Burge torture hearings highlight need for transparency and accountability

Burge torture hearings highlight need for transparency and accountability

The police commander’s conduct has left lasting scars on victims and cost taxpayers millions.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved a $5.5 million package on April 14 that will compensate victims of Jon Burge, the disgraced former Chicago police commander who oversaw the torture of hundreds of suspects.

At the Chicago City Council hearing on the package, victims’ rights advocates praised the agreement, the first if its kind for a municipality. Burge’s reign of terror, which lasted nearly 20 years from the early ’70s to the early ’90s, was brought to life with compelling and horrifying testimony. Victims who testified at the hearings described, in excruciating detail, torture including genital electric shocking, suffocation with plastic bags, beatings and other methods used to elicit false confessions.

The initial compensation proposal  asked for a $20 million fund for the torture victims, but supporters negotiated with the city for the sum of $5.5 million. Under the agreement, anyone with a credible claim that he or she had been tortured between 1972 and 1991 by Burge or his subordinates would be eligible for compensation on the condition that he or she could not bring the same torture claim against the city in the future. The $5.5 million is to be shared equally among the victims.

Abuse and misconduct are costing the city dearly. Chicago has already paid out over $500 million in police misconduct related claims over the last decade. Nearly $100 million of that is related to the Burge torture cases.

Burge, however, kept his $4,000-a-month pension, supported by Chicago taxpayers. He only served three and a half years in federal prison for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the torture – nothing for the torture itself.

Chicago cannot afford vast payouts, but victims deserve justice. The best way to avoid such expenses – and heinous crimes – is to increase transparency and accountability so people like Burge will be less able to abuse their power and cause harm. For example, body cameras could help prevent tragedies in the future. But more than that, taxpayers need active investigation of abuse allegations as soon as they occur, better training for law enforcement and prosecution of those who engage in misconduct. Chicago’s fiscal stability and Chicagoans’ lives depend on it.

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