Few men loom larger in the annals of American torture than Jon Burge.
For 19 years, Burge and his “midnight crew” rounded up men and women on Chicago’s south side, brought them to the sort of dingy interrogation room that was already a TV show cliche before the internet was invented, and wired them up to a high-voltage battery. Insist on your innocence, and these uniformed Chicago Police Department public servants would turn up the juice. Confess to whatever it was they were sure you’d done, and they might turn the knobs back down. Maybe even remove the plastic bag from over your head so you could see to write down the statement that Burge would pass along to a local prosecutor after he was done.
The city of Chicago eventually paid out millions of dollars in restitution to the families of some 120 black men who Burge and his fellow cops tortured in the 1970s and ’80s. Not all of Burge’s boys shared his precise background — college washout from a white working-class part of town where Martin Luther King, Jr., had been jeered and assailed with projectiles from the balconies and stoops of family homes during a housing rights protest, later a military policeman in Vietnam where interrogation techniques often veered beyond the confines of the Geneva Conventions — but they all got their hands dirty when the decorated police commander needed a suspected felon brought in for some rough talk.
Today, Chicago’s high rates of violent crime are a convenient hobby-horse for politicians and commentators all around the United States. The city’s problems are often discussed in isolation from its history, mostly-white public figures far from its streets marveling at 21st century statistics without much appetite for talking about what came before.
Burge’s two-decade reign of brutality is a signature piece of that oft-dismissed history, though Chicagoans certainly don’t need to reach back that far to find stories that explain why a reasonable citizen might not see the CPD uniform as a beacon of safety. They’ve got Officer Jesse Van Dyke and the scores of cops who tried to cover for him after he killed Laquan McDonald. They’ve got Sergeant Ronald Watts and his blue-backed gang of drug-dealers and enforcers. They’ve even got a modern-day retread of Burge’s own torture palace in Homan Square, the “black site” where CPD officers hid and violently interrogated thousands of men and women from at least 2004 to 2015.
But Burge is an outsized figure in Chicago’s public life, splashing an even bigger shadow across the city’s collective memory and civic fabric.
That’s why it seemed perfectly rational to curriculum-writers in the Chicago Public Schools system to start teaching Chicago kids about Burge and the “midnight crew.” The new lesson plan on Burge is coming online this fall in eighth- and tenth-grade classrooms across the city. That includes schools in Edison Park, out at the northwest edge of the country’s third-largest city, the part of town where many if not most of Chicago’s 12,000 sworn police officers live.
Those cops’ kids will start learning about Burge this fall, too. And some of their parents aren’t pleased.
“You’re taking eighth-graders and trying to mold their minds with material that is highly confrontational and controversial,” one mother named Angela McMillan said at a Wednesday night school council meeting reported by DNAInfo. “It’s contradictory to how they live their personal lives with their families, where they eat dinner every night and celebrate Christmas … I think it’s deplorable.”
To Leticia Kaner, a city cop and mom also present at the meeting, teaching Burge and the racist corruption that surrounded his torture racket simply isn’t fair to cops like her.
“The whole curriculum is really one-sided, especially when our general orders can change in the blink of an eye,” Kaner said according to DNAInfo. “Civilians don’t get how many changes we’re going through as police officers right now.”
The modern police officer’s lived experience is that their job is becoming harder because the communities they ostensibly serve have been taught through experience to view cops as untrustworthy at best and actively dangerous at worst. Police institutions have earned the mistrust of the nation’s black and brown communities through words and actions accumulated over years. While it is perhaps natural, human, for police families to bristle at discovering that their own children will learn all about the things police have done to black citizens down the years, it does not especially make sense to think that the solution to the legitimacy crisis in American policing is to restrict information.
The new Burge curriculum is designed to promote earnest confrontation with local history, not to indoctrinate the next generation against police. The lesson plans ask teachers to lead intra-student discussions of both the textbook material on the department’s ugly history and of students’ own views of and experiences with police officers. It is impossible to teach Burge’s sins without also teaching the stories of the men his crew tortured, a list that includes both exonerated civilians who were coerced into false confessions and hardened killers.
Social studies curricula have traditionally focused on lifting up the proclaimed civic virtues of American society. Kids learn about the Bill of Rights long before they hear about how those rights are violated by powerful people and institutions. They learn about Thomas Jefferson’s words about human equality long before they discover he owned other human beings as property before, during, and after his years at the forefront of a new nation’s statecraft. They learn about how a bill becomes a law before they learn what lobbyists do and where politicians get their money.
Chicago’s copland neighborhoods might feel compelled to close ranks and wall their enclave off from the broader city’s efforts to face up to history. But they’d get further toward addressing their broken relationship with the community they serve if they instead pulled down those walls, traded isolation for communion.
Chicago’s looking into that, too. Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), whose instinct has generally been to deflect criticism of his police force, has suggested investing millions of dollars in an incentive program for officers willing to buy a house in some of the city’s poorer, blacker neighborhoods. Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (D) has suggested doing likewise, but going further by making the houses free.
Other cities have also explored such relocation incentives to combat the tendency in modern city policing for cops to live far outside their beats. The hope is that a cop with practical, personal roots in a community is apt to approach their work like a public servant, rather than falling into the paramilitary occupier mindset men like Burge have brought to bear in the past.