Police Brutality and Torture in Chicago

Throughout the existence of the office we have litigated many cases in which victims were physically abused by the police or other government agents. In 1988 this involvement intensified when John, Flint, and Jeff became involved in the Andrew Wilson civil rights case. Wilson was beaten, burned and electroshocked by several Area 2 detectives, including the commanding officer of the Violent Crimes Unit, Lt. Jon Burge, after being arrested for killing two police officers. When the civil case went to trial in 1989, we presented compelling evidence of Wilson’s injuries and also showed that the police investigation of the police killings had been characterized by generalized torture and police brutality against other suspects and witnesses. During the trial, an anonymous police source revealed to us that Burge and a group of fellow detectives under his command had also systematically tortured numerous suspects in other cases. Unfortunately, we were confronted with a trial judge who did everything he could to help Burge and the other defendants, and allowed them to present interminable evidence about the crimes which the plaintiff was alleged to have committed, while barring evidence that Burge had tortured numerous other suspects over a 12 year period, or that he tortured another suspect at police headquarters only days before he tortured Wilson. The first jury was deadlocked, and at a retrial the jury found the City had a policy and practice of abusing and torturing persons suspected of injuring or killing police officers but refused to award damages or find Burge liable. Our continuing investigation of the pattern and practice of torture under Burge’s command made it clear that Burge’s torture interrogations were an open secret within the police department, and the evidence adduced at the Wilson trials and in our investigation led to an Amnesty International Report on police torture in Chicago, increased public attention on the issue of police torture, fueled community activism, and led to the police department’s opening of an internal investigation into the allegations of systematic police torture.

The attorneys at the office continued to investigate other cases of police torture and to furnish this evidence to the CPD Office of Professional Standards investigators who were conducting the police torture investigations. Additionally, we continued to work closely with organizations fighting police torture and activists who were demonstrating at City Council meetings, meeting with the police superintendent, making a film concerning torture in Chicago, and otherwise educating the public. Prominent in this work with community groups was Stan Willis, who had joined the office in 1983. In late 1990, we presented this evidence of police torture to the Chicago City Council, and less than a year later, the OPS completed two unprecedented reports, one of which (the Sanders Report) recommended the firing of Jon Burge for torturing Andrew Wilson, while the other (the Goldston Report) found that the abuse of suspects at Area 2 from 1973 to 1986 included “psychological techniques and planned torture,” was “systematic,” “methodical,” and that Area 2 command members, particularly Jon Burge, “were aware of the systematic abuse and perpetuated it either by actively participating in same or failing to take any action to bring it to an end.” The Department suspended Burge, then a police Commander, for his torture of Wilson, but suppressed the report which found systematic torture and abuse.  We were able to obtain the report through discovery in another case which alleged a policy and practice of failure to discipline, and in February of 1992, obtained a court order releasing it to the public. Its release on the eve of Burge’s hearing before the Police Board gained national and international attention, and we were frequent commentators on the nightly news coverage of the hearings.  Later that year we argued the appeal of the Wilson case before a conservative panel of the Seventh Circuit, which nonetheless seemed sympathetic to our arguments that the trial judge had wrongly suppressed evidence of a pattern of torture while allowing improper evidence about the alleged crimes of Wilson.

In February, 1993, the Chicago Police Board found that Burge had physically abused Wilson, failed to stop the physical abuse and to provide him medical care, and ordered that he be fired. In April, the Seventh Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict in favor of Burge in the civil case, holding that the plaintiff’s case was “strong,” and that the “torrent of inflammatory evidence and argument” which the trial judge permitted the jury to hear concerning Wilson, as well as his barring of clearly relevant acts of torture by Burge and his detectives, mandated reversal. In the course of our investigations in Wilson we learned of several other cases of police torture, and we filed several individual cases for other torture victims, including one on behalf of a thirteen year old boy who was tortured under Burge’s command only a month before Burge was suspended. We also won a reversal of another torture victim’s conviction, in part on the basis of the findings of systematic torture found in the Goldston Report.

In 1994, the Wilson case was remanded to the District Court and was ultimately assigned to a fair-minded judge, Robert Gettleman. As was the case in Hampton, the uncovering of damning evidence and the intervening political and legal events had turned the tide in the case, and we aggressively pursued judgment against Burge and the City. Relying on the Police Board findings, which ultimately were affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court, we successfully obtained a judgment finding that Burge was liable. The City then reversed its position, arguing that it was not legally responsible for Burge’s torture of Wilson, and did not have to pay any judgment to Wilson or his lawyers, because Burge was acting outside the scope of his employment. After the judge rejected this argument and entered a judgement against Burge and the City for approximately $1 million in damages and fees, the City appealed. In another unequivocal opinion, which has since been used in several other cases to force the City to pay for the unlawful acts of its police officers, the Court found that Burge’s torture of Wilson during his interrogation was clearly within the scope of his employment, and affirmed the judgement.  After appellate fees were assessed, we collected $1.1 million dollars in judgments and fees for more than ten hard-fought years of litigation.  To read more about our work around Chicago Police Torture, click here: Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases.


Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild