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Chicago City Council Approves Reparations for Police Torture Victims

Chicago City Council Approves Reparations for Police Torture Victims

by Joe Watson

The Chicago City Council has voted to approve a $5.5 million package that will pay reparations and fund other benefits to victims of torture at the hands of notorious former police commander Jon Burge and his cadre of officers. The May 6, 2015 approval of the package culminates a decade-long effort to compensate the more than 100 victims – mostly African-American men – who suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of police during almost two decades under Burge’s reign. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.14; Oct. 2004, p.1].

The reparations package includes maximum payments of $100,000 to torture victims, plus free city college tuition and job training to victims and their families, as well as city-funded psychological, family and substance abuse counseling. No payments will be made to family members of torture victims who have since died, though they can receive other benefits.

Authorities alleged that from 1972 to 1991, Burge was in charge of a group of white Chicago police detectives who forced confessions from suspects by routinely using electric shocks, mock executions, and suffocation with plastic bags and typewriter covers, and by hurting their genitals. The Chicago-based People’s Law Office documented 118 such cases.

“I want to say to the rest of the world and Chicago, we get it,” said city Alderman Howard Brookins, who called Burge’s actions an “atrocity.”

“That type of behavior will not be tolerated in our city, and we can work together bringing the community and the people together for the betterment of our city,” he added. Brookins termed the reparations “a meaningful settlement.”

“This stain cannot be removed from our city’s history, but it can be used as a lesson of what not to do,” declared Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“Chicago has taken a historic step to show the country, and the world, that there should be no expiration date on reparations for crimes as heinous as torture,” said Steven Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA, which has long worked to outlaw torture. “The United States is a country desperately in need of a more accountable police force. Passing this ordinance will not only give long-overdue reparations to survivors, it will help set a precedent of U.S. authorities taking concrete measures to hold torturers accountable.”

Burge was released from the Butner Correctional Institution, a low-security federal prison near Durham, North Carolina, on October 2, 2014 and remanded to a halfway house in Tampa, Florida to serve the remainder of his sentence. He was convicted in 2010 on perjury charges for lying to federal investigators to cover-up the torture, and sentenced to four-and-a-half years. By the time the abuse was uncovered, the statute of limitations had expired on the incidents themselves.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission, which has been working since 2011 to uncover incidents of police torture under Burge, was accused of bias in favor of defendants who were allegedly abused at the expense of the victims of crimes those defendants were accused of committing. The controversy led to the resignation of the Commission’s director and appointment of a new director.

Joe Heinrich, a college professor and retired police officer whose sister and brother-in-law were murdered in Chicago in 1983, said he was never informed that the man convicted of the murders was under consideration for a new trial based on the Commission’s findings.

On July 25, 2013, the Commission found that Chicago detectives had tortured Jerry Mahaffey while questioning him almost 30 years ago about the murders of Heinrich’s sister, Jo Ellen Pueschel, and her husband Dean, and the beating of their 12-year-old son Ricky. The case was assigned to a Cook County Criminal Court judge to decide whether to grant Mahaffey – who was sentenced to life in prison for the murders – a new trial.

“It’s the kind of thing that sucks the wind out of you and totally derails your life,” said Heinrich, adding that he only found out about the Commission’s decision from a reporter after he returned from vacation.

Heinrich contacted then-Commission director David Thomas to complain that the Commission had violated Illinois law by excluding the Pueschel family from the review process. A 2009 law compels the Commission, where evidence of police torture is discovered, to “use all due diligence to notify the victim and explain the inquiry process,” and to notify victims of the “right to present [their] views and concerns throughout the ... investigation.”

Thomas reportedly told Heinrich that his staff had “inadvertently” failed to notify him. He then rescinded the Mahaffey ruling, along with rulings in two other cases with similar circumstances, and invited the Pueschel family to the Commission’s next meeting to voice their concerns.

However, the Commission’s failure to notify family members of victims attracted the attention of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who called on Thomas to resign. Thomas submitted his resignation in September 2013; former prosecutor and Harvard University attorney Barry Miller was named as the Commission’s new director on December 30, 2013.

Chicago Mayor Emanuel publicly apologized for what he called a “dark chapter” in the city’s history just prior to a city council vote in favor of a settlement in a prior lawsuit brought by torture victims. On September 11, 2013, the council voted to pay $6.15 million each to Marvin Reeves and Ronald Kitchen, who were abused by Burge’s detectives and subsequently spent 21 years in prison for a quintuple murder before they were exonerated and released.

According to a May 2, 2015 news report in the Chicago Tribune, the city, as well as Cook County and the State of Illinois, have paid out more than $100 million in combined “settlements, judgments and other legal costs” as a result of the Burge torture scandal, including settlements to former prisoners who were wrongfully convicted after giving false confessions.

Sources: Chicago Tribune,,,,,