UN Anti-Torture Watchdog Dismayed at US Failure to Provide Redress for Chicago Police Torture Survivors
The United States was criticized by the United Nations Committee Against Torture in its recently released report for failing to provide redress for Chicago Police Department torture survivors. The Committee expressed concern that CPD Commander Jon Burge and other officer had engaged in torture between 1972 and 1991, however, no officer had been convicted for torture, particularly because the statute of limitations expired and victims have received zero compensation.
The report was issued as part of the Committee’s duty to review countries that are signed on to the Convention Against Torture (CAT) every four years. The US sent a delegation to Geneva in November and had an opportunity to address issues raised by members of the Committee. Civil society organizations and various grassroots groups also submitted “shadow reports” to the Committee, which brought attention to issues the US government was probably going to conceal or ignore while being questioned.
One of these groups that submitted a “shadow report” was Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM). CTJM, along with Black People Against Police Torture, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and Amnesty International USA updated the committee on the latest efforts to achieve some semblance of justice for survivors of Chicago police torture.
I interviewed Joey Mogul, who is a partner with the People’s Law Office and a part of CTJM. She discussed the efforts she and others in Chicago have been engaged in over the past couple of decades to make Chicago police torture an international human rights issue. She reacted to the Committee’s findings against the United States and the singling out of the Chicago Police Department (once again). She also detailed how organizers in Chicago have worked to convince the Chicago City Council to pass an ordinance that would provide reparations for torture survivors, which the Committee encouraged the US to pass in its report [PDF].
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Would you introduce yourself and explain what kind of work you’ve been involved in around justice for Chicago police torture?
JOEY MOGUL: For the last 17 years, I’ve been working on the Burge torture cases here in Chicago, and I also am an attorney. I do police misconduct, torture abuse and wrongful conviction cases.
Years ago, it was Stan Willis’ idea, who is a founder of Black People Against Police Torture, to raise the Burge torture cases to the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Clearly, the torture that over hundred and ten African-American men and women have suffered are acts of torture—electrically shocking people’s genitals, suffocating people with plastic bags, beating people with rubber hoses and telephone books. Those are egregious acts of torture by state actors that meet the Article 1 definition of torture under the Convention Against Torture.
Unfortunately, Stan did not have the opportunity to attend the UN Committee Against Torture’s review of the US in 2006. [But] I had the opportunity to do so. I presented evidence regarding the cases. Fortunately, the UN Committee understood that these were egregious acts of torture and they understood they were occurring domestically in the United States and they called the US government out for its failure to comply with the Convention Against Torture; specifically noting that there was a limited investigation and a lack of prosecution in the Burge torture cases. And it called on the US government to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Subsequently, two years later, the US Department of Justice in conjunction with the US prosecutors of the Northern District of Illinois indicted Jon Burge for perjury and obstruction of justice for denying that he and other detectives under his command engaged in acts of torture. And he made these false denials in a civil rights case and that’s why they were able to get him.
Because the US government did not take action when they should have, he was not able to be prosecuted for his actual crimes and international human rights violations and torture. But I do believe that going to the United Nations Committee Against Torture was an instrumental part and role in getting Jon Burge ultimately held accountable for his crimes of torture and the finding that meant a great deal to the torture survivors, the family members and the communities who were both affected and have been organizing around the Burge torture cases.
GOSZTOLA: What about the ongoing efforts in recent years to pass a reparations ordinance in the city of Chicago?
MOGUL: It’s clear—particularly now that Burge has been convicted of his torture in 2010—that this occurred. No one can deny it any longer. That’s when we sat down and we thought to ourselves, what’s being done to really rectify this? Truly, nothing has been done for the vast majority of the torture survivors. The statute of limitations have expired on any civil lawsuits they could have brought to receive any financial compensation from the torture they suffered and there is no legal means for which they can get any redress whatsoever. And that’s not just financial compensation but it’s psychological counseling. It’s other services, like vocational training, as well as just an apology from the city of Chicago for these racist heinous acts of torture that occurred over a 20-year period.
So, years ago I helped co-found the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial project and that’s when we really started to dream and think about what would reparations would like. And, again, I want to call out Stan Willis from Black People Against Police Torture because he was the one who really started to talk about the need for reparations for Burge torture survivors and the family members.
And again, we’re looking to these international concepts for reparations that are much more expansive than the way we look at legal remedies here in the United States. They’re much more holistic, looking at all of the needs of someone that’s been violated.
