Yesterday, Salon's Daniel Denvir published an extensive report on the history of police lying and the blue wall of silence in Chicago. Coming as it does in the context of recent revelations about the Laquan McDonald shooting and the allegations of a cover up it shows just how pervasive these practices are in America's third largest city.
Chicago's mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, has been under intense pressure to institute serious reforms, with protests in the streets and even in front of his house. On December 30, he came out with a plan to institute the retraining of officers in the use of force. He promised a full set of reforms, saying:
"That requires us to give them the right guidance, the right training, and the right culture, to prevent abuses. Willful misconduct and abuse cannot and will not be tolerated."
Those were nice words, but whatever trust the public had in the mayor has been so eroded by recent events that his plan was met with more skepticism than enthusiasm. As part of his reform, Emmanuel also proposed to double the number of tasers available to officers from 700 to 1400, apparently in the hope that this will reduce the number of police shootings.
Certainly the case of Laquan McDonald would indicate that if more officers had been armed with tasers, his killing would not have happened. The police were, in fact, waiting for a taser when the officer fired 16 shots killing McDonald. And this situation was a perfect example of how a taser can be used to subdue a suspect who is not armed with a gun, which is its intended purpose. If Chicago uses tasers in those cases instead of killing people by shooting them with their service revolver, it will be a very worthwhile reform.
Unfortunately, that is rarely the way police use tasers. Recall the very similar case of in St Louis in which a young mentally disturbed knife wielding young man named Kaijame Powell was shot dead by police, who were carrying tasers:
A shop owner called the police to report a shoplifter and said he had a knife. The man walks around on the sidewalk in an agitated fashion. A few minutes later a police car races up the street and stops at the curb in front of him, two officers jump out with guns drawn shouting, “Put down the knife!” He says, “Shoot me, shoot me,” and he walks toward the car and they fire their guns, killing him on the spot. The whole altercation took 30 seconds. The St. Louis police chief said that the video of the incident was “exculpatory” and explained that the officers could not have done anything different (like use the tasers they carried on their belt) because nothing else was “guaranteed” to stop the victim.
Police across the country believe that tasers do not guarantee stopping a suspect and therefore cannot be used for that purpose, even though that is exactly the purpose for which they were designed. This obviously raises the question of what purpose police believe a taser gun serves, and the answer is to gain compliance from unarmed citizens who are physically resisting arrest.
That is certainly one situation where they might be lawfully deployed depending on whether the person was truly resisting, and if another less physically painful method could be applied. But tasers are more often used when police simply lose their patience with citizens who are disrespecting their authority or are being verbally abusive. They use them indiscriminately against the mentally ill, even when they present no danger to themselves or others. They have been known to deploy them on small children, bed-ridden elderly, deaf people who cannot hear the commands to comply, even people who are in the midst of epileptic seizures. Far too often, police resort to the taser when they could use a little psychology or empathy instead.
All of these cases show dramatically poor judgement or an outright abuse of power. Taser shots are horribly painful and sometimes deadly. They should never be used unless the only other choice at hand is for the officer to shoot his gun.
But even worse than any of that is the use of tasers to mete out street justice to prisoners who are already in custody. There are cases around the country of people being tasered while held in restraints, handcuffed in the back of cars and while held down by several police inside the station or a jail cell.
Let's not mince words: This is torture. It's always excruciatingly painful and often deadly. People have even been tasered to death while restrained in chairs in their cells.
Which brings us back to Chicago, a city which has been slower to fully deploy the common use of the taser until now. (But, just for the record, the data show that 90 percent of all taser deployments that do occur in the city are against African Americans males. Imagine that.) There are good reasons why Chicago hasn't been a big taser city compared to others: It suffered one of the most heinous police corruption scandals in American history and it wasn't only about money, it was about police abuse and torture, including the use of electro-shock to coerce confessions.
