His name will forever be associated with police brutality in Chicago, yet he never faced criminal charges for the torture he allegedly ordered and took part in.
On Wednesday, former Chicago Area 2 Police Commander Jon Burge died at his home in Florida where he was living in retirement. He was 70 years old. The cause of his death was not revealed.
The allegations against Burge began in the 1970s after he had risen in the ranks of the Chicago Police Department and was made commander. Burge was alleged to have operated a “midnight crew” that, among other things, used cattle prods to brutalize and torture hundreds of African-Americans in Chicago police custody.
After a series of Cook County and Chicago police officers were shot over the course of a week in February 1982, Burge launched an intensive effort to find the perpetrators. Suspects were reportedly chained for days without being charged while minors were allegedly held at gunpoint by police seeking information, all under orders from Burge. The investigation drew the attention and ire of community leaders including the head of Operation Push, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as black police officers who equated Burge’s tactics to that of a southern lynch mob. It also sparked the accusations of brutality against Burge that would follow him for the rest of his life.
In 1990, the Chicago Reader published the first comprehensive report on Chicago police torture characterizing Burge as the “perpetrator-in-chief” in a long series of alleged abuses that included electric shock torture on suspects’ genitals. Many suspects claimed they were tortured into confessing to crimes they did not commit and a number of them were tried and sentenced to death.
Following mounting pressure from elected officials and groups including Amnesty International, the Chicago Police Board launched an investigation into Burge, eventually finding him guilty of “physically abusing” one suspect. He was fired from the Chicago Police force in February 1993, but accusations and calls for justice continued to come forward.
In 2006, Cook County prosecutors said they had uncovered evidence of abuse by Burge and his detectives but could not bring charges because the statute of limitations had expired. Burge instead was charged by federal prosecutors with perjury for lying about the abuse in a civil case brought against him. Burge was convicted and served prison time from 2010 to 2014.
Two years ago, the city of Chicago agreed to pay $5.5 million in reparations to 57 of Burge’s victims.
Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday: “You know, people picked a career apart that was considered for a long time to be an honorable career and a very effective career. And I don’t know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and years and years of service that he gave the city. But we’ll have to wait and see how that eventually plays out in history, I guess.”