A Brief History
On January 11, 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 convicted murderers in Illinois prisons due to the scandal of Chicago Police Detective Jon Burge having allegedly tortured confessions out of the then suspects.
Burge, a Vietnam Veteran and US Army soldier who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in Vietnam had joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970 while only 22 years old. Burge had a spectacular police career, becoming a Detective in 1972 and promoted to Lieutenant, gaining command of a Violent Crimes unit, then Bomb and Arson Unit, and finally as the Area 3 Detective Commander.
Investigators later found that Burge had engaged in improper (torture) interrogations as early as 1972, and a particular case in 1982 where police officers had been murdered triggered a rash of violent and coercive interrogations by Burge. In response to the rash of murders of police officers a dragnet was instituted where African-Americans were rounded up and virtually tortured for information about the killings. Police allegedly shot suspects’ pets, handcuffed people to stationary objects for days at a time, and crammed pistols into the heads of minor children. The suspects finally arrested for the police murders that triggered the incident were brought to the hospital with extensive injuries inflicted after the arrest, while in police custody. It was later alleged that police had burned the suspects with cigarettes and a radiator, used electric shock devices, including a cattle prod and a hand cranked generator with leads attached to the suspect’s genitals.
The revelations of the investigation into Chicago Police interrogations led to the commutations of death sentences, though not pardons. It would be up to the individual convicts and their attorneys to mount whatever appeals they could, but at least the convicts would be alive to appeal! Of course, Burge was prosecuted for misconduct, convicted of 2 counts of obstruction of justice and 1 count of perjury, and was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison in 2011, released a few months early in October of 2014. In 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel announced a $5.5 million fund available for people that could show they had been victimized by Burge’s unlawful interrogations.
Police torture of suspects may be entertaining on television (Hawaii 5-0, 24 etc) or in movies, but in real life the consequences can ruin investigations and prosecutions, and ultimately cost government entities millions of dollars. Police are allowed many legitimate interrogation techniques, even including lying, that skillfully applied can elicit confessions or vital information about cases. Ideally, police would be highly trained in these techniques, education that many cash strapped departments may not have money for. Our contention, here at History and Headlines, is that “You get what you pay for.” If you want professional and effective policing, you must pay for the training and education of those officers and provide enough pay and benefits to attract and retain good men and women.
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The featured image in this article, a photograph of an electric cattle prod, contains material based on a work of a National Park Service employee, created as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, such work is in the public domain in the United States. See the NPS website and NPS copyright policy for more information.