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The Police Torture Scandal: A Who's Who

1. The Ringleader: Jon Burge

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Since the first reports of Chicago police torture surfaced a quarter century ago the list has swelled to nearly 200 cases involving dozens of public employees—and still no one has been prosecuted. Now, with the results of a four-year, multimillion dollar investigation due any day, here’s a guide by staff reporter John Conroy to the key figures in the scandal. Some of them may look familiar.

Jon Burge

Bill St. James

JON BURGE

Burge, a south-side native, may have learned to torture in Vietnam, where he served in 1968 and ’69. Veterans of his company have reported that they participated in the electrical torture of Vietcong suspects, shocking them using hand-cranked field telephones. A similar device was used to shock suspects at Area Two. Both places, the torturers often targeted the genitals. (For more detail, see the Reader’s “Tools of Torture,” February 4, 2005.) Burge became a police officer in March 1970. Promoted to detective at age 24 in 1972, he was assigned to Area Two, his old neighborhood and an area experiencing rapid racial change: whites were fleeing as African-Americans moved in. The first publicly known complaint of electric shock interrogation at Area Two dates from 1973. In the years that followed Burge was promoted and served in other locations, then returned to Area Two in 1981 as commanding officer of the Violent Crimes unit.

Burge’s slow undoing can be traced to the 1982 arrest of Andrew Wilson for the shooting deaths of two police officers. Wilson’s account of electric shock, some of it aimed at his genitals, didn’t provoke a response from the Cook County state’s attorney, Richard M. Daley (“Deaf to the Screams,” August 1, 2003), but in 1987 the Illinois Supreme Court, suspicious of Wilson’s many injuries, granted him a new trial. He was convicted a second time without the use of his confession and sentenced to natural life. (See “House of Screams,” January 26, 1990, and “The Shocking Truth,” January 10, 1997.)

In 1989, during Wilson’s federal civil rights suit against Burge and the city, anonymous letters addressed to Wilson’s attorneys at the People’s Law Office said that he wasn’t the first person to be shocked at Area Two. Eventually the PLO compiled a list of 105 African-American men who told not only of being shocked but of suffocation with plastic bags and typewriter covers and other forms of torture and abuse inflicted by Burge and detectives under him at Areas Two and Three. Instruments they described included a handcranked electrical device, a cattle prod, and a violet ray machine (also known as a shock wand), a medical instrument now sold as a sex toy. (See “Tools of Torture” and “The Mysterious Third Device,” February 4, 2005.)

Dismissed from the police force in 1993 but never charged with any crime, Burge lives in Florida, collecting a police pension.


An archive of John Conroy's reporting on the police torture scandal is available at chicagoreader.com/policetorture.

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