?” he said.

 “How many times did the officer punch you?”

 “Only once.”

I remember thinking this was an odd response. I’m pretty sure I thought the lack of attention to this detail reflected the man’s bravado. I contrasted him with other citizens, like a middle-aged north side woman who complained that an officer had “roughed me up.” During her statement, she said that the officer had grabbed her by the arm and shoved her back during a parade.

I now begin to understand the weight—and the heartbreak—of the young man’s “only once.” One punch wasn’t even worth mentioning. One punch wouldn’t have been worth a call to OPS; one punch wouldn’t have brought him down to my office for a statement. His “only once”—and the many similar responses that I heard throughout the years—speak volumes about the fallout that occurs when a culture breeds numbness.

I saw a change in me, too. After years of listening to people make complaints about push ‘n shoves, domestics, and severe beatings, I found myself sometimes impatient and not as sensitive as I had been a few years earlier. It was tough listening to a wealthy suburban tourist whine about a cop grabbing him by the elbow after I had just interviewed someone whose broken ribs had landed him in the hospital. But today, more than ever, I see these “lesser” allegations, especially the ones limited to verbal abuse or other nonphysical expressions of disrespect, as the crucial starting place for any meaningful examination of excessive force.

Through the years, I’ve talked to many cops—good cops—who also changed as they became more deeply entrenched in the world they were paid to serve and protect.

A high-ranking officer I knew during my years at the CPD once told me about an incident earlier in his career. He and his fellow officers had responded to a call about an elderly lady who had been savagely beaten. They found her lying on the floor of her apartment, like an old rag that had been thrown away. They soon caught up with the suspect, and some of the officers circled him and took turns beating him. My officer friend had always believed in doing things by the book, but when he saw the old woman on the floor, something had changed in him. His compassion turned into anger, and all he knew was that the man who did this needed to hurt. This officer didn’t participate in the abuse, but he didn’t stop it either. I can’t recall what kept him from beating the man; I only recall how badly he wanted to beat him. I’ve often wondered what was behind his choices and what stopped him from turning his feelings into actions.

The officer’s feelings don’t surprise me. When the Burge verdict was delivered, I heard from several people who didn’t seem too upset by Burge’s torture of other human beings. After learning that Burge was found guilty, one well-educated woman said, “He’s scum.” I thought she was talking about Burge, but she was referring to Andrew Wilson, the victim of torture. All that mattered to her was that Wilson, a low-life, had ended the lives of two good cops. Most of us can understand these emotions, these instincts. But as I often told the young investigators that I trained, “You don’t get to pick your complainants.”

In Jill Nelson’s excellent anthology Police Brutality, one of the contributors recalled his days as a rookie at the NYPD. He said that the first real lesson he learned was that the department had both a formal and informal leadership structure. “Most people pay greater attention to the informal structure, where leaders have their own rules,” he wrote. “In the police department, the informal leaders may be other cops and not necessarily ranking officers.”

The officer, Arthur Doyle, said that one of the informal rules he learned was that if a suspect put his hands on an officer, he wasn’t supposed to be able to walk into the station on his own. “He was supposed to be beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk.” Doyle said that if one of his prisoners was still standing after assaulting him or another cop, he was criticized by his colleagues or supervisors.

One time, he and his partner arrested a tough kid with a history of assaulting officers. When they walked him into the precinct, another cop pulled him aside and asked him why the kid was walking in. Doyle told him, “Because he is my prisoner and that is not my thing.” Throughout his career he made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate abuse of prisoners, and if he saw a fellow cop abusing someone, he stopped him. Despite his refusal to follow the “rule,” he moved up the ranks and retired as a lieutenant.

I’m sure that most cops start their careers believing there are lines they won’t cross, but it’s a mystery why certain officers are able to stay the course. Doyle wrote that as a young black man and aspiring officer, he saw “cops making things right.” When he became a cop, he found it easier to do the right thing. But I’m sure for many cops it’s often easier to get emotional, explode, and allow things to get out of control. Maybe these officers lack the necessary tools. Or maybe it’s the leadership that’s lacking: their supervisors and the culture fail to send—and uphold—the message that doing the wrong thing will not be tolerated.

As a young investigator, I didn’t take long to discover that there was also an informal leadership structure in the CPD. Nowhere was this structure more clearly defined than in the code of silence between fellow officers.

