Frequently Asked Questions
(prepared by Students for Human Rights)
Q: Why haven’t I heard about these cases before?
Over the years, the Burge story has been covered by a number of local, national, and international media outlets. Indeed, one well-known Chicago journalist, John Conroy, has devoted much of his time to chronicling the progression of the cases and has written a book about torturers that profiles Jon Burge.
Even so, it certainly does seem odd that the Burge torture cases have not received more attention from media sources and government officials. Some media outlets have chosen to under-publicize this crucial issue because of:
- Hesitancy to criticize a member of the police force in an uncertain political climate that is focused on the maintenance of law, order, and safety.
- Perceived difficulties in determining the truth of the victims’ statements. These difficulties are merely “perceived” because an examination of the evidence clearly confirms the credibility of the victims’ statements.
- The lengthy time period in which allegations unfolded reduced the amount of attention that the cases received. If the allegations had arisen over the span of a few months instead of years, there certainly would have been more media concern.
- Mounting apathy towards torture among certain sectors of the public and the policy-makers of the current administration.
- Widespread racism and prejudice against the inner-city poor. Many people are hesitant to consider the evidence in these cases because the majority of the victims of this tragedy were young black males from an urban environment. As much as our society prefers to maintain a front of equal protection before the law, we all know that black males are targeted by the police each day because of an unspoken expectation that they commit crimes.
Most importantly, media coverage has been inadequate in these cases because there has been nothing decisive to cover. The media cannot publicize a trial that does not exist, and in the case of Jon Burge, influential political figures have ensured that no criminal trial has gone forward. An administrative conspiracy of silence, public neutrality, and a reluctance to prosecute a known criminal send a clear message to members of the media—it’s not in your best interests to pursue this investigation.
Q: Even if the allegations of torture against Jon Burge are true, why should anyone care about the victims if they were criminals?
The renowned criminal law theorist Norval Morris once said, “There are certain values to which we adhere as a group bound together by an overarching culture. One of these values is a firm rejection of torture as a means of achieving collective purposes.”1 From our nation’s founding, Americans have protested against the notion of torture as an appropriate tool for achieving criminal justice. The Bill of Rights explicitly states in its 8 th Amendment that all “cruel and unusual punishments” are prohibited. When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they knew that torture undermines the rule of law and paves the way for further abuses of power. In this country, we believe that all criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty by a judge or a jury of peers. To allow this important power to be arbitrarily transferred to police officers would set a dangerous precedent of disregard for the law.
The necessity of protection against torture for all is not just a local notion, however, for the international community has demonstrated its strong denunciation of torturous behavior by way of international covenants. The United Nations “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” conveys the clear idea that torture is not to be tolerated at any time, by anyone, and in any location.
Q: Since Jon Burge has been fired from the force since the allegations of torture came to light, shouldn’t we just leave well enough alone and allow him to retire in peace?
For many years, Jon Burge appeared to be a model citizen— a dedicated law enforcement official, family man, and patriot— and if this is still the case, he does deserve to retire in peace. If Captain Burge is not guilty of torture, he deserves a fair criminal trial where he can prove his innocence once and for all. This would allow him to formally clear his name in public and enable him to continue his retirement undisturbed.
If Jon Burge is guilty, however (and the evidence strongly indicates that he is), he must face the law as any other criminal would. Jon Burge is not immune to the authority of the courts simply because he held a position of authority in the community. Rather, every effort must be made to rectify the impunity that he has enjoyed as a law-enforcement official. This would:
- Bring justice to the communities who were unduly targeted by Burge as harboring criminals
- Provide evidence and hope for those victims who have been unfairly convicted based on testimony extracted under torture
- Set a precedent that every citizen of the United States is subject to the jurisdiction of the law and is responsible for his or her actions.
Q: Are we undermining the authority of the police by questioning the methods of detectives like Jon Burge who undertake such a risky and difficult job?
Absolutely not. Of course police officers, like other people, will make mistakes when they are under pressure to make split-second decisions regarding the use of force, and policing in the United States is a dangerous job. However, the pattern and practice of torture that are plainly evident in the Burge cases extend far beyond the normal errors that can be attributed to the difficult nature of police work. The abuses that occurred under Burge were entirely preventable.
By tacitly condoning this sort of inappropriate and illegal behavior from police officers, we send a message to the public that law enforcement officials cannot be trusted. Citizens need to know that police officers are available to protect them from criminals, rather than engaging in criminal activity themselves. One of the most important reasons to fight for the criminal prosecution of torturers like Jon Burge is to demonstrate your support for the police officers across the country who manage to keep us all safe without resorting to dangerous and illegal tactics.
Q: Why haven’t any witnesses or police officers at Area 2 and 3 stepped forward to corroborate the victims’ testimony?
Many officers and detectives actually have come forward to support the victims of Jon Burge’s reign of terror. For instance, in a 2004 statement, retired officer Doris M. Byrd affirmed the existence of torturous techniques at Area 2. She testified:
Examiner: “…when this black box and the phone book and the bags that you were told about, was this -- would it be fair to say that it was somewhat of an open secret up at Area 2 that this kind of stuff was going on?”
It seems likely that more officers and detectives would speak out if they did not fear for their jobs or other repercussions. In the same statement, Byrd discusses her reticence to testify against Burge.
Examiner: “…What [is] your belief about what would have happened if you had come forward and rocked the boat with regard to what you know and what you had heard about police torture and about Burge and the A-team?”Byrd: “Well, first of all, we would have been frozen out of the police system. We would have been ostracized. We definitely wouldn’t have made rank. We probably would have been stuck in some do-nothing assignment.” 2
Q: Are the Burge torture cases isolated events, or are they part of a broader practice of abuse by Chicago police officers?
According to a Human Rights Watch report:
“Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.” 3
This passage confirms that police abuse is a significant problem in our country and our city. While nearly all police officers avoid excess force on the level of the Burge incidents of torture, it seems that there is an unspoken system of impunity for negligent officers who violate the codes of honorable police conduct. The Burge torture cases are an extreme example of the consequences that stem from allowing this pattern of abuse to flourish.
Q: I want to help bring Jon Burge and his fellow torturers to justice. Where can I find more information on how to help?
Please direct your attention to our Further Resources section (coming soon).
1 Morris, Norval. Maconochie’s Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 173.
2 Sworn statement of Doris M. Byrd. In re: Patterson v. Burge. Taken 11/9/2004. CD 1, AA Det. Folder.
3 Human Rights Watch. “Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States”.