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Prologue and Introduction to "The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence," by Laurence Ralph (2020)

Author: Laurence Ralph

Ralph, Laurence. Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. University of Chicago Press, 2020.

Prologue:

A Half Century of Torture

Here are the facts: between 1972 and 1991, approximately 125 African American suspects were tortured by police officers in Chicago.1 The means of torture were numerous, but they all were conducted at Chicago’s Area 2 detective headquarters, which used to be located at 91st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.2 Beyond these verified instances, in 2003 journalists documented other episodes of torture before and after these dates, and elsewhere in the city, placing the total number of survivors of police torture in Chicago at roughly two hundred.

The numbers themselves are astounding enough, but they offer only the surface of this horror. Even now, after researching the topic of police torture for fourteen years, the reality is hard to grasp but impossible to doubt: For almost a half century, over and over and over again, police officers who took an oath to protect and serve the residents of Chicago have instead done the opposite. They have beaten residents of Chicago. They have electrocuted residents of Chicago. They have tied residents of Chicago to radiators and left them there for hours. They have suffocated them with typewriter covers and plastic bags. They have raped them.

The scope of the problem is so vast that, after decades of denial and avoidance, in 2009, the state government created the Illinois Torture Inquiry and Relief Commission. Although it was founded in the hopes of bringing to a close this aspect of Chicago’s past, the commission has done the opposite. Today it investigates the claims of anyone in Chicago convicted by confessions allegedly coerced through torture. So far, more than four hundred cases are pending investigation. But the commission has the resources to investigate only sixteen cases per year. At this rate, Duaa Eldeib, of the Chicago Tribune, calculated in October 2016 that “the Commission would need more than 23 years to make it through the cases currently before them.” 3 That figure does not take into account the three to five new torture claims the commission still receives each week.

•••

Despite the ongoing nature of the problem, this book takes the criminal suspects who were systematically subject to sadism in the 1980s and 1990s as its point of departure. They ignited what is widely known today as the Chicago police torture scandal. With some rare exceptions, all the torture survivors were men, and Black men in particular.4 Overwhelming evidence suggests that multiple generations of police have systematically targeted Black men, making this the story not just of police brutality but also—as excessive policing so often is—of institutional racism. The reality of institutional racism and the circumstances that led to police torture all those years ago remain largely unchanged. As a result, police torture is very much an ongoing problem, as relevant today as it was when the first allegations of torture surfaced in 1982, prompting lawyers to dig deeper and find out that systematic torture in Chicago’s precincts had begun at least a decade earlier.

As we’ll see, police torture in Chicago is built on a contradiction: the existence of torture is, of course, a secret, and yet it is a secret that everyone seems to know about. Thus, we can understand police torture—and hope to change the circumstances that allowed it to happen—only if we understand it as the “open secret” that it is.

“It goes beyond just the police department,” said Flint Taylor, the lawyer who has tried many of the police torture cases in Chicago. When I interviewed him in the summer of 2017, Taylor said that the open secret extends to judges as well, because many of them were former prosecutors who “worked hand in glove with the cops” for convictions. They were in those station houses when the confessions were being taken, Taylor said. What’s more, some of the prosecutors were former police officers themselves. “There’s a web that starts with suspected criminals on the streets and it ends with some of the most powerful people in the city,” Taylor said. He uttered these words at the end of an hour-long conversation in which he described the complex network that connected cops to judges to prosecutors to politicians. “That web,” he said, “is a major roadblock to the truth in these cases.”

I have spent more than a decade trying to figure out what this truth consists of. What is police torture? Why do certain officers commit horrific acts in the name of justice? And what can we do about it? In pursuit of the truth about police torture, this book explores the “web” that Taylor describes. I show that many people who work for the city of Chicago—whether serving on the police force, or in the legal system, or in the city and state government—have chosen to remain silent about torture because of this delicate tangle of connections. They have wanted to avoid risking their careers, their safety, and, in some cases, their lives. Those who stayed quiet also became masters at looking the other way.

The open secret is what people in power know but refuse to say about police torture. And it is why in writing this book, I have often felt discouraged. If justice had been denied torture survivors for so many decades, if so many powerful people were in on the secret, I have often worried that nothing I wrote would be meaningful. Eventually, I came to understand that the true goal of my research was less about exposing police torture than investigating the openness of the secret. Why have so many powerful and influential people in Chicago been unwilling to publicly acknowledge acts of extrajudicial police force such as torture?5

Torture is a practice that people in power have long done against “the other”—and that “other” has been defined in various ways throughout US history. For most of US history, Black people have been the most obvious “other” in what Michelle Alexander has called a “racial caste system.” Within this system, those at the bottom tend to be Black, and they are the farthest away from the privileges and protections that the country gives to the white people at the top. Because Blacks, brought to this country as enslaved people, have occupied the lower rung of this social order for so long, torture has always been an essential element of the African American experience. This is why racial violence is another major focus of this book. The open secret of police torture reveals important lessons about the relationship between torture and racism in this country.

In The Condemnation of Blackness, for instance, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that, since the 1600s, and the dawn of American slavery, Black people have been viewed as potential criminal threats to US society.6 As enslaved people were considered legal property, to run away was, by definition, a criminal act. From there, it wasn’t much of a leap to link Blackness to criminality. Unlike other racial, religious, or ethnic groups, whose crime rates were commonly attributed to social conditions and structures, Black people were (and are) considered inherently prone to criminality. For many years, this link was thought to be biological; now, it is considered a cultural eventuality. But however one explains the link, Muhammad argues that equating Blackness and criminality is part of America’s cultural DNA.

