Chicago made history when its city council passed legislation providing reparations to survivors of police torture last Wednesday. Between 1972 and 1991, at least 120 African American men were tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge or the detectives under his command. It will be the first time that a municipality in the United States has ever offered reparations to those unjustly harmed by law enforcement, and this holistic model should serve as a blueprint for how cities around the country should respond to police brutality.
Chicago’s reparations package was driven by the inadequacy of traditional legal remedies. After decades of litigation, activism, and investigative journalism, the truth about systemic torture of African Americans, including beatings, electrocution, and suffocation, often accompanied by racialized verbal abuse, has been exposed. But there has never been full accountability.
The statute of limitations precluded Burge and his men from being held criminally or civilly responsible for their alleged crimes. They enjoyed decades of torturing with impunity, courtesy of an alleged cover-up by the Chicago Police Department’s chain of command and the highest city officials. Moreover, the limited remedies offered by civil litigation—financial settlements that were often meager and practically unavailable—were inadequate to address the trauma and material needs of the torture survivors, their family members, and communities.
Burge’s legacy of torture left festering wounds that remain open to this day. Many survivors continue to suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder that has gone untreated for decades. Survivors’ family members were also left to contend with their secondary trauma in isolation, and entire communities lived in fear that they or their loved ones would become victims.
Reparations are an exercise in collective grief, catharsis, and healing. This historic award includes $5.5 million to be distributed to the living torture survivors, the creation of a center on Chicago’s Southside where survivors can access specialized trauma counseling services, and benefits including job placement and free tuition at city colleges for the survivors and their families. The City of Chicago will also create an 8th- and 10th-grade curriculum about the torture cases for Chicago Public schools and create a permanent, public memorial honoring the survivors.
While the reparations for Burge survivors focus on a finite set of particularly egregious cases, they can serve as a model for what reparations might look like for systemic police abuse plaguing cities across the nation.
Municipalities need not shoulder this burden alone. There are about 40 federally funded centers throughout the U.S. offering psychological treatment to torture survivors—but unfortunately, they are only permitted to provide services to people who have been tortured outside the U.S. It is time for federal government to recognize that law enforcement officials torture people in the U.S., and that survivors need access to the same services we rightfully offer survivors of torture around the world.
There is no question that excessive force causes physical injuries and leaves psychological scars. As noted by Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan in their study of the impacts of the New York City Police Department’s stop and frisk practices, even less egregious forms of discriminatory policing cause significant individual and collective emotional harm.
Ultimately, Chicago’s approach to systemic racial harm offers a glimmer of a possible future in which the nation as a whole might finally grapple with reparations for the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and its direct descendant, mass incarceration.