Torture in Chicago: Why It’s Not Surprising and How to Stop It

Officers of the Chicago Police Department. By Viewminder.

Guest Post by Ryan M. Welch

Officers of the Chicago Police Department. By Viewminder.
Officers of the Chicago Police Department. By Viewminder.

A series of recent reports, mostly by the Guardian (see here for a collection of the Guardian stories), suggest the Chicago Police Department (CPD) engage in torture.[1] Suspects are taken to an off-the-records interrogation facility known as Homan Square. While at Homan Square, CPD have allegedly shackled people for extended periods of time, restricted access to the outside (including legal counsel), failed to inform about Miranda rights, beat suspects, and increased temperature to induce discomfort. When I read the reports, I was not surprised. But, then again, I study human rights, and am familiar with the CPD’s tortured past (pun very much intended). I suspect I would see more surprised reactions if I were to direct my family or friends to these stories. Of course some would be more surprised than others, but the point is almost all of my acquaintances are Americans and most Americans do not think that torture is an American problem.[2]

Consider the allegations.[3] Homan Square is a warehouse in the West Side of Chicago that houses special units such as undercover, anti-narcotics, and SWAT units. An increasing number of people claim they were taken to Homan Square, not allowed a phone call (including to attorneys), not booked, and held for several hours to days. Most accounts involved being shackled by the wrists (some by the ankles) to a bench pole for up to three days. By not being processed, the victims were essentially off-the-radar for a prolonged period of time. It is during these times that abuses are alleged – restricted movement, lack of food, interrogations including increased temperature and beatings. One man never made it out alive, the Medical Examiner’s autopsy citing a heroin overdose as the reason (although allegations have surfaced that the police may have used heroin in interrogations.)

These allegations recall Chicago twenty-five years ago. In 1990, after multiple allegations of torture, the CPD Office of Professional Standards conducted an investigation in Area 2 that identified fifty cases of torture by over thirty officers. Subsequent investigations led to the uncovering of over 100 victims, going back to 1968. Tactics included shocking, bagging [the head] and suffocating, suspension, whipping, burning, and beating. Most incidents were connected to Jon Burge and his “Asskickers.” Jon Burge brought many of the tactics he learned in Vietnam to interrogations of criminals of Chicago. Although Burge eventually lost his job,[4] other than two associated officers, no other officers were disciplined. Many remained and were promoted.[5] Even if the problem was a “bad apple,” it may very well have spoiled the bunch. Investigations identified over fifty officers over close to three decades. Not only that, but approximately one third of Cook County criminal court judges were attorneys or detectives involved in the torture cases.[6] So the fact that the allegations that began to surface about nefarious practices at Homan in the mid-2000s has gone mostly unnoticed is not all that surprising. When asked about why the Chicago media hasn’t broken the story, Tracy Siska, the executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, replied that many “reporters agree with the police perspective.”

What might be done to change these dynamics? Given that a number of individuals in the local government and media made the torture hard to detect, the existence of an independent, national institution tasked with protecting human rights may have been able to bring the abuses to light, and ultimately to an end more quickly. A perfect candidate for this role is a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). NHRIs are domestic institutions established by the government to protect and promote human rights. They perform a number of tasks to meet their charge, including taking complaints and investigating alleged abuse and sites in which abuse is likely to happen (such as prisons). The information they gather can be made public in reports and can make those attorneys and judges sympathetic to human rights causes aware of abuse. In his tome on democracy and torture, Darius Rejali presents the argument that governments will continue to torture as long as they aren’t found out. The information gathering and dissemination of an NHRI increase the probability that the executive branch reigns in its agents (police officers). In a working paper, I develop a theory that increased information by NHRI activity increases the probability that government officials will face legal redress or political consequences in the form of mobilization if they have ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture. In expectation of these costs, the officials will torture less often or the principal will take measures to assure torture happens less often on his watch. Statistical analyses and simulations on global data from 1981–2007 comport the argument.

Although the U.S. has ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (1994), it has yet to adopt an NHRI. In one section of my dissertation, I show this is hardly surprising, as countries adopt NHRIs in order to increase their international reputation. Which type of states would we expect to adopt NHRIs, then? There exists a “Goldilocks zone” in which those states that are not too weak and not too dominant (as measured by military and trade capabilities), but are in the middle are just right. The marginal benefit to a very weak country’s (e.g. small Oceanic island countries such as Samoa and Micronesia) reputation or a very strong country’s (e.g. United States, China) reputation would not be worth the costs. The same sort of “Goldilocks zone” exists for how much the international community names and shames a country for human rights abuses and the level of democracy of a country. The U.S. is one of the most dominant, shamed, and democratic countries.

Scholars, the UN, and activists have been calling for the U.S. to adopt an NHRI, perhaps by broadening the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). In fact, USCCR Chairman Martin Castro proposed this step in 2012, but was blocked by Republican-appointed commissioners. Detractors worry activists would use an NHRI to push for international rights the U.S. does not protect in domestic law, such as economic and social rights. However, NHRIs have a mandate to promote and protect those rights that the country has international obligations to uphold. International agreements ratified by countries lead to higher legal obligation due to explicit consent. Situations like those in Homan Square remind us that the NHRI may very well stay busy protecting those rights explicitly enshrined in U.S. international agreements and the Constitution, such as freedom from torture.

Ryan M. Welch is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at Florida State University.

[1] I define torture as does the United Nations Convention Against Torture: “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity” (

[2] Perhaps this should be qualified with “outside of the War on Terror.”

[3] See the CPD response to the allegations.

[4] Bruge was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice (the statute of limitations expired on the actual torture acts) and spent less than four years in prison. He still collects a $4,000/month pension.

[5] Rejali, Darius. 2007. Democracy and Torture. Princeton University Press: Princeton (p. 241)

[6] Ibid. p. 242

  1. Thanks for writing and publishing this post!

    I teach at Daley College (of the City Colleges of Chicago), and I will be using this article in class later this morning, despite the fear that this facility has created for my students.

    Our “campus security” is provided by part-time “sworn officers” many of whom are CPD (Chicago Police Department). They are polite, professional, yet… potential torturers to the students.

    Chicago truly is “President?” Obama’s hometown.

    So much so, he allowed GITMO to establish a beachhead here.

    This “Facility,” an unconstitutional “horror show,” scares my students in Chicago.

    I try to get them to talk about it, and only the brave non-conformist types do, and they are very angry.

    So am I.

    As a Doctor of Political Science… I can definitively say…

    … that the Obama Regime is characterized by a systematic and flagrant violation of human rights, it is a criminal regime, and ideally should suffer a “regime change,” but likely it will not, yet.

    I am in the process of filing FOIA’s about this facility with every “agency,” every component of the Internal Security Apparatus, from CPD, to NSA/CSS, and US Army Military Intelligence.

    I’ll be very happy to share the documents, photos, and video files (perhaps software) I am eventually going to seize from these “agencies,” and any assistance with the wave of law suits I’m going to start, will be much appreciated.

    Maybe I should use Kickstarter to help bring about “regime change” in the US of A? 😉

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