The city of Chicago on Tuesday sought to put to rest one of its most persistent scandals, proposing a $5.5 million reparations fund for dozens of torture victims connected to former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his so-called midnight crew of rogue detectives.
The proposal, negotiated with a key plaintiff's attorney and supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would offer free city college tuition for victims and their families, free counseling for psychological issues and substance abuse as well as other assistance to more than 50 potential victims. The city would also issue a formal apology, create a permanent memorial recognizing the victims and ensure that eighth- and 10th-grade students attending Chicago Public Schools would be taught about the Burge case and its brutal legacy, cementing the scandal's role in city history.
But as much as the proposal seeks to end a painful, controversial era — Emanuel said it would "close this book, the Burge book on the city's history" — it is unlikely to stanch the flow of torture claims from victims. A Loyola University Chicago law school dean appointed by a Cook County judge has identified some 20 additional cases in which inmates may have been Burge victims. Other inmates who have made torture claims continue to fight to overturn convictions and win their freedom. And one lawsuit over the torture is pending.
Already, this stubborn scandal has cost taxpayers about $100 million in lawsuit settlements, judgments and other legal costs, according to lawyers.
"It brings it much closer to closure, especially from the city's point of view," said Flint Taylor, an attorney who has been pursuing the torture issue for decades and was one of the lawyers who negotiated the reparations package. "But it's not done and over."
Taylor and other lawyers have said as many as 120 men, mostly African-Americans, were tortured from early 1972 to late 1991. Burge and his detectives had gained a reputation for solving brutal murders, rapes and deadly arsons in some of the South Side's most violent neighborhoods by obtaining confessions.
Increasingly, however, suspects and their lawyers claimed that the officers used suffocation, electric shock and even Russian roulette to coerce the confessions, but those claims routinely were ignored by Cook County prosecutors and rebuffed by criminal court judges.
By 1993 Burge was fired after he was linked to the torture of cop-killer Andrew Wilson. In 2006, after a four-year investigation, special Cook County prosecutors found evidence of widespread abuse by Burge and detectives under his command.
The torture has left a blemish on the city's global reputation. Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said the reparations fund would allow the city to move past the scandal, one he made a point of noting Emanuel inherited.
Some of the cases, in fact, date to when former Mayor Richard M. Daley was Cook County state's attorney and violent crime was on the rise.
"We do this not because it's legally required, because it's not," Patton said at a hearing on the agreement. "We do this because we believe it's the right thing to do, both for the victims and their families and for the city."
Burge was convicted in federal court of lying about the torture and sentenced to 41/2 years in prison. He was released in October but confined to his home until February. He still collects a police pension.
Burge did not return calls Tuesday to his home in Florida.
But John "Jack" Byrne, Burge's former right-hand man, on Tuesday called the reparations deal a "scam perpetuated on taxpayers."
Byrne, 68, who retired in 1992, said inmates conspired with lawyers to make up claims about torture to gain their freedom and make money. Torture, he said, never happened — at least not while he was working under Burge's command. Instead, he said, crimes were solved.
"Somebody has to be the boogeyman," Byrne, who works as a private investigator, said in the telephone interview. "In these cases, it's Burge, and everybody has bought it lock, stock and barrel. These inmates got together and collaborated and then everybody jumped on the bandwagon."
An ordinance calling for the reparations fund was introduced in October 2013. While a majority of aldermen professed support for the measure, it remained bottled up in the Finance Committee. Emanuel had apologized for the Burge era, but he spent months balking at endorsing the reparations ordinance before Tuesday's announcement.
In the run-up to the first round of the mayoral election in February, supporters of the reparations ordinance pressed their case, saying at a City Hall news conference before a meeting of the Finance Committee that if the mayor did not back the package they would work to elect one of his challengers.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture had called for passage of the ordinance last year.
The city negotiated with a team that included Taylor, lawyer Joey Mogul, who like Taylor is with the People's Law Office, and a two advocates from Amnesty International. Martha Biondi, chair of the African-American studies department at Northwestern University, also was on the team.
The measure will not be introduced until Wednesday and still needs City Council approval, but Taylor and city officials provided details about it. Besides tuition, counseling and job training, the reparations package offers as much as $100,000 to individual victims who the city and Taylor agree have been abused by Burge or his officers. If they do not agree, the claim will be decided by an arbitrator.
Torture victims who already have received judgments or settlements that exceed $100,000 are not eligible to apply for reparations. And inmates who hope to win their freedom, or those who have been released but have not sued, would have to decide whether to seek reparations or hold out for exoneration and a shot at a lawsuit, a tough choice considering the long odds of prevailing with an appeal or a lawsuit.
"They and their lawyers have to take a realistic view of whether they'll be exonerated, and whether they'll be exonerated in a way that's indicative of their innocence," Taylor said. "I imagine that there'll be some very frank discussions about how to proceed with some cases."
Biondi said she knew of no other instance in which a municipality had agreed to pay reparations for harms committed by police. She said she hoped the reparations ordinance would inform the national conversation about the police treatment of minorities as well as police accountability, and perhaps even fuel improved police-community relations.
She said, too, that the ordinance's provision for a permanent memorial of some sort will offer a lasting image of the scandal in the city.
Darrell Cannon, who settled a lawsuit for $3,000 long before he was cleared of a murder, is among those who would be eligible for reparations. He said he would seek the $97,000, the most he could claim. He said he would buy a motorcycle and then ride it once around City Hall.
"I'm proud to be a part of this," Cannon said. "I'm sitting here in City Council (chambers). I'm sitting here knowing that no longer will it be swept under the rug."
Taylor, who has driven much of the effort to first reveal the torture and then have it acknowledged, said he came face-to-face with Burge in February when he questioned him in Florida in a sworn deposition as part of Alonzo Smith's effort to prove his innocence in a 1983 murder case.
Burge remained defiant but asserted his Fifth Amendment right, according to Taylor.
"I think the city stepping up and admitting the fact and apologizing for what was done here is doubly important given the fact that Burge refused to take responsibility for what he has done," Taylor said.