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The Police Torture Cover-Up

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To the editors:

Congratulations are in order for the Reader: The Chicago Police Department has just fired Detective Commander Jon Burge for torturing a Black prisoner in a police station, and your paper was the first to open up the story of police torture with John Conroy's article "House of Screams" [January 26, 1990]. The Conroy article played an important part in prompting Amnesty International's London office to issue a world alert that year about police torture in Chicago, the only time it has ever alleged torture by a U.S. police department.

Meanwhile, the city's daily-deadline press corps has been disgracefully passive about this scandal. Some of them managed to cover the Amnesty report without even mentioning Burge by name. They have attended the public hearings and the press conferences and diligently collected statements from every possible point of view, and that's about it. With only the rare exception, they haven't gone even an inch beyond this to try to uncover the underlying story for themselves. The Sun-Times was actually annoyed when the Reader asked about following up the Conroy article. It brings to mind the distinction Jeff Cohen makes, between reporters and stenographers.

There is plenty of story there to be uncovered.

An in-depth investigation by the Police Department's Office of Professional Standards has revealed that a veritable torture squad operated inside the department for more than ten years. Forty cases of torture were described, not just the one that Burge and his two men were suspended for, and more than a dozen detectives in the torture squad were identified by name. But again with only the rare exception, the Chicago press corps has shown no initiative in following this up.

The OPS report was suppressed for more than two years, first by Superintendent LeRoy Martin, then by Superintendent Matt Rodriguez, finally coming to light only because of a court order. The press has shown no interest in finding out why this report was suppressed.

Using departmental records the OPS report documents the race of 50 victims of police torture or abuse: every one without exception is Black; all the torturing officers are white. Again with the rare exception, the press has not pursued the question of official racism.

Burge and his men were promoted steadily up through the ranks while they accumulated thick files of torture complaints. When Burge finally was publicly accused, Mayor Jane Byrne defended him and State's Attorney Richard M. Daley refused to investigate him (and later as mayor, Richard M. Daley endorsed him). When Burge was sued, the chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, Alderman Ed Burke (of the "Council 29"), spent upwards of a million dollars in committee funds (without going through the council) to hire private lawyers even though Burge was entitled to free city lawyers. Last April, when it looked like the secret OPS report could threaten Burge with more charges, a special bill written specifically to shield him from the report was introduced simultaneously in the City Council and in Springfield (Senate Bill 1789). In barely 12 weeks it passed both houses of the state legislature and was placed on the governor's desk for signing before word got out to the public; only at the last minute did the governor change the wording so Burge would not be protected. The Chicago press corps has not shown the slightest curiosity or initiative in looking into the How, the Who, or the Why of the really amazing official protection that has rallied to defend Jon Burge.

Even telephone threats to the press have not been reported by the press. There will be no Pulitzers in Chicago around police torture. In fact, the determination of the press to avoid major elements of this story has become a story of its own, and part of the cover-up.

John Conroy's "House of Screams" in the Reader is still some of the best reporting that's been done on police torture in Chicago. The OPS referred to it when putting together its report, and the working press in Chicago could take another look at it too.

Robert Wells

Task Force to Confront Police Violence

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