The tendency of white Americans to view Blacks as criminals helps us better understand the phenomenon of police torture. To paraphrase one police officer discussing the Black people he arrested on suspicion of crimes, even if the suspects had done nothing wrong at that particular time, you could be sure that they either had done something for which they should have been arrested in the past or would do something wrong in the future. They were always guilty of some crime because they were Black.7

If these assumptions are encoded in our cultural DNA, as Muhammad suggests—and I agree with him—then the City of Chicago’s preferred method of dealing with police torture (i.e., compensating torture survivors with million-dollar payouts) will not solve the problem of police violence.8 At the very least, addressing this concern will require a willingness to interrogate why this country’s commitment to the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, one of the fundamental ideals of the US justice system, has never been fully extended to Blacks. Chicago is my case study to explore a broader national and transnational problem that should concern us all. This global concern is that, as agents of the state, police officers and military personnel kill and debilitate vulnerable people in ways that are systematic and thus predictable. And yet, precisely because they are agents of the state, they rarely face repercussions for the crimes they commit and the generational trauma they inflict.9

The history of Chicago police torture that I tell begins with the Black men who were suffocated and shocked and violated and humiliated at Area 2. Sometimes the officers at Area 2 tortured suspects after they confessed to crimes as a form of punishment. Other times, they tortured them to elicit a confession, as happened to Andrew Wilson, who became the first person to file a civil suit against the City of Chicago for the crime of torture. These men endured beatings, “baggings” (in which police officers suffocate criminal suspects with plastic bags), and sometimes much worse.

Many of these torture survivors were eventually exonerated. Some received monetary settlements as recompense for their torture and confinement. But their exoneration should not reaffirm our faith in the law—quite the contrary. Instead, we might wonder how many others have been wrongly imprisoned because of confessions extracted by torture. How many will never achieve the redemption that a few lucky exceptions did?

Judge Joan Lefkow, who presided over the trial of the disgraced and recently deceased police commander Jon Burge, one of Chicago’s most infamous torturers, argued that “when a confession is coerced, the truth of the confession is called into question. When this becomes widespread, as one can infer from the accounts that have been presented here in this court, the administration of justice is undermined irreparably.” 10 But how can torture undermine the basis of the legal system when this system has always allowed police officers to kill and torture vulnerable people without sanction?

Of course, the vulnerable populations that are susceptible to torture are not exclusively Black. Even though race is a favored way of establishing “the other” in the United States, in recent decades religion has been another prominent way of creating a threat that is necessary to justify torture, particularly after the war on terror.

In the winter of 2016, while I was in the throes of this research project, Donald Trump, the forty-fifth president of the United States, clarified his position on torture. He did so during his first interview after being elected. Speaking of the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Trump said: “When they’re shooting—when they’re chopping off the heads of our people and other people, when they’re chopping off the heads of people because they happen to be a Christian in the Middle East, when ISIS is doing things that nobody has ever heard of since medieval times, would I feel strongly about waterboarding? As far as I’m concerned, we have to fight fire with fire.”

Trump followed this comment with the claim that he had recently “spoken . . . with people at the highest level of intelligence,” by which, I assume, he meant high-ranking US military officials. According to Trump, these military officials told him that techniques of torture, such as waterboarding, do, in fact, “work.”

Trump’s statements on torture may strike us as banal, especially given the sheer exhaustion of the twenty-four-hour news cycle in the United States. We have become so used to this president making one racist, Islamophobic, and otherwise-xenophobic statement after another that his comments on torture may barely even register. But it is important to realize that the idea of torture as a necessary evil in an increasingly dangerous world is consistent with George W. Bush’s CIA torture program, and even with the way Muslims were targeted for detention and unjustly detained at black sites like Guantánamo Bay during Barack Obama’s time in office.

The recent history of torture during the war on terror tells us a great deal about what this country views as a threat, who our society fears, and how much society is willing to compromise its ideals to defend itself against that threat. Being considered the enemy, and then being purposefully tormented because of that—this is what connects all the survivors of torture in my book, from the Black Chicagoans I discuss to a Guantánamo detainee named Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

Slahi’s interrogators stripped him, blindfolded him, and diapered him, before subjecting him to extreme isolation; physical, psychological, and sexual humiliation; death threats and threats to his family; and mock kidnapping and rendition, by which I am referring to the practice of sending terrorist suspects to countries that do not have any legal obligations to treat prisoners humanely. In a comparable way, we know that police officers in Chicago bagged a Black man named Andrew Wilson, beat him, and electrocuted him before torturing his brother, Jackie, who was arrested at the same time as he was. And yet it is not so much these techniques of torture that I focus on in this book. It is the justification by police, politicians, and the courts that rationalizes their use.

Time and time again over the course of this book, as police or military officers torture suspects, their racist and Islamophobic assumptions about suspects become self-fulfilling prophecy. Torture produces tainted knowledge that confirms a police or military officer’s contempt not just for the criminal but also for the social group to which the supposed criminal belongs. Slahi might seem a strange person to include in a book about torture committed against Black people in Chicago. But as we will see, the torture of a suspected drug dealer in the Midwest is intimately linked to the torture of a suspected terrorist half a world away.

The central themes of this book are twofold: torture persists in Chicago because of the complicity of people in power, and it persists in the United States because of our history of violence against populations we perceive as threatening to us. These twinned ideas come together in the image of the torture tree.

