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Conroy on Burge

The reporter who's spent 20 years investigating the police torture kingpin on why the perjury verdict surprised even him.



Jon Burge's testimony impressed me more than it impressed the jury that a few days later convicted him of lying under oath about the brutalization of suspects in his custody. From where I sat in the federal courtroom, Burge had sounded like the kind of tough Chicago cop you'd be glad to have on your side, serving and protecting. John Conroy's knowledge of the facts about Burge is close to absolute, and when I got home from court I e-mailed him and said I wished he were the one who'd now get to cross-examine the former police commander.

Conroy replied, "I'd do a terrible job. Part of me likes the guy. Or maybe I should say, part of me likes part of the guy."

This surprised me only a little. In "House of Screams," the 1990 Reader article that first told the dark tale of Burge, cop killer Andrew Wilson, and torture at Area Two, Conroy described the commander respectfully. He noted Burge's heroic moments on the force and in Vietnam, and he wrote, "The truth is that I find Jon Burge a likable man. He's irreverent, he's modest about his accomplishments, and he tells a good story. He was concerned that I would put words in his mouth and had asked another policeman to sit in on the interview as a witness, but as I was taping the interview and promised to send him a copy of the tape, he dismissed his recruited monitor and answered my questions."

Ten years later, in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture (University of Califormia Press), Conroy described torturers as people who differ from you and me mainly in the job they hold and the assignment they've been told it's their duty to carry out. Like most of us, they do what they do at the office, and when they come home and play with the kids they leave the office behind.

Torture—like so many of the world's other crimes and sorrows—isn't personal, it's only business.

"I think Burge is a guy who was failed by his supervisors," Conroy told me after the trial ended. "I think that if the first time Burge as a detective pulled somebody in and roughed him up in some way, if his lieutenant said to him, 'Burge, you do that one more time and I'll have you guarding the parking lot at 11th and State,' I don't think it would've happened again. He was a good enough cop without it. He could've gone just as far without the torture. It just required some supervision, somebody to say, 'We don't do that here,' and there's no Jon Burge—Jon Burge is not notorious, he's a well-regarded cop and serves his career and retires to Florida and all's well with the world.

"I think everybody wants Burge to be a monster, and he's not. He's a creature of our own devising, in a way. He's a product of the Chicago police system at the time—and now, too—which does its best to protect errant cops unless they're caught red-handed. . . . If the state's attorney's office were prosecuting people for engaging in misconduct of this kind, you and I would never know who Jon Burge is, or we'd know him as an officer who'd brought in some notorious criminals, or as an officer who did something heroic. He wouldn't be a notorious torturer."

Is he, though? I wondered. Is Burge finally notorious in Chicago? Conroy found out by working a thankless story for 20 years how hard it was to impose that status on Burge. Conroy did all the heavy lifting in the Reader, but as he wrote about Burge and torture I'd add the occasional column fretting about how little what he wrote seemed to matter. At first not even the dailies cared.

"I'm not running any editorials about anything in the Reader," the editorial page editor of the Sun-Times, Ray Coffey, told me after "House of Screams."

"I don't doubt that someone abused Andrew Wilson after he was arrested," Mike Royko wrote in 1992. "But we don't know who did it, and we'll never know. . . . Since the city doesn't know, it should let it go."

The dailies ultimately did take an interest, but even then the public didn't. In January 2009, when Burge was still on his boat in Florida, I wrote, "I've given up waiting for Chicago to awaken to police torture with a mighty spasm of revulsion" and proposed that local newspapers take up a slogan: "We care so you don't have to." (The trouble with apathy is that it never shows its enablers any love. My snarky crack led into a self-pitying digression: "Today, when Chicago's newspapers find themselves in terrible trouble, the public doesn't seem to care much whether they survive.")

For the sake of discussion let's assume that Burge is finally persona non grata in his hometown. What an uphill slog! News of what went on under his command at Area Two has always hit too close to home to go down easily. Torture is easy to think about only when far-off evildoers do it.

Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy published an interesting student-written report this spring, Torture at Times: Waterboarding in the Media, which examines waterboarding as it had been written up by major American newspapers over the last 100 years or so. "Waterboarding appeared with some regularity in the news throughout the 20th century, from the Philippine insurgency to World War II to the Vietnam War," reads the study. It showed up in the press under several evocative names—"Submarino," "water cure," "parrot's perch," "Swedish drink"—but whatever it was called it was consistently regarded as torture.

That changed in 2004, "when the first stories about abuses at Abu Ghraib were released." Now the waterboarding in the news was our waterboarding, practiced by Americans against our enemies. "After this point," says the study, "articles most often used words such as 'harsh' or 'coercive' to describe waterboarding or simply gave the practice no treatment, rather than labeling it torture as they had done for the previous seven decades."

Why? The study doesn't guess. But it cites a 2009 column by Clark Hoyt, then public editor of the New York Times, suggesting that a national debate had erupted over whether waterboarding was torture, and it would've been "irresponsible for journalists to preempt this debate by labeling it as such." In other words, everyone knew waterboarding was torture until Americans were the ones doing it, and then maybe it wasn't.

Two decades is a long time. Two decades ago my children were still children, John Conroy's hadn't been born yet—and neither had those of Alison True, who, as the Reader's managing editor and then editor, oversaw Conroy's Burge coverage for 17 years. When awed journalists speak about a reporter sticking with the story, they don't usually mean sticking with it for half a professional lifetime. But that turned out to be necessary. "House of Screams" barely made a dent. More stories were needed, and there were plenty more to write: dozens of men behind bars said Burge and cops under him had tortured them, and some of those men were probably innocent, and they'd been in prison for 20 years or more, and their stories kept coming. Joined by reporters at other papers, Conroy told their stories, and the years went by and journalism changed a lot faster than Chicago did. Burge was kicked off the force in 1993, but not because the powers that be were getting to the bottom of police torture—rather, they were sweeping it aside. As Burge retired to Florida, innocent men went on rotting behind bars. The Tribune took up the subject of corrupt prosecutions and wrongful convictions and won a Pulitzer, but then it changed hands and deemphasized the subject. Meanwhile, the Reader's moneymaking grip on classifieds was broken, the original owners called it quits, and by December 2007 True could see no way to accommodate the austere budget new owners had imposed on her but to fire four staff writers, including Conroy.

He's been doing piecework ever since. When Burge finally went on trial, Conroy blogged it as a temp for WBEZ's Vocalo.

At the Reader, those four staff writers were just the beginning. A year later, shortly after the paper's new parent company filed for bankruptcy, True had to send six more editorial employees out the door. On June 25 it was her turn.

The following Monday I called True at home. She was online, and as we talked she suddenly blurted, "Oh, Burge was convicted." Then she said, "John should really be proud of himself," and I thought: How weird is this? This was our story, and neither one of them even works here anymore.

Burge's conviction astonished me. I'd expected at best a hung jury. Conroy, who was in the courtroom for the verdict, told me, "I was, frankly, stunned. It wasn't that I didn't think the evidence was there. But it was a jury with only one African-American on it, and defense attorneys tell me you need two. One person can't withstand the pressure of the 11 others. I thought this jury was pretty distant from the streets of the south side, where all this took place. Yet there seemed to be no hesitation." Hoping someone had caved in to the others and now regretted it, Burge's attorneys asked the judge to poll the jurors. "And they all said, 'Yes, this is my verdict.'" Conroy told me, "and I was really impressed."

I mentioned True. "I can tell her it's rough out here," Conroy said. "There seems to be no way to make a living doing the things I'm good at. I think maybe that's less true of an editor, particularly somebody who ran the whole ship. Somebody in management can probably argue that those skills are transferable to other places. Though maybe not alternative weeklies. Maybe not even dailies. And maybe not even news."    

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