Editor’s note: This report contains graphic descriptions of torture.
The Chicago Police Department is the latest force in the national spotlight for a controversial shooting of a young black man, but the issues raised by recently released videos showing police shootings are not new in Chicago.
The incidents, critics say, are evidence of what they call a long history of Chicago police using excessive force on minorities in the city.
The day he was tortured is one that Darrell Cannon says will live with him until he takes his last breath: Nov. 2, 1983, and the torture came at the hands of three Chicago police detectives. They suspected Cannon in a murder, so they took him to an isolated area on Chicago’s South Side and played Russian roulette.
“They took a shotgun while my hands was cuffed behind my back, and while I was standing out there, one of the detectives told me and I quote, ‘N*****, look around. Nobody’s gonna see or hear anything we do to you today,’ ” Cannon says.
Cannon says one detective put the barrel of the gun in his mouth, and he heard three clicks of the trigger. The last, he says, made his hair stand on end. Cannon says the detectives later made him lie in the back of a police car.
“They pulled my pants and shorts down, they took an electric cattle prod,” he told a Chicago City Council committee earlier this year. He needed a minute to collect himself and continued. “He took electric cattle prod and he turned it on and he stuck me on my genitals with that cattle prod. I had never in my life experienced that kind of pain.”
Cannon was tortured into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit and was sentenced to life in prison before being exonerated in 2004. Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1990s, hundreds of black men were tortured by Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge and the detectives under his command.
Though he was fired, Burge was never charged criminally until convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about the torture under oath in 2010.
Earlier this year, the Chicago City Council approved reparations payments to Cannon and other victims of torture.
“We’ve been living with this epidemic of excessive force in Chicago for decades; maybe some of us are numbed to it,” says Andy Shaw, a veteran Chicago journalist who now heads up the watchdog organization, the Better Government Association. “The sad reality is that no one has ever confronted it head on.”
What recent BGA investigations have found are, in Shaw’s words, shocking and shameful.
“Chicago taxpayers have spent more than half a billion dollars on excessive force cases over a decade. Chicago police have shot more people dead over a five-year period than any other big city, and we have the smallest rate of police officers accused of misconduct who are actually charged by an independent review board,” he says.
Shaw and others in Chicago are not surprised the Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation into the police department. Instead they ask, what took so long?
“I think that the culture of police violence and cover-up and code of silence hasn’t changed in the 45 or 46 years,” says Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office has represented victims of excessive force since the police killings of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969.
Still, not everyone believes there is a systemic problem in Chicago’s police department. Alderman Ed Burke is a former police officer and powerful chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, which has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to victims of police misconduct. Under questioning from reporters, Burke said he doesn’t see the need for a federal civil rights investigation.
“There’s no institutional problem,” he says. “Will there be individual officers who will make mistakes? Absolutely.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, on the other hand, welcomes the Justice Department investigation and acknowledges the city needs it.