In one of my most memorable cases, a former basketball star (now deceased) complained that he had been beaten by a crew of plainclothes tactical officers. He said that he was playing basketball with a bunch of kids when a group of officers arrested him on drug charges. The officers handcuffed him and kicked and struck him. He said the “serious beating” occurred when they arrived at the police station. While he was inside an interview room, the officers took turns kicking and stomping him. When he went to the hospital he was treated for two broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and an injury to his eye. The fact that the alleged victim was black and that the officers were white and black may not be significant, but, like every other detail, it’s worth noting.

Too often cases rested on he-said, she-said: the version of the person making the complaint vs. the accused officer’s. The man offered his version—physical abuse at the hands of five cops. The officers gave their accounts: they didn’t use any force—other than restraining the man in handcuffs. One officer said that he punched the man during his arrest on the basketball court, but only after the man attempted to strike him. The officers offered no reasonable explanation for the man’s injuries.

In investigations like this, where the incident primarily takes place behind closed doors in a police facility (similar to the setup in many of the cases involving Burge and his team), it’s important to talk to people who saw the victim before the incident. These witnesses can often help establish the victim’s physical condition before he was taken into police custody. In this case, I had questioned several bystanders who were on the basketball court when the police arrested the man. All supported his story.

As a routine part of the investigation, I had also called in the officer who drove the man from the basketball court to the police station. He was not part of the tactical team—and he happened to be black. He had been doing paperwork in an adjacent office while the arresting officers and the  man were inside the interview room. As I began questioning him, I braced myself for the response I had heard hundreds of times from hundreds of other witness officers: “I have no knowledge of . . .” or “I do not recall . . .” or some other variation.

Instead, this officer, without hesitation, said that “some sort of fight broke out” in the interview room—evidence that directly contradicted the accounts of the accused officers. He also said that he hadn’t noticed any injuries on the man when he drove him from the scene. This witness account, combined with medical evidence that supported the allegations, tipped the scales.

Did this officer know that his statement would amount to breaking the code of silence? I’ll never know his motivation, but I do know that he had to be aware of the potential impact of this choice. He was the one officer who could offer this evidence—and he chose to do the right thing. In eight and a half years, he was one of only two or three officers I met who made this choice. A part of me thinks that this officer—and the others like him—don’t really have a choice: this is who they are and this is what they have to do.

But I’m sure, like all other aspects of this world, there’s more to it.

In a few days, Burge will be sentenced. He may go away—possibly for a long time—but the questions won’t: How do we change the system so that coming forward, whether you’re a cop or civilian, is encouraged, rewarded, and safe? How do we create a police culture in which the officers who speak up against abuse are the heroes? How do we all start to see each other as part of the same community, a community in which it is in everyone’s best interest to treat each other with respect? How do we talk to each other so that we all walk away with our dignity? And perhaps the biggest question that lingers: What have we learned?

Legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, in an article in the Columbia Law Review, described the archetype of a decent, liberal democratic system: “Law is not brutal in its operation. Law is not savage. Law does not rule through abject fear and terror, or by breaking the will of those whom it confronts. If law is forceful or coercive, it gets its way by non-brutal methods which respect rather than mutilate the dignity and agency of those who are its subjects.”

But Waldron recognized that the law must often make citizens do things they don’t want to do. When this happens, he said, the law will not beat citizens, break them, or manipulate them like animals. Instead, there must be “an enduring connection between the spirit of law and respect for human dignity.”

If we’re ever going to achieve a culture based on respect for human dignity—which I believe is at the heart of good policing—we must put the elimination of police brutality at the top of everyone’s agenda. We must make it not only a priority but a matter of urgency—today, not just when the system breaks down on a grand scale.

A good start might be to rethink some of our focus. While there are certainly many players in this world who haven’t done the right thing, there are plenty who have. Perhaps it’s time to make them the object of study: find out why some bystander officers dare to cross the line and speak up, learn why—and how—some officers are able to defuse situations before they erupt into violence and misconduct, and study police leadership structures—both formal and informal—that refuse to tolerate cops who abuse their power, whether it’s with a fist, racist remark, or disrespectful tone.

Some feel that the recruitment of more minorities is one of the keys to reducing police brutality. The ability to communicate is crucial to police-community relations: people relate better to people who understand them and where they come from. One thing’s for sure: there are no easy answers.

During my early years as an investigator, one of my supervisors once advised me: “Don’t open windows you can’t close.” He was worried about my growing caseload and my dog-with-a-bone tendency to keep going. He was right. You have to know when to quit.

But you also have to know when to open the window, and keep it open.