Torture survivors’ silence will not protect the Chicago Police Department | Opinion | Chicago Reader

Torture survivors’ silence will not protect the Chicago Police Department 

An effort by the Fraternal Order of Police to prosecute survivors for telling their stories is an all-to-common abuse tactic.

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click to enlarge The Chicago Torture Justice Center has provided therapeutic support and services to more than 1,400 individuals since May 2017. - SARAH-JI OF LOVE & STRUGGLE PHOTOS / COURTESY CHICAGO TORTURE JUSTICE CENTER
  • The Chicago Torture Justice Center has provided therapeutic support and services to more than 1,400 individuals since May 2017.
  • Sarah-Ji of Love & Struggle Photos / Courtesy Chicago Torture Justice Center

Cindy Eigler and Aislinn Pulley are co-executive directors of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, which seeks to address the traumas of police violence and institutionalized racism through access to healing and wellness services, trauma-informed resources, and community connection. The center’s Survivor Family Advisory Council also contributed to this piece.

On January 27, 2020, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Chicago Lodge #7, sent a letter to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx demanding that she prosecute police torture survivors who lose their evidentiary hearings for perjury and “any other crimes that might reveal themselves in the course of reviewing claims.” They also strongly condemned “these so-called ‘exonerations,’” referring to the 74 exonerations that have occurred under Kim Foxx as state’s attorney. This letter is an affront to the decades of struggle by courageous survivors, families, and allies who won reparations, and an attempt to deny the shameful history of police torture in Chicago.

The Chicago Torture Justice Center (CTJC) was established as part of the mandate of the historic Reparations Ordinance passed in May of 2015 for the more than 120 predominantly Black men (and some women and children) who were systematically and brutally tortured by Chicago Police commander Jon Burge and his Midnight Crew. The holistic Reparations Ordinance, legislation approved by elected city officials representing Chicagoans in all wards, specifically called for the creation of a center on the south side able to address the psychological harms caused by police torture. 

The center opened its doors in May of 2017 and has since provided therapeutic support and services to more than 1,400 individuals. We see the results of trauma experienced by torture survivors every day in the form of nightmares, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, isolation, and loss of hope. During their torture these individuals experienced racial epithets, electric shock, suffocation, and brutal beatings. Women who entered police stations pregnant left the stations no longer with child. The torture elicited confessions that were used to convict survivors and resulted in long sentences—including some survivors being placed on death row. More than 100 police torture survivors remain incarcerated to this day. And still, they survive, they resist, and they continue to speak their truths. 

The survivors we work with at the center underwent the most hideous and inhumane violence at the hands of the police and spent decades in prison taken from their families and communities—and yet, the pain they describe most often is the pain of telling their stories of being harmed, being dismissed and disbelieved. We at the Chicago Torture Justice Center believe a letter of this nature by the FOP is an additional form of psychological torture and traumatization directed at individuals who have already suffered immeasurable harm and loss. 

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment outlines the internationally recognized legal definition of torture as containing three cumulative elements: 1) the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering; 2) by a public official who is directly or indirectly involved; 3) for a specific purpose.

The FOP closes the letter to Kim Foxx with the claim that it is the police who are protecting all of Chicago’s citizens while the State’s Attorney’s office is “betraying our citizens by falsely making these claims of racism.” This letter solidifies a new rising backlash in response to reparations for police torture survivors and the historic number of exonerations that have occurred over the last 20 years in Illinois. For context, it is necessary to point out the facts. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that Illinois has a false confession rate more than three times higher than the national average of 12 percent, with the majority of those false confessions coming from Chicago at a rate of one out of four. Nearly one out of every six murder exonerations that has taken place nationwide over the past decade has occurred in Illinois.

Overwhelming DNA evidence brought to light over the last two decades has paved the way toward proving innocence in a way previously impossible, resulting in the release of historic numbers of individuals from death row. As the Equal Justice Initiative expertly explains, misconduct by police or prosecutors (or both)—including concealing evidence that casts doubt on the defendant’s guilt and prosecutors presenting false testimony—was involved in 79 percent of homicide exonerations in 2018.

The racialized component to this misconduct and violence is undeniable. In their investigation of the Chicago Police, the Department of Justice discovered a pattern and practice of conduct that is unlawful and in violation of the United States Constitution. In fact, the DOJ report found that CPD’s use “of unreasonable force and systemic deficiencies fall heaviest on the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago.” The report goes on to state that “raw statistics show that CPD uses force almost ten times more often against blacks than against whites.”

The letter from the FOP is an attempt to obstruct the movement for reforms by the State’s Attorney’s office, consent decree, and other official bodies in response to the devastating statistics that prove the disproportionate amount of police violence experienced in Black communities.. This letter, and the actions we have witnessed in the courts in the last year alone, demonstrate the strategy being perpetrated by law enforcement and the criminal legal system: deny that torture happened and then punish survivors with the threat of perjury after they come forward with the truth. 

Notably, no threats of perjury have been waged by the FOP against any police officers, judges or prosecutors in cases that have resulted in exonerations and overturned convictions. Instead, their demand is to charge survivors who tell their stories. This demand works to scare other survivors back into the same silence that pervaded the courts during the decades of beatings, electrical shocks, suffocation and torture committed by Burge and his henchmen. This attempt to punish survivors is a method of coercion that is not new and has also been evidenced in cases of sexual assault and domestic abuse as well as other more monumental historic periods of violence like the Holocaust and the Transatlantic slave trade. 

Denying harm and then punishing survivors who come forward with more violence is a type of abuse commonly found in authoritarian dictatorships—not in so-called democracies. 

We call on the State’s Attorney’s office and the people of Chicago to denounce and publicly condemn the demands of the Fraternal Order of Police. We ask you to stand with survivors who have shared their truths and with those who still seek the courage to speak. We ask you to join us in transforming the complicity of silence into a call for healing from injustice that permeates Black and Brown communities. We ask you to:

  1. Sign on to this letter by emailing info@chicagotorturejustice.org
  2. Share it widely
  3. Support our ongoing work

The Chicago Torture Justice Center is working to eradicate all forms of torture. This moment, at the precipice of what will be the five-year anniversary of the unanimous City Council passing of the Reparations Ordinance on May 6, 2015, is a stark reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.  v

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