The Futility of Reparations Without Change

Last week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel put forth a proposal for a police torture victims’ reparations package, to provide redress for victims of police abuse under the notorious former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.  The police misconduct led by Burge resulted in about 120 mostly African-American men being systematically tortured during interrogations in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Scores of Burge targets – who did not know each other or know of one another’s eerily similar allegations – accused Burge and officers under his command of Abu Ghraib-like abuse during interrogations: electric shocking them in the genitals, beating them with phone books, forcing them into prolonged and painful stress positions, and suffocating them with bags until they gave false confessions.  While some Burge victims have already settled civil suits against the City for this egregious law enforcement misconduct, under the proposal, the City would allocate $5.5 million to be spent in reparations for victims’ remaining claims, with each participating victim receiving up to $100,000.  The package would also require:  the City to create a permanent memorial recognizing the victims of police abuse; City schools to teach about the Burge torture cases in public school history classes; the City Council to issue a formal apology; and the City to provide certain benefits to victims and their children, such as psychological counseling and free tuition at Chicago community colleges. City Council is expected to pass the reparations proposal next month.

There are some Chicagoans expressing resentment at seeing the City expend resources to make amends to torture victims for what may feel to them like ancient history. But familiarity with the allegations against Burge and his violent cohorts should not inure us to the real and present damage these officers inflicted.  For each victim of this police brutality, there is a real person who was violently assaulted by police officers; forced to falsely confess to a serious (often times capital) crime, while fearing for his life; accused and convicted, often despite complete innocence; faced lengthy prison sentences; and spent or spends decades in prison hoping to be exonerated.  That’s decades of missing watching children grow up, missing birthdays and school conferences, soccer game and funerals, freedom and friendships, family reunions and business opportunities. Each of the men victimized by Burge has a story of decades missing from his life.  Some of the victims remain incarcerated today, hoping for relief from the Illinois Torture and Relief Commission Act, a law established to review the convictions of torture victims.

And as much as we might like to think that things have changed in the last thirty years, there is still much room for improvement in the realm of police accountability.  Juxtaposed with the City’s reparations proposal is the City Council’s agreement, on the same day, to pay $5 million to the family of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager shot six times by a Chicago police officer in October.  The CPD’s handling of the McDonald shooting underscores that the need for honesty and accountability from the police department is as great today as ever. Police officers claimed that they shot McDonald after he lunged at them with a knife, but according to Chicago Suntimes columnist Mary Mitchell, McDonald’s attorney describes the police car dashboard camera footage – which the City has refused to release – showing McDonald walking away while police officers jump from a car and gun him down.  Detectives went into a nearby fast food restaurant the next day, without a warrant, and 86 minutes of surveillance footage disappeared.  These are not the actions of a police department intent on ending an era of violence or earning the public’s trust.  Apologies and reparations alone are an empty step away from Chicago’s violent track record – meaningful change requires honesty and accountability.


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