In this book, the torture tree references the words Billie Holiday crooned, painfully and deliberately, in “Strange Fruit,” a song recorded in the same year that Germany united with the Soviet Union to invade Poland, igniting a world war. Of the “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” she sang:

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

In this song, the dead Black bodies swaying in the wind seem “strange” when compared to what a healthy tree would sprout. Holiday tells us that soil fertilized with racism and hate naturally yields a rotten and “bitter” harvest. Of course, lynching can be distinguished from torture by the fact that the practice was often perpetrated by vigilante figures or angry mobs who took the law into their own hands when they strung up and hung Black people from trees. By contrast, the severe pain and suffering that defines torture—well, at least by the United Nations definition that I subscribe to in this book—must be “inflicted by or with the consent of a public official,” such as a police officer.11 Still, aside from this important distinction, there are some equally significant similarities. Both lynching and torture are forms of extrajudicial violence that demonstrate the victim’s position within society’s racial caste system. And thus, whether in the Jim Crow South of the early 1900s or on the South Side of Chicago today, these violent practices of punishment attest to a contempt not merely for the crime a person is accused of committing but also for the criminal. In short, these practices manifest the racism that is still prevalent in US society.

The metaphor of the torture tree also helps me explain several significant themes related to the contempt and the assumed guilt of the supposed criminal. Later in this book, we will see how the torture tree is rooted in our country’s investment in fear—an investment that is political, financial, and psychological—which maintains the enduring racial caste system in the United States. Its trunk is the mistreatment, harassment, torture, and death that stems from the current system of law and order, a system that injures and kills Black people at disproportionate rates as compared to white Americans. Just follow the branches to find the police and military officers connected to the aforementioned spectrum of violence that too often starts at mistreatment and ends in death. And finally, through this analogy, I show how and why the torture tree’s leaves come to represent everyday acts of police violence.

To be clear, in describing the violence and suffering associated with this tree, I use the word torture carefully. In the field of African American studies, there is a huge debate about whether scholars should talk explicitly about this type of violence and pain. The danger is that such descriptions can titillate readers and contribute to what Karen Sánchez-Eppler calls the “pornography of violence.” 12Even when these descriptions are used toward a greater good—as when slave abolitionists used them to demonstrate the horrors of a corrupt system—the way Black people are put on display can make their inferior state seem impossible to overcome. For some important thinkers, describing torture in vivid detail can do more harm than good.

Still, I have decided to describe torture in this book when appropriate. There are many reasons for this choice. First, the torture survivors whom I spoke with wanted the public to know that they were not just “roughed up.” They were not just mistreated. What happened to them was horrifying. The suffering they endured was something that no human should be made to experience. Second, that suffering was worsened by the fact that the rest of us didn’t see it. For so long—for decades, in fact—the details of their torture were not believed. Had they not testified about torture from the witness stand, under oath, the torture survivors might never have found one another. When these survivors described the particular instruments used on them, what they looked like, how they felt, what kind of marks they left on their flesh, they transformed the morbid details of torture into evidence. This evidence, in turn, made it possible for other torture survivors to say, “I have been tortured too” or “The same thing happened to me.”

Indeed, the specificity of detail—horrifying as that detail often is—has been crucial to revealing the extent of torture. Not only has court testimony allowed survivors to find one another; investigative journalists over the past two decades especially have used that testimony to slowly identify the branches of this tree. It was through detailed and specific descriptions that investigative journalists have been able to reveal the truth of police torture. After a long struggle, so has the Illinois judicial system and the Chicago city government. But even among those aware of Chicago’s decades-long scandal, there is almost no understanding of how deeply the roots are embedded in the institutions of government. Nor has there been a research study concerned with how Chicago residents are coping with the history and ongoing threat that the torture tree represents. That is, until now.

Research for The Torture Letters began in the spring of 2007, and it consisted, at first, of a single obsession. That obsession was poring over transcripts of police torture cases in Chicago. I created a list of anyone who had sued the City of Chicago on the basis of having been tortured, and I was determined to read about how they described torture in their own words. To come up with this list, I looked at old newspaper articles and cross-referenced the names there with reports on police torture that the city had released over the years, the oldest of which was the Goldston Report from 1990. I found that Black people in Chicago had been claiming that they had been tortured long before that report was published. They continued to make these claims in the late 2000s, when I started this research in earnest, and those claims continue until today.

But I did not draw my conclusions only from reports on torture and court testimony. Over the course of my research, I talked to lawyers such as Flint Taylor who have tried torture cases, I went to rallies and heard torture survivors speak about what they endured, and I interviewed activists who have worked to bring attention to the scandal of police torture. I amassed reams of files consisting of court proceedings and interviews I had conducted with lawyers, torture survivors, and activists. Still, I felt that the book was missing something. What it was missing, I eventually realized, was what everyday Chicagoans thought about this history of torture. Did the scandal of police torture relate to their everyday lives?

To answer this question, I organized group discussions (which I called focus groups) that consisted of eight to ten people as well as one-on-one interviews with Chicago residents. My criteria were that participants had to be interested in learning about the history of police torture (if they didn’t already know about it), and they had to be willing to share their own experiences with the police, whether good or bad, and even if those encounters seemed unremarkable to them. As it turned out, these criteria were broad enough to attract more than one hundred curious and engaged Chicagoans. They came from all parts of the city—from the South Side to the East Side, and from the North Side to the West Side. They ranged in age from fourteen to fifty-one years old. They were Black, white, Asian, and Latino.

