On Friday, U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow sentenced Jon Burge to 4½ years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the systematic torture of African-American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.
The sentencing of the former police commander closes an ugly chapter of Chicago’s history but does not in itself foster healing between the African-American community and the Chicago Police Department.
Anthony Holmes, one of Burge’s accusers, raised the question that needs to be answered before any real healing can take place.
“Why did you do this? You were supposed to be the law,” Holmes asked, reading from a written statement during the sentencing hearing.
Burge didn’t give an answer.
But it is clear from the long line of African-American suspects who accused Burge of torture, and were later exonerated, that race and status had a lot to do with the abuse.
Most people don’t want to talk about that.
Worse yet, while there was enough evidence of the abuse to result in Burge’s firing, he was allowed to retire to Florida and enjoy a hefty pension for years.
That alone ought to have been enough to trigger a federal investigation. The police brutality that Burge is accused of engaging in was so egregious, the case is often cited by human rights activists as proof that America has its own issues when it comes to human rights violations.
Because the statute of limitations on the torture cases had expired, the feds could prosecute Burge only for lying and obstruction of justice.
So while Burge’s sentencing reflects a measure of justice, there was no atonement. Burge was as unrepentant during his sentencing hearing as he was during his trial.
Although he apologized for the “disrepute” that the charges had brought on the Chicago Police Department, he did not admit the abuse nor apologize for it.
He should have.
He should have apologized to the alleged victims of the torture. He should have apologized to the families who were forced to wait — in some instances for decades — for the truth to come out after their loved ones allegedly were shocked and beaten into making false confessions. And he should have apologized to the city’s taxpayers for the millions of dollars it has shelled out to settle police abuse cases.
But instead of getting an apology, alleged victims and their families saw Burge’s supporters rally around him in the same way the Fraternal Order of Police rallied around him when he was fired from the Police Department amid allegations of police brutality.
In 1993, the FOP was forced to cancel its participation in the South Side St. Patrick’s Day parade after plans to honor Burge on a parade float created a firestorm of protests.
Under different leadership in 2008, the FOP voted to foot the entire legal bill for Burge’s defense on federal charges tied to allegations that he tortured suspects.
Last week, Burge’s supporters pleaded for leniency, citing the former police commander’s meritorious military service. They also depicted Burge as a “great” police officer.
Despite the allegations made against him by African-American suspects, Burge told the court that he’s not a racist and that some of his closest friends in the Police Department were African American.
That may be true.
But the abuse that allegedly occurred in Area 2 Headquarters under Burge’s command was racist. There is no indication that non-black suspects were shocked into signing false confessions or that their rights were trampled on in the same way.
The level of abuse Burge is accused of inflicting on black suspects suggests that this former top-ranking official didn’t see black suspects as deserving the same standard of justice as other suspects.
Until the Chicago Police Department openly tackles this issue, it will be nearly impossible to restore the trust Burge destroyed.