The Chicago police union is trying to put its members on the state’s torture inquiry commission

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Samantha Bailey / Chicago Reader

Police at a protest on State Street in downtown Chicago, May 30, 2020.

This story was published in collaboration with the Chicago Reader.

Republicans in Springfield have introduced two bills that would put members of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police on the commission that reviews torture allegations against former police commander Jon Burge and other cops accused of torture.

The bills have flown under the radar and have struggled to gain momentum since they were introduced earlier this year in the Illinois House and Senate. They are unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature, especially at a time when police are facing so much scrutiny.

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But the push to reshape the torture commission, even if it is unsuccessful, is another example of the police union and its political allies fighting efforts to expose police abuse and trying to control the narrative around police violence.

Mark Clements, a police torture survivor and activist for the Chicago Torture Justice Center, said even hearing about the bills was triggering. He believes the idea of putting the Fraternal Order of Police on the commission “is a smack in the face for the integrity of justice.”

“Adding two FOP members will further the code of silence in Chicago, further racism, and further systemic conditions that deprive men and women from adequate hearings on their claims of torture,” he said.

Union leaders did not respond to requests for comment about the bills. Former union president Kevin Graham touted the lodge’s advocacy for the House bill in the union’s March newsletter, shortly before he lost a close race for re-election to John Catanzara Jr.

The Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission began hearing claims in 2011 and is currently composed of eight members, chaired by a former judge, with specific spots for prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors, and members of the public. The commission gathers evidence about claims of police torture that occurred in Cook County. If a five-member majority determines there is sufficient evidence of torture, the commission refers the case to the Circuit Court of Cook County for judicial review.

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Decades after alleged torture by police: Years more wait to have cases resolved

The number of defendants seeking review of their claims that they were tortured into confessing now numbers more than 500. Absent more resources to review the cases, It could be decades before those claims are resolved.

As of last year, the commission had reviewed 105 claims of police torture and referred 29 of those to the courts.

The House bill, HB4283, would add two sworn officers from the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police to the panel and would require a seven-vote supermajority for the commission to refer a torture claim to the courts. The Senate bill, SB3557, would replace all three of the commission’s public-at-large members with members of the FOP.

“The FOP is trying to insert themselves in every single facet of the post-conviction process when it comes to torture survivors,” said Cindy Eigler, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center. “This is a form of psychological torture. It is direct violence toward survivors.”

Already, two of the three commission spots reserved for the public are held by people who used to work for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office: Tim Touhy, a former spokesperson, and Marilyn Baldwin, a former victim-witness advocate.

The House bill was introduced in January by Rep. Jim Durkin (R-82nd), the Republican House leader and a former Cook County prosecutor who has received at least $10,000 in donations from the state and local FOP since 2010. One co-sponsor is Rep. Brad Stephens (R-20th), whose district covers communities on Chicago’s Northwest Side and nearby suburbs, including Rosemont, where, despite some controversy, he also serves as mayor. The other co-sponsor is Rep. Frances Ann Hurley (D-35th), who the FOP endorsed earlier this year. Hurley’s district includes the Mount Greenwood community on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where advocates for police marched earlier this week.

The Senate bill was introduced in February by Sen. John Curran (R-41st), a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney and DuPage County board member. The lawmakers sponsoring the bills either did not return or declined requests for comment.

So far, both bills have stalled in committee in a legislative session that was severely curtailed due to the coronavirus.

The police union has used its political power before to push bills in Springfield that shield officers from accountability, including the so-called “Police Bill of Rights,” which requires anyone who files a complaint against officers to sign a sworn affidavit. They also successfully amended a bill that would have put investigations of police sexual assault in the hands of independent investigators instead of the police department’s own internal affairs division.

‘The right people’

Jonah Newman

The headquarters of the Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge #7 in the West Loop.

The union has defended Burge despite resounding evidence that he and his so-called midnight crew tortured and forced confessions from scores of criminal suspects from at least 1971 to the early 1990s. Nearly all their victims were Black men.

When Burge died two years ago, the union wrote a Facebook post claiming it “does not believe the full story about the Burge cases has ever been told.”

In June, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, new union president John Catanzara Jr. questioned whether those who have come forward with claims of torture are telling the truth.

“There’s been a couple exonerations that have left in question the person’s guilt but just because they said they were tortured and they throw the name Jon Burge out there, all of a sudden now they’re considered 100% accurate and they were telling the truth the whole time, even though the evidence might point otherwise,” he said in an interview on WBEZ. “People seem to forget that Burge was convicted of lying, Burge was never convicted of torture.”

He added, “I’m not here to defend Jon Burge in any way, shape, or form, I don’t even have enough–that was way before my time.”

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Analysis: The thing about police unions

Most unions don’t aggressively shield their members from accountability for murder. Police unions are another story.

Kim Ricardo, a professor at the UIC John Marshall Law School, said the police union’s reflexive defense of Burge shows their inability to reckon with a long history of police violence in Chicago against Black people.

“We’ve got to contextualize the Jon Burge story within a whole history, [within] centuries of the same type of police violence against citizens, and in particular Black citizens,” she said.

The union brass have also been vocal critics of the torture commission. In December, former union 2nd Vice President Martin Preib described the TIRC and other oversight bodies focused on police misconduct as “kangaroo courts.”

“These various agencies—the Chicago Police Board, Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission (TIRC)–comprised of unaccountable, unelected bureaucrats, are filled with anti-police crusaders and ideologues,” Preib wrote on the union’s blog. “They hold the power to transform honest, hardworking cops into criminals by generating cases against the officers, and they have done so time and time again.”

TIRC commissioner James Mullenix, a former public defender in Cook County, said that Preib appears at many of the commission’s meetings. Sometimes, Mullenix said, “he’ll take out his phone and record people talking.” He’s often written negatively on his blog about alternate commissioner Craig Futterman, a civil rights attorney at the University of Chicago, and criticized the commission’s decisions.

“I wouldn’t want to have somebody like that on the commission, because I think they have an agenda,” Mullenix said. “They would vote not to refer anything.”

The commission is already plagued by lack of funding and staff, long delays, and an extreme backlog of cases.

An Injustice Watch investigation last year found that it took, on average, nearly three years for the commission to refer a case to the courts for judicial review. As of last August, no new claims can be filed with the commission, but the panel had a backlog of 543 pending cases.

Gregory Banks, another survivor of police torture who works at the Chicago Torture Justice Center, said that the commission represents the last hope for freedom for many survivors still waiting behind bars.

“It’s so important,” he said. “That is why we have to have the right people in the right positions.”

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