Hidden Honor or Illuminated Infamy

Sometimes a legacy of professional honor is better spent in the shadows, than one minute of shame is spent in the sun.


Understanding the media role, having a realistic understanding of the limitations of both the media and many of its consumers, and realizing the long-term impact of even fleeting moments of professional weakness is vital to our discussion of legacy. It does little good to lament negative news stories, anti-law enforcement bias, or media and public misinterpretation of actually sound police practices, especially surrounding use-of-force issues. We can educate, cooperate with, and demand more accountability from the media, but at the end of the day If it bleeds, it leads and there is little we can do about that.

The Big Picture legacy of Jon Burge

In our first article on legacy, I focused on the story of Commander Jon Burge, formerly of the Chicago Police Department, and how he, as one of the CPD's top investigators, came to be revealed as what can be described as a serial torturer of criminal suspects. A lawsuit brought by a convicted cop-killer provided the impetus that ultimately revealed years of long-hidden abuse of prisoners at the hands of Burge and some investigators under his command, and led to Burge's firing and eventual conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Jon Burge's personal legacy, at an age when he should be looking back at a proud police career, is one of past disgrace and future imprisonment.

But Burge’s legacy extends even farther:

  • Monetary damages in the millions have been paid out to victims and alleged victims of his torture, and it is likely future lawsuits targeting Burge, the City of Chicago and its police department, police officers and current and former Assistant State's Attorneys, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (who was the Cook County State's Attorney during the time of much of the alleged and verified torture took place) will cost millions more.
  • Convictions have been overturned and others sit on appeal; in some cases wrongfully convicted men have lost years of their lives in prison, while in others guilty men have likely walked free thanks to the cloud of suspicion cast by investigators questionable tactics.
  • Illinois' Death Row was emptied in 2003 when then Governor George Ryan (who himself left quite a notorious legacy in his wake) commuted the sentences of the majority of Death Row inmates and pardoned a number of others whom had been found to have been wrongfully convicted, some directly as a result of Burge & Co.
  • In Illinois, all homicide interrogations must now be videotaped following passage of a 2005 law - another product of the Burge legacy. This may not be a bad thing in itself, but has spawned somewhat of a CSI effect with defense attorneys and jurors who wonder why not every theft and simple assault interrogation is on video. There have been some who have called for the extension of videotaping interrogations to all felonies and some misdemeanors.
  • Consider the impact of the Burge press on the mindset of those who cannot intellectually separate the actions of an individual from the group he represents. How often have one of us been vilified because we are equated with the bad actions (that we may well condemn ourselves!) of some other cop we have never met, will never meet, and may agree should never have worn the badge?

There are some who might say Jon Burge was a victim of the media who gladly and hungrily covered his story, or of the litigious legal system that would take up case of a convicted murderer over that of a decorated cop, or of the culture of the time, but none of those are true. Burge was his own victim.

Now understand, I get the part of Burge that must have felt he was doing the right thing - what NEEDED to be done - to see justice served. I understand the rationalization of the dark impulse to lash out, in spite of all the legal restraints, against vile and violent offenders. I get it, but those restraints are in place because we do get it. Impulses indulged lead to excess, and that is what happened to Burge.

The CPD I Have Known

It would be easy to think, based on what I've written up to this point, that I hold the Chicago Police Department in something less than high esteem but that would be wrong. I know better than to condemn any police organization as a whole based upon the perceptions that might arise out of the actions of an individual or group within the agency. I know how frustrating it is to be judged on the insolence or unprofessionalism of a colleague just because we wear the same uniform. I appreciate the often extreme challenges faced by the CPD as they fight crime in a city with some of the most violent neighborhoods in the US. I can appreciate it but never expect to experience it.

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