Speaking with such a diverse group of Chicagoans has obvious benefits, but also some disadvantages. One reward is that I had access to multiple perspectives on a complex issue. As a researcher, I am always intrigued by the prospect that people’s interpretations can add nuance to the way I have been thinking about a given issue. And as a writer, I am also interested in listening to people voice their concerns. Doing so makes my work more accessible—something that’s always been important to me. But there is a significant downside to this approach. Having such a diverse group, with such different experiences, makes it hard to organize a group discussion. Once such an event is organized, it can easily go off the rails.

As a way to address this problem, I came up with an idea. I decided to use some of the material I came across during the course of doing research as starting points—icebreakers, if you will—to structure my focus groups. The first part of a typical focus group began with court testimony from a torture case. By sharing and discussing court testimony and statements from police officers who had knowledge of the scandal, I could usually tell what people already knew about police torture. I organized the next part of the focus-group discussion around a newspaper article that described how criminal suspects were systematically tormented while in police custody. I found that such media reports typically prompted people to discuss how victims of police violence were portrayed, and whether or not they agreed with that portrayal. Finally, I ended the focus groups by sharing one of two letters I had written, which discussed how I became aware of the phenomena of police torture. One draft open letter was to Black youth in Chicago, and the other was to the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, Eddie Johnson. Both letters had the effect of eliciting discussion about who was responsible for inflicting pain on criminal suspects in the city.

I shared these letters for a particular reason: I wanted Chicago residents to get a sense of my perspective, my voice. Having facilitated these kinds of groups for previous research projects, I knew that most of the discussion would take place between the participants. I inserted myself into the conversation only when the discussion had stalled, or to change topics, or to keep track of time. But I wanted to create space to test my own assumptions about how I was thinking about the issue. And I’m glad I did. Chicagoans injected a much-needed dose of nuance into my thinking about police torture. From them, I learned that I could not talk about police torture in isolation. For Chicagoans, torture was uniquely horrible, but it was never unique. Chicagoans could not talk about torture without talking about all the other things that they experienced at the hands of the police. It was in speaking with Chicago residents that I really understood, for the first time, something that I had read about in the police department’s manual but never really had a sense of: the use-of-force continuum. This refers to the guidelines that the police are supposed to abide by when determining how much force to deploy during an encounter with a civilian.

Chicago police are required to de-escalate situations, whenever possible, to reduce the need for them to use force. If police officers confront someone who is agitated, they are trained to reason with that person and persuade him or her to calm down. If that person is not harming anyone, then police can allow the person to cool off for a certain period of time. Or if someone has a history of mental illness, the police can call on a crisis-intervention team to assist in making the arrest.

Police officers, in fact, are required to make their way through “all reasonable alternatives” before deploying force.13 According to the Chicago Police Department’s 2017 policy on the use of force: “The use of deadly force is a last resort that is permissible only when necessary to protect against an imminent threat to life or to prevent great bodily harm to the member [of the police force] or another person.” 14

But how, you may be wondering, do police officers navigate the terrain between de-escalation techniques and deadly force? Here’s where the use-of-force continuum comes in: it defines the types of force that police can use to respond to specific types of resistance. If a civilian is threatening someone verbally, the officer is permitted to physically restrain that person; if the person takes out a knife, the officer is permitted to take out his or her gun. The police think of this continuum as a staircase on which they are permitted to always be one step ahead of the individual in deploying force. In other words, police are permitted to escalate force depending on an offender’s behavior as well as the threat the offender poses.

In reality, though, many Black Chicagoans feel that the use-of-force continuum is inherently flawed. They argue that because of their skin color, the police judge them as threats prematurely, and then use that prejudice to ascend the staircase too quickly. To add insult to injury, the police often face no consequences whatsoever for their role in escalating violence. They have to state later only that they felt scared. By doing so, police officers are often given the benefit of the doubt and so do not face consequences for injuring or killing residents. Because of this reality, Chicagoans wanted my work to hold police officers accountable for the violence they inflicted. These residents felt that their city was in the midst of a legitimacy crisis and thought that my book should be written for someone who could effect change. The problem was that there was no consensus on whom exactly that “someone” should be.

Some residents mentioned the mayor, others brought up the police officers who had committed torture, a few thought that the governor should be addressed, and others wanted me to write to activists in the hopes that the protests against police violence would continue. The list that research participants came up with was so varied, in fact, that for a long time I thought it was impossible that a single book would be able to address the different constituencies they mentioned. After all, each of the people they mentioned had different skills and training, different knowledge of the issue, and different tools at their disposal to grapple with the problem. How could a single message adequately address them all?

Nevertheless, I could not help but think long and hard about these residents’ concerns. I did not want what they told me to just be beneficial to other scholars who theorized torture for a living. I wanted to honor what I had learned from them by embracing their challenge to speak to multiple audiences. Eventually, I would figure out how to write this book in a way that spoke to the various people who my research participants wanted me to address: those who were complicit in torture and those whom the participants felt needed to know about the issue. My solution was to write this book as a series of open letters.

Something occurred to me shortly after I decided to write this book as a compilation of letters: I noticed that letters had been vital to my research all along.

