In November of 1983, Darrell Cannon was taken by three police officers to a parking lot on the South Side of Chicago and tortured. As they hung the man by his handcuffs, the cops pushed an electric cattle prod on his testicles. They stuck a loaded shotgun into his mouth and played mock execution. They beat him mercilessly with police flashlights, shouting racial slurs at him until he “didn’t even know [his] name.” After hours of this, Cannon falsely confessed to involvement in a murder. He’d spend the next two decades in prison, fighting an endless series of legal battles to earn back his freedom.
Cannon’s story is cruel, but it is not unusual. From 1972 until 1991, notorious Chicago police commander Jon Burge oversaw a torture ring of white detectives known as the “midnight crew.” The unaccountable network of terror routinely employed electro-shock devices (dubbed a “n*gger-box” by Burge) and suffocation techniques to coax confessions out of their victims. The actions of Commander Burge, a Vietnam veteran with strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan, were encouraged and protected by various city powers, including Cook County prosecutors and Mayor Richard M. Daly, who spent decades ignoring widespread accusations of torture.
Both the far-reaching consequences of such measures and the unwillingness of those in power to do anything about is chilling. In 2013, The Nation reported:
The Cook County prosecutor’s office not only countenanced and facilitated the racist pattern of torture; it also aggressively used the confessions so produced to wrongfully convict scores of African-American men, sending a dozen to death row. Some of the prosecutors kept a scorecard of their “accomplishments,” comparing the weights of their convicted defendants in a competition called “niggers by the pound.”
Richard Daley’s long-term complicity in the torture scandal is now well known. As mayor, he scorned all opportunities to apologize and paid millions in taxpayer dollars to continue to defend this undeniable record of racism. In 2006, special prosecutors given $7 million in public funds to investigate Burge and his men somehow managed never to mention the racist nature of the torture in their 192-page report. And when Burge was finally put on trial in 2010—not for the torture itself, but for lying about it—his lawyers kept any mention of racism out of the record. While waiting for the jury to deliver a verdict, Burge asked one courtroom observer whether the jury would really “believe that bunch of niggers,” apparently referring to the courageous men who had testified against him. One of those men was Melvin Jones, to whom Burge rhetorically posed a similar question while torturing him with electric shocks thirty years earlier.”
Burge was eventually charged with perjury, for which he served less than four years. Upon his release, a police board determined that he should continue receiving his $4000-a-month pension.
Earlier this week, city officials released dash-cam footage of a police officer shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The graphic details of the interaction—now available in autoplay videos across the Internet—bear no resemblance to Burge’s methods, yet they are equally chilling. McDonald is walking away from the cops, allegedly holding a knife, when Officer Jason Van Dyke arrives on the scene and, from a considerable distance, promptly fires his gun at the teenager. As McDonald spins, jerks, and collapses on the pavement, the officer pumps an additional 15 shots into the boy’s lifeless body.
Adding to the horror of all this is the fact that the execution in question occurred over a year ago. In that time, the police union, prosecutor’s office, and Mayor have concocted and disseminated a narrative that rests on this video never seeing the light of day.
In October of 2014, the Fraternal Order of the Police declared that McDonald “lunged at police” and “officers were forced to defend themselves.” Later, when attorneys of McDonald’s family obtained the footage, Chicago’s City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the provision that the video remain private. In May, NBC reported that four to five police officers entered the Burger King, where the initial confrontation took place, and deleted 86 minutes of surveillance footage.
Throughout this time, Officer Jason Van Dyke remained a cop on the city’s payroll. When he was finally charged with first-degree murder on Tuesday, it was 400 days after his crime, in direct response to a judge’s ruling that the video must be made public.
There are many questions surrounding the case that demand answers—Why did it take more than a year to get a prosecution? Who will be held accountable for burying evidence? Why did no one bother to investigate the 17 civilian complaints that Officer Van Dyke had racked up over his career?—but in a press conference Tuesday night, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy did little to address these concerns. Instead, the Mayor sought to reframe the issue as an isolated incident, telling reporters, “Jason Van Dyke does not represent the police department.”
That may or not be true. The facts we have now, which will no doubt grow more clear in the coming days, point to a failure of justice that stretches far beyond the heinous actions of one officer. As does a collection of data published earlier this week, collected by the University of Chicago and the Invisible Institute, detailing tens of thousands of complaints made against Chicago police officers, less than 5% of which resulted in any disciplinary action. And lastly, we have the city’s history, once “the torture capital of the United States,” where corruption, violence, and racism have long festered in the very institutions that claim to serve.
Those who spent the past year downplaying Laquan McDonald’s execution will continue to tell us that there is no larger problem. They will point to reparations paid to torture victims as evidence that systemic racism does not plague their ranks and they will continue to urge calm in “the process of healing.” They will call Jason Van Dyke a bad apple, with no mention of the decades-old tree from which he fell. But make no mistake, up from the Chicago PD to its supposedly independent oversight committee, from the office of the Mayor and into that of the prosecutor, something has been rotting for some time.
Feature image via Heavy