CHICAGO (AP) — Former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who was accused of torturing suspects in his South Side police district but was never prosecuted for the alleged crimes, has died, a Florida funeral home confirmed Wednesday. He was 70.
Burge led a “midnight crew” of rogue detectives accused of torturing more than 100 suspects, mostly black men, from 1972 to 1991, in order to secure confessions. His alleged victims were shocked with cattle prods, smothered with typewriter covers and had guns shoved in their mouths.
Burge was fired in 1993 and sentenced to prison in 2011 for lying in a civil case about his actions. It was too late to charge him criminally on the torture charges.
Sarah Zipperer of Zipperer’s Funeral Home in Ruskin, Florida, on Wednesday, would confirm only that the business was handling his remains. She refused to give the cause or date of his death, citing the wishes of his family.
In 2015, the city of Chicago agreed to pay $5.5 million in reparations to 57 Burge victims. G. Flint Taylor, a civil rights attorney and lawyer for some of the men, estimates the price tag for all Burge-related cases is about $132 million.
The allegations against Burge and his men even helped shape Illinois’ debate over the death penalty. Then-Gov. George Ryan released four condemned men from death row in 2003 after Ryan said Burge extracted confessions from them using torture. The allegations eventually led to a moratorium on executions in Illinois. The state officially abolished the death penalty in 2011.
Word of Burge’s death came amid the murder trial of a white Chicago police officer in the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. The video shows officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as he walked away from police.
The possibility of such a trial would have seemed remote during Burge’s time on the force.
“With the passing of Jon Burge, we must reflect on the dark legacy that he embodied,” said Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor who once led a civilian body that oversees disciplinary cases involving officers and a candidate for Chicago mayor. “So many lives shattered, and a horrible stain on the legitimacy of policing that resonates today.”
Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor, said Burge’s actions were despicable but pointed to broader systemic issues within the Chicago Police Department for allowing the alleged torture to continue for so long.
“He could not have engaged in more than two decades of torture of black folks without a system that protected torturers and was complicit in ensuring that officers like Burge could torture black folks with impunity,” Futterman said.
That system “is a primary reason why there is such a deep distrust between the black community and police and why police continue to struggle to solve violent crime, something they can’t do without the trust (of the community),” he added.
Chicago’s police union issued a statement on its Facebook page expressing condolences to the Burge family, saying it “does not believe the full story about the Burge cases has ever been told.” But many postings in the comments section denounced Burge.
Dean Angelo, former head of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago, insisted that Burge “put a lot of bad guys in prison.”
“I don’t know that Jon Burge got a fair shake based on the years and years of service that he gave the city,” Angelo told reporters during a break at the Van Dyke trial.
At Burge’s 2010 federal trial, Burge’s lawyers called the accusers thugs and liars who were maligning an honorable man who had served in the U.S. military in Korea and Vietnam and returned with a Bronze Star. Burge took the stand and broke his long silence, repeatedly denying he had tortured anyone. A jury disagreed and found Burge guilty of perjury.
At his 2012 sentencing, one alleged victim said Burge was so cruel that he laughed while he tortured him. Burge said he was “deeply sorry” for the disrepute his case had brought on the Chicago Police Department, but he offered no apologies for his actions.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow cited Burge’s “unwillingness to acknowledge the truth in the face of all the evidence” and sentenced him to 4 1/2 years in prison.