Over the fourteen years I have been working on this project, my office desk had become a repository of piles of letters—letters from torture survivors that had made their way into case files, letters from prisoners to their families, letters from prisoners to their lawyers and to the judges who would rule on torture claims, letters from family members to prisoners, and letters to the media. Indeed, letters were a significant factor in exposing torture in Chicago. An anonymous police insider, who came to be known as “Deep Badge,” wrote the letters that escalated the investigation into police torture in 1989. The information Deep Badge provided to lawyers representing Andrew Wilson in his civil suit against the police department was detailed enough to verify the accuracy of what Wilson said. Deep Badge’s letters also helped lawyers identify many of the more than fifty police officers involved in the torture operation at Area 2. They also helped track down other torture survivors who could corroborate Wilson’s claims. Without them, the mechanics of this operation might still be nothing more than an open secret.

In taking an epistolary approach to unpacking the truth about what happened in Chicago, I also wanted this book to sit within a larger tradition of meditations on racism in the United States, such as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and, more recently, Danielle Allen’s Cuz, which use the intimacy of letters to write profound reflections on personal experiences of race and racism.

But to whom does one write?

First, I decided to write to all the future mayors of Chicago, because they will have to grapple with the impact that police torture still has on this city. Then I wrote to Chicago youth of color, because they are the next generation who has to fear violence from the cops and the people whom the torture survivors I spoke to wanted most desperately to address. From there, I decided to focus on public figures, such as the superintendent of the police department and the mayor, because they have to grapple with this history as part of their job. I also wrote to activists working on this issue and to individual torture survivors—addressing those drawn into the terrible orbit of police torture directly. I felt that personal letters would help readers identify with the people being addressed. Torture would become real, I hoped, not just an abstraction happening years ago to an unfortunate, faceless group.

Through letter writing I develop an important critique of our current moment, one that not only exposes injustice but also goes a step farther to indict those responsible. It is important to note that letter writing has always operated as a call to action. The process of writing letters, and (in some cases) receiving responses to these letters, has made apparent—again and again and again—what lies beneath the surface of everyday life: the suppressed consciousness of a history of secrecy and torture in Chicago.

Of the many lessons I learned while writing these letters, chief among them is this: it is not enough to be aware that torture has been committed against the vulnerable and to throw up your hands in horror, as most people of goodwill do. One must also recognize the racism or Islamophobia that made this torture possible and acknowledge how endemic these social problems are. Only then can there be an honest reckoning with police violence and a genuine attempt to question the extent to which the American public is also complicit in perpetuating police torture, both at home and abroad.

Introduction

An Open Letter to All the Future Mayors of Chicago

I’m a researcher who is writing a book on the history of police torture in your city. The more I learn about this history, the more I feel the need to write to you, even though I cannot be certain who exactly you will be. If history is any guide, you—and all other future mayors of Chicago—are likely a well-connected politician who has a cozy relationship with exactly the instruments of government that I am suggesting are most in need of change. But I must write to you anyway because I believe that change is always possible, however unlikely it may seem in the present.

Indeed, you might already be a career politician, comfortably settled into the state capitol, but you might be, at this very moment, a high school student with lots of big and unrealistic ideas. You may be white or Black, Asian or Latino, or you might not identify with any race at all. You may be gay, straight, or have a fluid gender identity. You may become Chicago’s mayor five years from now, or maybe twenty-five years. Regardless of who you are and how you find yourself as the public persona of this city, it is my sincerest hope that you want to change the culture that has allowed torture to scandalize the Chicago Police Department.

You likely have been briefed about police torture. Perhaps you have gotten assurances from the superintendent of the police department. You might have even met with survivors of police torture. But what I have found in studying this issue for more than a decade is that its complexities are endless. And thus, a strict historical approach, or a policy-oriented approach, doesn’t actually clarify the full extent of the problem. To do that, we need not facts but a metaphor.

The first thing you must know is that the torture tree is firmly planted in your city. Its roots are deep, its trunk sturdy, its branches spread wide, its leaves cast dark shadows.

The torture tree is rooted in an enduring idea of threat that is foundational to life in the United States. Its trunk is the use-of-force continuum. Its branches are the police officers who personify this continuum. And its leaves are everyday incidents of police violence.

•••

Let’s begin with the roots, as they are, so tragically, steeped in fear. For all of our achievements as humans, we are still a species that is ruled by very basic instincts, instincts developed millions of years ago and ones shared by most animals. The most basic of instincts is the desire to keep ourselves alive; thus, we are incredibly attuned to danger, and fear shapes much of our emotional life. Because we are fearful of threats, what we crave—perhaps even more than food or companionship—is a sense of safety.

The very idea of safety in the United States is rooted in the frontier logic that justified the settlement of this country in the 1700s. For the white settlers, safety was premised on viewing Native Americans as threats and so transforming them into “savages.” It has long been said, most notably by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that the idea of the frontier—the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness and danger—stimulated invention and rugged individualism and was therefore an important factor in helping to cultivate a distinctive character among the citizens of the United States. This “traditional” narrative has long celebrated our frontier spirit, but the unspoken shadow of that narrative is the fact that invention and individualism are inseparable from the other thing that happened on the frontier—namely, destroying the other. The “civilized” world believed that it had to beat the savages into submission in order to ensure the future of the white race.

This frontier logic is still prevalent today. It is foundational, in fact, to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits cops who gun down African Americans under the pretext that those cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against Black people works to turn the police officers who actually committed the violence into the victims of those Black people. This is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear became rooted in the security apparatus of the United States. But those roots would likely erode were it not for the financial, political, and psychological investment in fear.

