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Cops on Trial



Anyone troubled that police commander Jon Burge stands on the brink of disgrace--and trust us that thousands of officers are--is apt to believe the Reader has plenty to answer for.

Last Monday a Police Board hearing began at the Dirksen Federal Building to decide whether Burge and two detectives should be drummed from the force. Other cops note that the three officers already survived two civil trials and an inquiry by the Office of Professional Standards, and they wonder what happened to the principle of double jeopardy. They note that whatever occurred inside an interview room at the old Area 2 headquarters occurred a full decade ago. They cannot put out of their minds that Burge's primary accuser, Andrew Wilson, is a cop killer.

A committee has been organized within the police department to support Burge and detectives John Yucaitis and Patrick O'Hara. A benefit February 25 at $20 a ticket promises to be heavily attended. A letter from the "Burge-O'Hara-Yucaitis Family Fund Committee" heralding this event contains the comment: "Now, without any new evidence, a political appointee is attempting to have these officers fired, based on the statements of convicted murderers, home invaders, rapists, etc. The motives are clear--millions of taxpayer dollars for the PLO, and the denigration of three excellent police officers for the advancement of one woman's career, possibly a judgeship."

The PLO is the People's Law Office, which represented Wilson two years ago in an unsuccessful civil suit alleging police torture. Wilson's first trial in 1989 ended in a hung jury; a second jury that year ruled against Wilson despite finding that his constitutional rights had been violated back in 1982 and that Chicago police had been allowed to abuse suspected cop killers.

The "political appointee" disparaged in the letter is presumably Gayle Shines, a former state's attorney appointed by Mayor Daley in 1990 to run the CPD's discredited Office of Professional Standards.

Detective Frank Glynn is chairman of the Burge-O'Hara-Yucaitis committee. We called Glynn, and he wouldn't give us the time of day. Glynn reminded us that in January 1990 the Reader published "House of Screams," an article that guaranteed Burge's troubles would not go away. "That was a bit of poor journalism," Glynn told us. "I have nothing further ever to say to you." He made it clear that no one on the committee would talk to us.

Feelings are running high. Distributed among police officers, apparently for know-your-enemy purposes, were copies of a flier from a PLO ally called the Task Force to Confront Police Violence. The flier carried a picture of Burge, the legend "Wanted for Torture," and this hostile text: "A police Commander has never been accused of torture and has never been suspended pending firing proceedings. That's why they got all their macho chums out for the fight. We must keep the pressure on! If Burge is not fired this will be a clear green light to other police officers that it is okay to continue their racist brutality without fear of discipline."

At the bottom of the flier was a home phone number foolishly provided by a lawyer active in police-brutality litigation. Last Friday night the lawyer's answering machine clicked on. "You fucking liberal fruit. I know where the fuck you're at. I'm going to come over there and I'm going to fuck your pussy ass up--understand? I'm going to torture your fucking pussy liberal white fucking ass. Understand that. Fucking punk-ass motherfucker!"

A day later the voice returned. "I understand you live at [the address he gave was correct]. I tell you, why don't you do me a favor and leave what floor you're on on your answering machine so I know where to go. Thanks. I'll talk to you later."

The frightened lawyer called the police and then moved in with friends.

With all respect to Detective Glynn, "House of Screams" was superb journalism. John Conroy examined Wilson's story that after being arrested for the murder of two policemen, he'd been burned and shocked with electricity by Burge and Yucaitis (with O'Hara's acquiescence). Conroy pointed out that the defense mounted for the officers at Wilson's second civil trial contradicted the defense offered by the same attorney at the first. He revealed that an anonymous source now referred to by PLO lawyers as "Deep Badge" mailed the PLO a series of letters in 1989 that led to other criminal suspects with stories to tell of being tortured at Area 2, stories that for the most part were not admitted in court. Conroy reported that an investigation into Wilson's charges was ordered in 1982 by the police superintendent, then Richard Brzeczek, on the urging of the medical director of Cermak Hospital, which is where Cook County Jail inmates are treated. This doctor had examined Wilson after Wilson confessed.

Conroy reported that Brzeczek sent a copy of the medical director's letter to Richard M. Daley, then the state's attorney, with a note advising Daley that he did not want to jeopardize the murder case pending against Wilson and asking for advice on how to proceed. Daley did not respond.

