From whitewash to rugs

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In late May, the City Council passed a resolution calling for hearings into the special prosecutors' report on torture under former police commander Jon Burge. That's the same report that was released last July 19 and immediately discredited as a whitewash, in part because it concluded that Burge and his underlings were exempt from prosecution because so much time had passed since they had beaten, burned, shocked, suffocated, and shoved guns in the mouths of suspects in their custody. Some aldermen expressed outrage when the report was issued, especially since the city continues to pay Burge's legal bills and pension, but months passed before Ike Carothers, chairman of the council's Committee on Police and Fire, held a hearing on it.

That was last November. Little happened as a result of the hearing, and this spring, after new aldermen were sworn in and several incidents of police abuse were captured on video, the council's black caucus called for another meeting on Burge. The stated purpose, according to their resolution, was "to invite Special State's Attorneys Edward J. Egan and Robert D. Boyle, along with [police] Superintendent Philip J. Cline, to hearings to discuss the Special State's Attorneys findings published in their report."

That second hearing on the Burge report was held today. But just minutes into it, Carothers announced that Egan and Boyle weren’t going to show up. "They indicated that to me yesterday that they had made a decision not to appear before the committee," Carothers said.

Then he announced that the hearing’s third would-be guest of honor, outgoing superintendent Phil Cline, had sent one of his deputies. It was a good indication of how seriously Carothers and the Daley administration were taking the hearing.

First deputy Dana Starks told the committee that the police department has taken numerous steps to protect citizens and its own reputation from "rogue" cops like Burge.  

Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale was one of the aldermen who responded with skepticism. “While I agree with you that this type of torture that went on years ago is not prevalent today, there is another type of abuse going on in this department,” Beale said, mentioning recent disclosures that most complaints of police misconduct are levied against special operations officers. “What is your take on the fact that most of those complaints were just brushed under the rug and none of the officers were disciplined for it?”

Carothers didn’t let Starks respond. “You need to ask questions about this resolution,” Carothers told Beale. “Did you look at the resolution on the floor?”

“Yes, but I asked him a question—”

“You can ask him a question in the hallway if you want,” Carothers snapped. “But today we’re here for questions related to the resolution set forth by your colleagues that you may have even signed. You are asking questions that are totally out of that scope, that have nothing to do with this resolution.”

“Mr. Chairman, we have the first deputy here who is one of the best first deputies in the question, and I am asking his personal opinion on the complaints that are coming in about these special operations units that are under the direct supervision of the superintendent.”

“Alderman, I’ll say it again: You can ask all the questions you want, but today the purpose of this hearing is to deal with this resolution. The purpose today is not to deal with every question you have about the police. You can ask him that question outside.”

“That question I asked is a direct reflection on abuse—another form of abuse of power in the police department,” Beale said. “Now, it happened 20 years ago, and another form is happening today—”

“Alderman, it has nothing to do—”

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

“—with the resolution at hand.”

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

Eventually the committee heard from civil rights attorneys and community activists who blasted the Daley administration for not looking for creative ways to cut off the pensions and legal defense of Burge and his henchmen. By implication, the witnesses were also blasting the City Council for not being more aggressive, and aldermen knew it.

“Look, we know what happened—everybody in this building would like to get the anvil of Burge off our neck,” said 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If we want to do things in this administration, if we want it hard enough, we can create legal theories to get it done.”

Later Carothers told reporters it wasn’t the City Council’s right or responsibility to work out settlements for police cases, and he was skeptical that the city could legally get off the hook for covering Burge’s pension or legal defense. “I don’t believe we have the power to do that. If we do, I assume that’s something we would have already done.”

Under state law, the council has the power to subpoena witnesses to appear, but Carothers also brushed off the idea of compelling Egan and Boyle to testify. “I’m not sure I’d want to do that,” he said. “I’m not sure what it would accomplish to have them come in here.”

But that was supposedly the whole point of the hearing.

Howard Brookins Jr., alderman of the 21st Ward, said he’s going to research how to subpoena Egan and Boyle—right now he doesn’t know how to do it, since the council hasn’t subpoenaed anyone in years—and hopes to draft an appropriate ordinance for the next council meeting in September.

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