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Book Review:
A shocking look at police torture tactics

The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence

Laurence Ralph, 2020

The July 2, 2020 issue of the New York Review of Books contains a Peter Baker review of Laurence Ralph's excellent book, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, which contains shocking (at least I was shocked) information regarding police brutality directed at African Americans in Chicago. 


Baker's first paragraph begins: "Chicago has a police torture problem. The exact size of this problem is unknown and perhaps never will be. What is known for sure is that between 1972 and 1991 at least 125 black Chicagoans were tortured by police officers in the Area 2 precinct building on the city's predominantly black Southside."  According to Baker, "Depending on the day and the officers involved, victims were beaten, shackled to steaming hot radiators, electrocuted and raped with sex toys. They were tortured into confessing, and sometimes tortured more afterwards; these confessions were used to send them to prison, and in some instances to death row. " In 2009 "Illinois established the Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission to expedite the review of ... torture cases... "It (the Commission) now has 543 cases pending ... If it proceeds at the same average speed it has shown over the last decade, it will take another three decades just to process the claims that has been filed so far." 


According to Baker, "the city's history of police torture is associated with a single name: Jon Burge,"  a veteran officer who climbed the ranks to detective and then commander. "Burge had served in Vietnam where he presumably learned about electroshock torture." Burge was fired in 1993 for physical abuse of a suspect, "to this day he remains the only Chicago police officer seriously disciplined for involvement in torture. Burge was convicted of perjury and criminal obstruction in 2011, and he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. He was never convicted of torture because of a 5-year statute of limitations on police brutality cases in Illinois.   Burge died in 2018. To date, "Burge related cases have cost the city over $100 million."  A reparations bill was signed in 2015 which set aside $5.5 million dollars from which torture victims could receive $100,000 each. The city pledged to support the creation of a monument to victims and to open a center for psychological services for survivors. However, Baker asserts that "the reparations bill was not the end of anything, but one station in a long ongoing struggle. Most Chicagoans are not aware the bill exists, much less what it asks of the city."  And "the promised monument has not been built." Chicago remains, Baker states, "one of the most segregated cities in the country."


In Chicago, Burge "is the singular villain of the story as it tends to get told in the media, and almost equally so in the version historically preferred by the Chicago law enforcement establishment .. After all, while one thoroughly rotten apple in a city is bad enough, it's nothing compared to a barrelful: the entire legal system of a city ignoring the torture of black suspects by white cops." Much of the regime of torture occurred when Richard M. Daley was county prosecutor before he became Mayor. Police, prosecutors and the Mayor of the city appeared to "share the sense that brutal violence was a necessary tool for the policing of black Chicago."  


I read a lot of American history and a lot of books about the history of slavery and racism in the U.S., and the more I read the worse it gets. This is the first article I've read about the systematic use of torture directed at Black males in a large urban police department in the U.S.; and yet this story in its many ramifications has been in the news for years.            

-- Dee Wilson

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