The first OPS investigation, Conroy suggested, was a desultory affair. An OPS investigator was not put on the case until a year and a half after Brzeczek asked for one, and another 706 days went by before he handed in a three-page report with a finding of "not sustained."

After Wilson's second civil trial, the police watchdog group Citizens Alert and the newly formed Chicago Coalition to End Police Torture and Brutality began clamoring for Burge to be called to account. "House of Screams" invigorated Burge's tormentors, and two months after it appeared Superintendent LeRoy Martin ordered a new OPS investigation. The article attracted Amnesty International, leading to an embarrassing citation of Chicago (ignored by local media) in last year's annual survey of torture around the world. And if Chicago's major media remained largely hesitant to pursue the torture story, Conroy's account at least primed the pump.

The media finally responded swiftly and loudly last week when torture was presented to them in an easy-to-open package. The package consisted of two fresh OPS reports that were turned over to Martin in November 1990 and kept under wraps ever since--though their damaging nature became clear last November when Martin suspended the three officers. Last week PLO attorney Flint Taylor, bolstered by an application from the Reader asking for the reports on First Amendment grounds, convinced federal judge Milton Shadur to order the city to release them. At a triumphal press conference the PLO distributed the entire report that OPS investigator Francine Sanders had made on Wilson's charges, plus the conclusions of investigator Michael Goldston, who'd searched for a pattern of torture in Area 2 during the Burge era.

Sanders's report was 66 pages long, 63 pages longer than its predecessor, and it sustained the allegations made against the three policemen. But the Goldston report is what made headlines. Goldston, who noted that "House of Screams" had served his inquiry as "a sound starting point," concluded that "the preponderance of the evidence is that abuse did occur [at Area 2] and that it was systematic. The time span involved covers more than ten years. The type of abuse described was not limited to the usual beating, but went into such esoteric areas as psychological techniques and planned torture."

Also released was a cover letter from Shines to Martin. She praised the investigators for doing "a masterful job."

Shunned by Detective Glynn, we still wanted a policeman's point of view. We were fortunate enough to get in touch with a respected west-side cop. This officer doesn't know Burge or Yucaitis or O'Hara, but he thinks they're getting "a raw deal" and he's going to their benefit. "I'm positive it will be jammed," he told us.

The policeman observed that the charges against Burge and the detectives are old ones, and that Andrew Wilson is a familiar type, a killer who confesses and then repudiates his confession. "Lots of those murders are statement cases," he said. "There's very little corroboration." He meant a confession is often about the only evidence there is. Police today feel under so much pressure, he explained, that many hesitate to take statements from suspects, even when the suspects want to talk. That's because down the road the suspect's going to claim his confession was beaten out of him.

"A lot of times it's not the dope dealer on trial--it's you on trial. Are you lying or telling the truth?"

And if there's no evidence to be had but a statement and the police shy from getting one, the suspect walks. That seems to be a circumstance cops can learn to live with. "In the west side it's often bad guy on bad guy. If they go out and kill again, 99 percent of the time it's just some goof on the street. It's just not worth it anymore. It's not worth your job."

The cop said, "I don't condone brutality, but I'll tell you one thing. If they want policemen to bring people in and sit them down and treat them like the most legitimate people in the world and send them back out, in the long run the ones who are going to suffer are the ones out in the neighborhoods. All they're going to do is intimidate policemen from really doing their job."

This cop dealt with Gayle Shines when she was a state's attorney, and he respects her. But since she took over OPS, he said, "the cases they're sustaining now are just unbelievable." He supposes that "a lot of it could be stemming from Rodney King," who was videotaped 11 months ago being beaten on the street by Los Angeles policemen. Their trial also began last Monday.

If Burge, Yucaitis, and O'Hara are fired, we wondered, what message will that send to the force?

"I think some guys will get the message you'd better protect your own ass and let the street take care of itself," he told us.

At the back of our mind was this: we'd read the OPS reports and he hadn't. Won't it depend on the evidence? we asked him.

To him, it will. But he said, "I think a lot of guys, no matter what the evidence is, they'll say Burge and those guys are getting railroaded."

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