Dozens of wrongful conviction lawsuits still are pending against the city of Chicago, a high-level city attorney told aldermen Tuesday, even after a yearslong parade of settlements of such cases have already drained tens of millions of dollars from the pockets of taxpayers.
At least two of the pending cases involve allegations from the era of Jon Burge, First Assistant Corporation Counsel Jane Elinor Notz said, referring to the disgraced former police commander who is alleged to have led a team of detectives in the 1970s and 1980s that tortured false confessions out scores of African-American suspects
. And there are 25 other cases in which convictions were reversed and the people initially found guilty later accused police of misconduct, she said.
Notz spoke during a Finance Committee meeting at which aldermen recommended approval of a $4 million settlement in the lawsuit filed by Shawn Whirl, who spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars in a case linked to the Burge era.
Ald. John Arena, 45th, noted the human and financial costs of the Burge era and other police misconduct cases, saying it highlighted the need to implement the recommendations in a recent U.S. Department of Justice report that concluded the city does not effectively deal with police misconduct.
“Decades later, the city — the taxpayers of Chicago — are still trying to make restitution because of that approach to policing that hopefully collectively we can weed out from our police force,” said Arena, referring to settlements surrounding the Burge era.
The Burge-era litigation and claims against the city and Cook County state’s attorney’s office have cost taxpayers more than $111 million, according to one tally. And all police misconduct settlements since 2004 have cost the city more than $500 million.
The numbers are relevant as some aldermen question the costs of implementing the Justice Department recommendations. Others say the city actually could reduce costs if the proposed changes stop misconduct that results in costly settlements.
After the committee meeting, Arena said the city is “paying for the sins of the past” and has to take steps to prevent the misconduct.
“We see brown and black citizens of Chicago disproportionately in our justice system, and it’s costing them and their families opportunities that are lost because they’re getting swept into this so we can catch a few of the bad guys,” Arena said. “So this is where the DOJ report has to be implemented. We have to reform the department.”
Whirl, who was a computer operator with no criminal record before he was convicted of murder in the death of a taxi driver, spent more than 24 years behind bars until his release in 2015, after an appellate court determined the case against him was “nonexistent” without his confession. Earlier, the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission formed to probe allegations of abuse under Burge found credible Whirl’s allegations of torture.