CHICAGO — The city of Chicago pursues a “two-faced” strategy of acknowledging an ugly history of police brutality in public while directing its lawyers to deny that legacy in court when victims sue, community leaders alleged in a court filing Thursday.
The filing in Chicago’s U.S. District Court on behalf of nearly 50 civic, business and religious leaders says the approach delays just payouts and costs the city tens of millions in legal fees that could otherwise go to social programs or reducing taxes.
The filing is in a lawsuit by 55-year-old Black man, James Gibson, freed in 2019 after serving 29 years behind bars when courts found officers under police commander Jon Burge tortured Gibson into implicating himself in the 1989 slayings of two men, including by pressing a scorching hot iron into Gibson’s arm. Gibson was later granted a certificate of innocence.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his successor, current Mayor Lori Lightfoot, are among those who have spoken publicly about how, between 1972 and 1991, Burge’s crew sought confessions from at least 100 African Americans, using electric shocks to their genitals, suffocating them with typewriter covers and shoving guns in their mouths.
“The City’s two-faced approach of admitting Burge’s long practice of torture publicly, but then denying the existence of that same pattern when confronted with civil rights claims of Burge’s victims, serves no one,” the filing says.
The filing cites the Chicago Tribune as reporting that the city, from 2004 to early 2019, spent over $27 million in fees and costs for outside lawyers in lawsuits tied to Burge. As of 2019, the city and Cook County have spent nearly $140 million in taxpayer dollars in settlements and various legal fees on Burge-related torture cases, the filing says.
Some two dozen lawsuits brought by Burge’s victims against the city, with high-priced law firms hired to defend the city, have dragged on for three to six years, according to the filing. Gibson has battled the city in court for three years with no resolution.
“This litigation gamesmanship steals precious time from innocent people like Mr. Gibson, who have already lost decades of their lives to Burge’s torture machine,” the filing, submitted by Washington, D.C.-based attorney Jeetander T. Dulani says.
A message seeking comment from the city’s law department Thursday wasn’t immediately returned, though in an early response to Gibson’s 2019 lawsuit, city attorneys formally denied Burge and his officers regularly engaged in the torture of suspects and that the city turned a blind eye to those abuses.
Dulani said in a phone interview that he can’t know for sure what motivates the city to fight such cases so tenaciously.
“They may believe that by extending the litigation they can reduce the amount of money they will pay out — either because people (suing them) will give up or agree to less money,” he said.
Gibson’s attorney, Andrew M. Stroth, said later Thursday that the city doesn’t appear to have thought through the consequences of spending millions “on indefensible cases.”
“If the city did any type of analysis, … it is clear it’s wasting taxpayer money and that it doesn’t have a coherent strategy” on these lawsuits, Stroth said.
The filing, a friend of the court brief from parties not directly involved in the case, asks U.S. District Judge Sara Ellis to grant Gibson’s motion to declare a pattern and practice of police abuse linked to Burge a proven fact. That could relieve Gibson and others from having to spend money and time, sometimes years, repeatedly proving such a pattern in court. Determining the amount of compensation would still be litigated.
Ellis earlier gave the city until June 17 to respond to Gibson’s motion. She said she would rule on Nov. 1.
“If the City is allowed to continue denying Burge’s pattern of torture in court while ignoring its public admissions about that same pattern, police abuse will continue,” Thursday’s filing says. It adds: “The City’s public apologies for the two-decade pattern of torture by Jon Burge and his henchman are meaningless if the City continues to deny that same pattern in court.”
The 47 community leaders who signed named in the friend of the court brief ranged from Mark Kaufman, executive chairman of the Illinois-based orthopedic rehabilitation service chain, Athletico Physical Therapy, to activist Chicago priest Michael Pfleger.
Burge was fired in 1993 after it was determined he tortured a murder suspect. He was sentenced to prison in 2011 for lying in a civil case about his actions. It was too late to charge him criminally on the torture charges. Burge spent 4½ years in prison and on home confinement before dying in 2018 at age 70.