Today this investment takes the form of public funding that grounds, supports, and nourishes this country’s enduring logic of threat. Indeed, a key resource that maintains the racial caste system in the United States is the ever-increasing amount of public funding invested in policing and incarcerating people of color. Public funding is the lifeblood of the torture tree. And yet it remains debatable as to whether this funding has made our society any safer—especially for a person of color at the receiving end of police violence. Of the ten most populous cities in the United States, Chicago has the highest number of fatal shootings involving the police from 2010 to 2014.1 Given that these shootings are often found to be unwarranted, you may be aware that it is common practice for civilians to sue the city and the police department. I’m sure you know that your constituents absorb the cost of those misconduct payouts. But do you realize just how massive the costs have been?

Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records.2 Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million.3 When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in that year alone. Keep in mind that misconduct payouts are only a fraction of what the city spends on policing. Chicago allocates $1.46 billion annually to policing, or 40 percent of its budget—that’s the second-highest share of a city budget that goes to policing in the nation. It trails only Oakland, which allocates 41 percent.4

I recently came across a report about the funding for police departments in several US cities. The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 authored it. This report is of interest to you. As I read it, one quote in particular stood out:

For every dollar spent on the Chicago Police Department (including city, state, and federal funds), the Department of Public Health, which includes mental health services, receives two cents. The Department of Planning and Development, which includes affordable housing development, receives 12 cents. The Department of Family and Support Services, which funds youth development, after school programs, and homeless services, receives five cents.5

As mayor, you have the opportunity to shift these priorities. Needless to say, the way you decide to use public funding reflects your values and the values of your constituents. Your job requires you to defend your constituents’ wants and needs as you negotiate the budget with city council members each year. I know that it will be tempting to spend huge portions of the city’s budget on the police department, especially since that is what the vast majority of cities across the country are doing.

Did you know that our country currently spends $100 billion a year on policing, and $80 billion on incarceration? Well, with this trend, your political advisers might argue that adopting a “tough on crime” stance will be key to your longevity as an elected official. But if you want to address the problem of police violence and make Chicago safer, you must resist the urge to follow the status quo.

The social programs that have been shown to improve people’s well-being in the United States center on health care, education, housing, and the ability to earn a living wage—programs that work to stabilize people’s lives. Time and time again, the research in my field of study has shown that spending money on policing and prison (what scholars call punitive systems) has little proven benefit.6 To the contrary, Chicago’s spending on policing and incarceration has contributed to a cycle of poverty that has had an impact on generations of people living in low-income communities of color.7 As you might imagine, the investment in police forces, military-grade weapons, detention centers, jails, and prisons also contributes to an “us versus them” mentality in the police department that justifies police violence.

Although there has been some news coverage on this issue, most of the Chicagoans whom I spoke with for this study were unaware of the financial aspect of policing. When I told them about it, they were upset and disgusted but not particularly surprised.

A Black woman named Monica knew that the city used public funding to finance police violence and to compensate the wrongly convicted. But she thought this approach was shortsighted. “It can’t just be money,” she said. “Money is not enough.”

While speaking about the torture survivors who had spent decades in prison, she elaborated: “Money doesn’t fix the time that has been taken from them, nor does it fix the mental strain that has occurred. It doesn’t fix their access to education or jobs. It’s not enough to just give people money, or to just release them from prison. There needs to be a holistic package.”

Monica thought that elected officials like you should work to funnel funding from policing into public resources and social services. Other people I interviewed agreed with her. They hoped that instead of spending this money merely to compensate torture survivors for what they have endured, the city would instead use a larger share of its public funds for mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits. These residents regretted the fact that they were implicated in defending police torture. They could only hope that the wider public would start to pay attention to the present reality, the reality that every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day.

Case in point: On July 5, 2018, Chicago youth of color staged a die-in at city hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million to build a cop academy. The young protestors set up cardboard tombstones with the names of people who had been killed by the police written on them with black ink. They also wrote the names of schools and facilities that had shuttered because of a lack of public funding.

Speaking about her reasons for helping to organize the event, twenty-year-old Nita Teenyson, said: “In my neighborhood there are no grocery stores. We live in a food desert. There are a bunch of schools getting shut down. The mental health facilities are shut down too. And that just leaves people with nothing to do. They become a danger to themselves and their community.” “But if we had those resources,” she continued, referring to the funding earmarked for the police academy, “we wouldn’t even need the police to try to stop those people because resources would already be in place to help them.”

Nita’s description of how the lack of resources in her community contributes to violence was laced with resentment, because a vast expenditure of time and resources was being spent to clean up a problem that should not have existed in the first place. And to make matters worse, the cleanup was taking resources away from larger efforts to make life better in her community.8

•••

While the roots of the torture tree symbolize the collective fear that materializes in public funding for the police, its trunk represents the police use-of-force continuum. If you don’t have a law enforcement background, you may not know exactly what this continuum is. It’s a set of guidelines, established by the city, for how much force police officers are permitted to use against a criminal suspect in a given situation. The progression of force typically begins merely with the presence of a uniformed officer, who can deter crime simply by parking his squad car on the corner; a step above that is a verbal show of force, such as a cop commanding someone to put his hands above his head; a step above that are the physical tactics an officer might use to establish control of a criminal suspect, like putting him in handcuffs; a step of above that are more aggressive techniques that could inadvertently cause injuries or bruising, such as kicking or punching a criminal suspect to subdue him; a step above that is using weapons that have a high probability of injuring someone but are not designed to kill, such as pepper spray; and the last step is the use of weapons that have a high probability of killing someone or at least causing serious injury.

