A Digital Archive Documents Two Decades of Torture by Chicago Police

Amid continued accusations of police misconduct, the force must contend with a digital rehashing of a sordid chapter in its history.

Photo of Andrew Wilson taken while in custody (Courtesy of Chicago Torture Archive)

The Chicago Police Department seems to be continuously embroiled these days in multiple, high-profile investigations of fatal incidents, corruption scandals, and mishandling of critical equipment. Now, the CPD will have to contend with an online, 10,000-document-strong archive of an even more troubling time in its history: the notorious two decades in which officers performed torture.

The Chicago Torture Archive will open this month at the University of Chicago. The massive collection comes from efforts by the People’s Law Office, a civil-rights organization, to gather interrogations, criminal-trial files, civil-litigation documents, works of journalism, and records of activism spurred by the CPD torture cases documented between 1972 and 1991.

Briefly stated, over 100 black men were tortured by officers in order to force confessions, drive them to incriminate co-defendants, or to intimidate possible witnesses to police brutality. One of them was Philip Adkins, whose testimony about the hours that followed a 5 a.m. knock on his door is representative of some of the atrocities men like him endured at the hands of police officers. During the space of four to five hours, three detectives picked up, handcuffed, and detained Adkins without officially arresting him, reading him his Miranda rights, or allowing him to contact family or counsel.

The physical violence began when “without warning one of them slugged” him while he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. The three detectives then drove around parts of Chicago with him in the car, including during a stop at McDonald’s, and interrogated him about suspected criminal activity from the night before. Finding his answers unsatisfactory, one of the detectives started poking him “with great force” in the groin area with a flashlight. As they continued to drive around, two detectives took turns delivering blows to his private parts, knees, elbows, and ribs. The official court transcript of his testimony includes the following exchange:

Q: “So they beat you until you urinated on yourself and defecated on yourself?”

A: “Yes.”

The timing of the archives’ launch aligns well with restorative actions recently undertaken in Chicago. In 2015, some of the cases saw a kind of formal closure with the passing of the Reparations for Burge Torture Victims ordinance by the Chicago City Council; the name refers to Police Commander Jon Burge, who was at the CPD’s helm when acts of torture were carried out. The ordinance’s passage also concluded some 30 years of advocacy on the part of survivors, their descendants, and supporters to have the torture cases formally acknowledged by the city.

Susan Gzesh, the archive’s director, said that around the same time, “an entirely energized movement led by young people” emerged in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, and local coalitions gained prominence. She thinks the advocacy around the Chicago cases can inform other young activists. “The lessons of the long march to justice on these Chicago police torture cases needs to be available to a new generation of advocates and activists to learn from the lessons and mistakes of earlier movements,” Gzesh said. “To bring something out as an archive, a set of cases that were going on for the last 30 years really makes sense right now.”

All the materials and documents posted online so far are drawn from court records and defense files provided by attorneys who represented the victims. Once the full collection is online—the materials currently available don’t represent the whole set—the public will have a comprehensive resource it can use to study the cases. But that kind of full disclosure comes with hiccups. Gzesh, for one, cannot confirm that victims and their families were made aware of the archive’s existence. “Their lawyers gave us the materials. I would assume that they have informed their clients that they are putting this stuff up,” Gzesh said.

And as far as possible privacy concerns regarding the disclosure of information—such as Social Security numbers, home addresses, and names of family members—she said: “We have to go back over that.” It appears that in curating and digitizing the thousands of files, there was some oversight in checking for such revelatory details. “That was not intentional,” Gzesh said. At the time of this writing, the archive’s homepage included this message:

Please note: We are currently in the process of collecting and reviewing documents for this archive. Please check back frequently, as we will be adding documents as they are reviewed.

Academics, researchers, historians, and many others will find the trove of information essential to understanding this gruesome chapter in CDP and Chicago history. But it’s also possible that police brass will see important lessons to draw from as it prepares to mend relationships with residents, increase transparency and accountability, and wipe away a blemish that has marred its reputation for too long.

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