The torture practices began in the early '70s but didn't really come to light until the 1980s, when a police lieutenant by the name of Jon Burge was accused of shooting pets, handcuffing subjects to stationary objects for entire days, and holding guns to the heads of minors in pursuit of a man suspected of killing a police officer. This caused a political uproar and several lawsuits but it wasn't until 1989 that the public became aware of the extent of the torture that Burge and his men had perpetrated for years on suspects while in custody:
Burge and other Chicago Police officers allegedly used methods of torture that left few marks. They were accused of slamming telephone books on top of suspect’s heads. There were also three separate electrical devices that Burge and his detectives were accused of using: a cattle prod, a hand cranked device, and a violet wand. They allegedly used a Tucker telephone, an old-style hand cranked telephone which generated electricity, and attached wires to the suspect’s genitals or face. According to veteran sergeant D. J. Lewis, this is a method of torture common in the Korean War, and usually results in a confession. Burge has denied ever witnessing such telephone torture procedures. The violet wand was said to be regularly placed either on the anus, into the rectum or against the victim's exposed genitals. They also used stun guns and adapted hair dryers. Burge and officers under his command also allegedly engaged in mock executions, in putting plastic bags over heads, cigarette burnings and severe beatings. At one point he is alleged to have supervised the electrical shocking of a 13-year-old boy, Marcus Wiggins.
Burge and his men were all eventually cleared of those charges in civil trials and Burge went back on the job. A flurry of lawsuits and pressure from the press and international organizations such as Amnesty International resulted in the city finally deciding to review the issue, and Burge was finally fired.
By 1999, numerous death row convictions were called into question due to Burge and his cronies' record of using torture to coerce confessions and the police department and local government's unwillingness to confront the problem. In 2000, Republican Governor George Ryan halted all executions after it was found that 13 death row inmates had been wrongfully convicted as a result of these practices. The problem was found to be so pervasive, and confidence in the integrity of the system so damaged, that in 2003 Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 death row prisoners. He pardoned four who had been shown to have been wrongfully convicted through confessions obtained by torture.
By 2006, it was clear that all along the trail of this torture scandal were city and county officials, including former mayor Richard Daley, who were found to have either covered up or turned a blind eye to what was happening for many years. Many lawsuits were filed and the city was held culpable for more than 20 million dollars in damages.
Burge quietly retired to Florida on his police pension, until 2008 when US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted him on federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in one of the civil cases. He was convicted and sentenced to 4 years in prison. He was released in 2014.
As you can see, this is not ancient history. The torture lasted for decades, the cover-up even longer. The repercussions from this horrific scandal continue to this day. Just last spring, Rahm Emanuel himself initiated a $5.5 million fund to compensate victims who can prove they were tortured by Jon Burge. And he officially apologized on behalf of the city.
But that was hardly the end of it. In February of 2015, The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman revealed that a Chicago police detective and Naval Reserve officer had tortured dozens of minority suspects during his police career and took his expertise to Guantanamo after 9/11, personally handling one of the most notorious interrogations that ever took place at the prison. One marine prosecutor said that he'd "never seen anyone stoop to these levels.”
This past October it was revealed that between 2004 and 2015, the Chicago PD detained and brutally interrogated over 7,000 prisoners in a secret detention facility without access to counsel:
That place was and is scary. It’s a scary place. There’s nothing about it that resembles a police station. It comes from a Bond movie or something,” said attorney David Gaeger, whose client was detained at Homan in 2011 after a marijuana arrest.
Today, Chicago is mired in the midst of yet another police scandal over the wanton killing of African American citizens and yet another coverup by the police department and city officials. Reforms are long overdue. But considering all that history, one would hope the civilian authorities would recognize that without a wholesale reorganization and reform of the department, passing out electro-shock devices to an agency with such an extreme propensity to use torture is a very, very bad idea.
Some law enforcement agencies could theoretically use tasers responsibly in the manner for which they were designed. The Chicago Police Department is not one of them. Its culture is clearly rotten to the core.