We started off doing some art projects and having an open call for people to submit various work about what would reparations look like or how would you conceive of a justice memorial in these cases. And we had quite a few successful shows and we’ve gotten over 70 submissions from individuals regarding what those actual justice memorials would like. In the process, we’ve been asking people and holding community forums in Chicago on what they think reparations look like. And finally after a two-year process, we drafted a reparations ordinance that has now been introduced to Chicago City Council; introduced in October of 2013.
That seeks a full panoply of redress for the Burge torture survivors, for the family members, for the African-American communities affected. Thus far, we have 26 alder people who have signed on in support and we are calling on Mayor Emanuel to support the reparations ordinance and we are looking to have a hearing in the finance committees.
GOSZTOLA: Sticking with this issue of police torture, can you describe taking on this issue of electroshocks and the issue of the use of tasers by police?
MOGUL: Specifically, in the Burge torture cases, what we found was Jon Burge, prior to becoming a Chicago police officer, he served in the military in Vietnam. He was a military police officer, and there were reports that military police officers were using what was then known as a tucker telephone – a box, a generator and a crank on the outside, that when you cranked it would create electricity. And they attached wires to the generator and it would literally jolt and shock people with electricity.
Jon Burge brought that device back from being a military police officer, and he used that device when he was interrogating people here in Chicago. Anthony Holmes, who is one of Burge’s first known torture survivors, he describes how Burge handcuffed him at his wrists and ankle and how he took the electric shock box and wrapped it around his handcuffs and repeatedly electrically shocked him.
That was a very unique device that Burge was using. And we have lots of reports and evidence that others were using cattle prods to torture people on their genitals and other sensitive places on their body.
I will say, as of late, I have not heard of that electric shock box being used. We believe that Jon Burge threw it off his boat here in Chicago. And I have not heard of cattle prods being used, but now it seems that the device of choice that we know Chicago police officers are armed with is tasers.
These tasers are not being used as the alternative to deadly force, but in fact they are being used routinely and in very grossly reckless ways against individuals, who can be very sensitive to that type of electric shock, and have led to too many unfortunate deaths. It’s my understanding that these tasers are being used egregiously at any sign of resistance, whether it’s verbal or physical, which I don’t believe is the proper way for using tasers at all.
Now, tasers used to be only issued to sergeants or only issued to individuals but now across the country officers are all armed with tasers. Here in Chicago recently, I think they’ve started to—I don’t know fully right now—but I believe they bought like 20,000 tasers and they wanted to provide them to patrol officers.
GOSZTOLA: What sort of success or peace of mind does it give you that the UN Committee Against Torture basically affirms most of the concerns that you have as someone campaigning on these issues?
MOGUL: I think it’s incredible. I think it’s really important for us to recognize that there are international human rights violations. In the United States, we must abide by them. I think it’s hugely important for the UN to take note of what they described as the appalling use of tasers here in the United States and naming the individuals who have been killed, including that of Dominique Franklin Jr., who was raised by the We Charge Genocide delegation.
I think it’s hugely important for us to remember that the whole world does not agree with the way law enforcement officers are using tasers in the United States and there are certain benchmarks that they have to abide by and they need to start abide and they need to start complying with them. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to see more litigation and more organizing against them.
GOSZTOLA: What’s remarkable about the section on police brutality in the United States is that the organization that countries around the world are going to associate with US police brutality is the Chicago Police Department. You don’t have a mention of any other departments in that section. Even St. Louis police, they weren’t mentioned. Is there anything you would add to that?
MOGUL: I really want to shout and applaud the amazing organizing and advocacy of the delegation of We Charge Genocide. They are an amazing inter-generational effort. They had all youths of color, who went to Geneva. I’ve never been so impressed by their courageousness, their brilliance, their righteousness in the way they organized around Chicago police violence. And, clearly, they had an effect and they moved the Committee members to want to call out the Chicago Police Department.
I want to recognize how amazing and historic the We Charge Genocide delegation has been. Though, Chicago has been cited the last two times by the UN Committee Against Torture as the one and only city that’s being called out for violating the Convention Against Torture. They did it in 2006 when they cited the Burge torture cases and they are doing it now with respect to the violence black and Latino youth face, with respect to violence around tasers, shootings, etc, that was raised by We Charge Genocide and, again, with the respect to the Burge torture cases.
I think it’s truly monumental, and I think that the local powers that be need to take stock of this and recognize the city is way out of step with the world. And not only is the city way out of step in the world and not complying with these international human rights [guidelines] but the whole world is watching.