Police Torture Scandal Could Be the Real Reason Daley is Stepping Down

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Andrew S. Baer is a PhD student at Northwestern University.

A decades-old police torture scandal in Chicago may have helped convince Mayor Richard M. Daley to slip quietly out of City Hall’s seldom-used backdoor of retirement.  Early last week, Daley, whose very name has been a metonym for Chicago ever since his famous father took office over half a century ago, informed a stunned city that he would not be seeking an unprecedented seventh term in next year’s mayoral primary. 

In the wake of his announcement, journalists have speculated on his motivation for stepping down while spilling considerably more ink on what promises to be an entertaining scramble to succeed him.  With marquee names like Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel being tossed around amid speculation by the likes of Chicago magnate Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama, it is no wonder that a focus on Chicago’s future has dimmed attention to its past.  This presumably suits Mayor Daley as he looks to continue to escape scrutiny for his connection to a ring of over-zealous cops who forced confessions from murder suspects on Chicago’s South Side from 1972 through the early 1990s.

The last duly elected mayor of Chicago to voluntarily leave office was a Republican—a testament to just how long it has been since anyone has willingly relinquished power in a town long dominated by Democrats.  In 1923, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson chose to walk away from the mayor’s office rather than face the challenge of reform candidates who sought to capitalize on his links to organized crime and other political scandals.  After returning to office four years later, Thompson himself eventually lost a bid for re-election to Democrat Anton Cermak in 1931. 

In the ensuing eight decades, every Chicago mayor has been a Democrat and all of them have left office on conditions not of their own choosing.  In 1933, Cermak was killed by an assassin’s bullet intended for President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami, Florida.  Two other Chicago mayors also ended their careers in a casket.  Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father, died of a heart attack in 1976 and Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, suffered a similar fate in 1987.  Other mayors, including Chicago’s only female chief executive Jane Byrne, were either dumped by machine bosses or defeated in the primaries.  More than a decade of rambunctious politicking followed the death of old “Boss” Daley before his son, dubbed “Richard the Second” by the press, reclaimed the family throne in 1989.

In May of 2011, roughly six months after he will pass his father as the longest-serving mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley will perform a rare duty—he will voluntarily hand over the keys to his office.  He has many reasons to do so.  Perhaps foremost are the city’s mounting budget woes, which have prompted the mayor to run record deficits and to consider privatizing many municipal services.  He has also suffered a few high-profile setbacks, including a bitter parking meter scandal and an embarrassing slighting by members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).  Last fall, the IOC booted Chicago from their list of candidate cities to host the 2016 Games in their first round of cuts.  On a more personal level, Daley has expressed a desire to spend more time with his wife Maggie as she continues her long struggle against cancer.

While it is compelling to weigh these motivations in consideration of Daley’s decision to step down, the continued fallout from the police torture scandal looms as a more menacing threat to the Daley legacy.  The scandal slowly came to the attention of the general public following the arrest of Andrew Wilson, an African American man who was later found guilty of the 1982 murders of two white Chicago police officers.  While his guilt has never been much in doubt, the evidence against him in his first trial relied heavily on a confession he gave to detectives from Chicago’s Area Two police district, a region spanning a large segment of the city’s majority black South Side.  Shortly after his arrest, Wilson claimed that his interrogators beat him, suffocated him with a plastic typewriter cover, and applied electric shock to his legs, genitals, and ears, all with the consent and aid of police commander Jon Burge.

Andrew Wilson was just the beginning.  As the case convulsed through the complicated system of appeals and retrials, attorneys from the People’s Law Office began to discover scores of other convicted criminals who swore to similar abuse at the hands of Area Two detectives from 1973 through 1991.  Throughout the 1990s, activist lawyers, vigilant reporters, and a few exceptional judges pursued and substantiated allegations of police torture.  Many of the victims of police torture in Chicago were later proven innocent of their crimes, the only evidence against them being their own confession, coerced through violence and manipulation.  Among four inmates pardoned from Illinois’s death row by Governor George Ryan during the final days of his scandal-ridden tenure were men who had accused the police of obtaining their confessions through torture.  Ryan’s 2003 decision to commute the death sentences of every man and woman on Death Row to life in prison was inspired in part by the Governor’s disgust with the police torture scandal and other elements of the state’s troubled criminal justice system.

Jon Burge was finally found guilty in June of this year for crimes related to the police torture scandal.  Although the statute of limitations forbids police officers from standing trial for the physical and mental abuse they meted out to an untold number of suspects decades ago, a jury convicted Burge of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his repeated lies during the civil suits of his victims.  The Burge conviction was overshadowed by the contemporaneous corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, whose hearings took place in the same federal courthouse.

While the national media may have failed to see the larger implications of the Burge verdict, it is certain that Mayor Daley took notice.  Throughout much of the period in which Burge and his “Midnight Crew” ran amok on the South Side, Daley was the city’s leading prosecutor.  From 1980 to 1989, Daley was Cook County State’s Attorney, the chief administrator in charge of a stable of eager prosecutors whose job it was to bring indictments against suspected criminals and direct the cases against them.  Defense lawyers and political activists now claim that Daley’s office failed justice in two critical ways:  first, by pursuing prosecutions against defendants whose confessions were tainted by allegations of police torture, and second, by failing to initiate any investigation of those officers whose names were repeatedly linked to violent misconduct.

The State’s Attorney’s office is responsible for the investigation of police misconduct of a criminal nature.  In 1990, Amnesty International issued a report titled “Allegations of Police Torture in Chicago.”  The report included a letter from an assistant to the Illinois attorney general stating:  “In cases of [police] abuse and torture” in Chicago, the investigation should be brought by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois or the Cook County State’s Attorney “for the prosecution of the offending officer.”

Chicago Reader journalist John Conroy, whose years of dedicated work helped drag the scandal into the light, has repeatedly pointed out that Richard M. Daley was informed of allegations of police torture by Burge and his men immediately following Andrew Wilson’s arrest.  Yet he ignored the accusations, went forward with the prosecution of the cop killer Wilson, and failed to investigate suspect police detectives.

As the city awaits the November sentencing of Jon Burge, other police officers associated with the police torture scandal must be wondering if their day in court will come next.  While Mayor Daley was not directly involved in the torture of suspects at Area Two and elsewhere, his behavior in the State’s Attorney’s office at best helped hide systemic abuse of prisoners and at worst encouraged police torture.  It is highly unlikely that Richard M. Daley will ever face charges of obstruction of justice in relation to the police torture scandal.  But with the conviction of Burge comes the promise of years of further indictments and convictions of police personnel, as well as possible retrials and re-sentencing for those victims of police abuse still in prison, and civil suits against the city by those wrongfully convicted.  It is likely that Daley’s decision not to run for reelection was based in large part on his desire to remove himself from the public limelight before things get any worse.  Parking meters and Olympic-sized snubs may footnote the Daley legacy; police torture could destroy it.

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