Scholars of policing have often thought that police officers were obligated to be extremely cautious when determining which level of force to use on a civilian. It was this cautiousness, in fact, that was said to distinguish a police officer from a soldier at war. The rationale was that in wartime, one’s cautiousness could be a liability. This is why, when encountering the enemy, soldiers needed to start with the highest level of force and work their way down the continuum. Police officers, however, were supposed to start at the lowest level of the continuum and then work their way up. But most of the Chicagoans I spoke with thought that this distinction no longer exists. Police officers ascend this continuum in the blink of an eye.

In describing this use-of-force continuum, I must make something clear: the protocols that constitute it are human judgments, suffused with assumptions about fear and danger that are too often tied to race. That being said, the way that police officers move up this continuum while deciding how much force to use on a criminal suspect is extremely subjective.

In recent decades, scholars have pointed out that the subjective nature of the use of force among police officers is informed by military thinking. For a long time, soldiers have returned from wars and joined their local police departments. Likewise, police officers have long taken on second jobs—sometimes even second careers—as military personnel. What’s more, when soldiers fight wars overseas, it is common for their perception of the enemy to be shaped by the marginalized groups they grew up hearing stereotypes about. And when they return home, it is common for their ideas about those marginalized groups to be newly informed by the enemy they were just fighting against.

The phenomenon referred to as “the militarization of the police” is often used to describe the way that military equipment—including armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, submachine guns, “flashbang” grenades, and sniper rifles—once used overseas eventually are allocated to local police stations in small and large cities and towns across the United States. But less often discussed is how alongside this military-grade equipment comes a military mind-set wherein the police treat residents as if they were enemy combatants, as if their job were to occupy and patrol a war zone. This is the mind-set of Richard Zuley—a Chicago police officer who became a torturer overseas. But I’ll tell you about him later.9

For now, I only mean to say that I used to picture the use-of-force continuum as it is described in so many scholarly books: a staircase on which the mere presence of police officers resides at the bottom and death and torture reside at the top. But as I talked to more and more Chicagoans, I realized that the ethos of “justifiable” force that grants police officers permission to mistreat people blends into police torture—the two ends form a circle—until you can’t easily distinguish where mistreatment ends and torture begins.

•••

While the torture tree’s trunk is the standard set of protocols that guide a police officer’s decision-making process, the branches are the manifestation of those actions, which is to say, they are police officers themselves. Indeed, future mayor, in the anatomy of this tree, police officers are the branches because they are the human outgrowth of the use-of-force continuum.

I know you may be thinking, do all police officers grow out of this terrible tree? Well, the answer is yes and no. No, all police officers are not inherently connected to this structure. But yes, abiding by the use-of-force continuum makes them susceptible to losing their humanity—and to becoming hollowed out, wooden, and one with this tree.

A twenty-six year old Black man named Malik made me realize this when he told me a story about meeting a retired cop in the local pub that he went to after work on Fridays.10 What sparked Malik’s conversation with this retired cop was one of his enduring childhood memories: the delight of going to the police station, where the officers would hand him free football cards. Reflecting on that fond memory one day, Malik sat next to this man. Malik knew he used to be a police officer. He seemed to be at the bar, and plastered, every time Malik went in. But on this particular day, Malik decided to ask him a question: “Hey, man, why do you drink so much?”

He would never forget the officer’s response: “If you’d seen the things that I’ve seen, you’d be drunk all the time, too.”

The cop began sharing stories with Malik, “really gruesome, vicious stories” that, Malik now says, he wishes he never heard. “It was like a horror movie, what he had to live through for so many years.”

The retired officer told Malik that what he had seen and experienced had changed him. Being a policeman had altered his mentality. When he saw people on the street, especially Black people, he couldn’t help but think of the threats they might pose and the ulterior motives they might have. After a while, the cop’s cynicism was not relegated to the criminal underworld that he patrolled on his beat. “Now, because he was conditioning himself to think in a certain way,” Malik said, “his police work was affecting his loving marriage.” He was no longer able to transform himself back into a devoted father when he left the police precinct at nights.

“So he became compromised by the profession,” said Malik.

Malik explained that after the policemen “lost it all,” he turned to alcohol to cope.

“When the cop told me his story, I started to understand a bit more,” Malik said. “That was one of the reasons I agreed to this interview, more so than anything else.”

By talking with the retired cop, Malik experienced a shift in his thinking about the police officers he’s encountered in his life. He didn’t always see them as dehumanized extensions of police force. He remembered that he had recognized kindness and “felt welcomed” in the presence of police officers as a child. But going into his teenage years, he had been harassed by the police so often without cause that, as an adult, he dreaded being around them. He feared them. And it frustrated him that he could never make the police feel as afraid of him as he was of them.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Malik said to me, “my motto up until a year ago, when I was twenty-five—my motto was, ‘The only good cop is a dead cop.’ Sadly, sadly, that’s what I had been pushed to. But it just hurt so bad going through the encounters and being shamed and embarrassed. I had accrued so much debt from the court cases based on senseless traffic stops. Then, once I came across that individual,” Malik continued, speaking about the man at the bar, “things started to shift, and I started to understand their position more. When I came across him, my motto changed. Now, I think, ‘The only good cop is a retired cop.’”

Malik laughed dryly.

“It didn’t change by much,” he admitted, “but at least I’m not wishing death upon them now.”

What Chicagoans like Malik underscored for me was that the process of profiling people does not merely have an impact on the person at the wrong end of the gaze. Making such judgments has an impact on the police officers who put the use-of-force continuum into effect. They are liable to become hardened, stiff, and ultimately unable to untether themselves from the larger structure that persecutes and maltreats marginalized groups.

•••

Last but not least, we have the endpoint of each branch: the leaves. In the metaphor of the torture tree, these leaves are any and every incident of police force. I’m sure you realize that, in Chicago, the high-intensity policing and surveillance of low-income communities shows no signs of letting up, so reducing these incidents will not be easy. But have you considered that, even if you are skilled enough to decrease racial profiling, the relationship between the Black community and the police will likely remain fraught? The rift is so wide that Black Chicagoans may still feel that police torture is getting worse for a very long time, even if (hypothetically speaking) conditions were to improve. This is because many of them have faced numerous incidents of police harassment throughout the course of their life.

When you take a step back, as I did, and listen to Chicagoans talk about policing, you will see new incidents of police force sprout before your very eyes. Each leaf is the product of one such instance of abuse.

There was the story that Tate told about being presumed a terrorist, harassed and humiliated in front of his wife and kids—all because his middle name was Jihad.

“I’m more American than apple pie,” he said, “but instead of looking for the suspect, you’re sitting here talking about my name?”

There was the story about the police telling Rodney to “stop and put your hands where I can see them” when he was walking to work, a command that triggered a lifetime of resentment so that when I interviewed Rodney, I gave him permission to pretend that I was the cop who called him out. I told him to say whatever was on his mind that day, during that encounter.

“Just because I’m Black,” he said, “who the fuck are you to tell me I can’t move anymore? And I don’t have to answer your question. I didn’t do shit to you. I’m a taxpayer. I pay your salary. So fuck off, you know? Don’t fucking tell me I can’t walk no more.”

There was the story of the thirty-four-year-old torture survivor named Jamal, who told me that officers from “the same police department had been targeting me all my life.” When I interviewed him, he said that he had nightmares so often that he suspected an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Every time I see the police, I’m very frightened,” he confessed. “I’m scared out of my mind because I don’t know what they’re going to do to me. It’s like I’m an enemy. I’m a target to them. So yes, every time I see the police, I’m very frightened,” he repeated.

Introduction

An Open Letter to All the Future Mayors of Chicago

I’m a researcher who is writing a book on the history of police torture in your city. The more I learn about this history, the more I feel the need to write to you, even though I cannot be certain who exactly you will be. If history is any guide, you—and all other future mayors of Chicago—are likely a well-connected politician who has a cozy relationship with exactly the instruments of government that I am suggesting are most in need of change. But I must write to you anyway because I believe that change is always possible, however unlikely it may seem in the present.

Indeed, you might already be a career politician, comfortably settled into the state capitol, but you might be, at this very moment, a high school student with lots of big and unrealistic ideas. You may be white or Black, Asian or Latino, or you might not identify with any race at all. You may be gay, straight, or have a fluid gender identity. You may become Chicago’s mayor five years from now, or maybe twenty-five years. Regardless of who you are and how you find yourself as the public persona of this city, it is my sincerest hope that you want to change the culture that has allowed torture to scandalize the Chicago Police Department.

You likely have been briefed about police torture. Perhaps you have gotten assurances from the superintendent of the police department. You might have even met with survivors of police torture. But what I have found in studying this issue for more than a decade is that its complexities are endless. And thus, a strict historical approach, or a policy-oriented approach, doesn’t actually clarify the full extent of the problem. To do that, we need not facts but a metaphor.

The first thing you must know is that the torture tree is firmly planted in your city. Its roots are deep, its trunk sturdy, its branches spread wide, its leaves cast dark shadows.

The torture tree is rooted in an enduring idea of threat that is foundational to life in the United States. Its trunk is the use-of-force continuum. Its branches are the police officers who personify this continuum. And its leaves are everyday incidents of police violence.

•••

Let’s begin with the roots, as they are, so tragically, steeped in fear. For all of our achievements as humans, we are still a species that is ruled by very basic instincts, instincts developed millions of years ago and ones shared by most animals. The most basic of instincts is the desire to keep ourselves alive; thus, we are incredibly attuned to danger, and fear shapes much of our emotional life. Because we are fearful of threats, what we crave—perhaps even more than food or companionship—is a sense of safety.

The very idea of safety in the United States is rooted in the frontier logic that justified the settlement of this country in the 1700s. For the white settlers, safety was premised on viewing Native Americans as threats and so transforming them into “savages.” It has long been said, most notably by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that the idea of the frontier—the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness and danger—stimulated invention and rugged individualism and was therefore an important factor in helping to cultivate a distinctive character among the citizens of the United States. This “traditional” narrative has long celebrated our frontier spirit, but the unspoken shadow of that narrative is the fact that invention and individualism are inseparable from the other thing that happened on the frontier—namely, destroying the other. The “civilized” world believed that it had to beat the savages into submission in order to ensure the future of the white race.

This frontier logic is still prevalent today. It is foundational, in fact, to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits cops who gun down African Americans under the pretext that those cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against Black people works to turn the police officers who actually committed the violence into the victims of those Black people. This is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear became rooted in the security apparatus of the United States. But those roots would likely erode were it not for the financial, political, and psychological investment in fear.

Today this investment takes the form of public funding that grounds, supports, and nourishes this country’s enduring logic of threat. Indeed, a key resource that maintains the racial caste system in the United States is the ever-increasing amount of public funding invested in policing and incarcerating people of color. Public funding is the lifeblood of the torture tree. And yet it remains debatable as to whether this funding has made our society any safer—especially for a person of color at the receiving end of police violence. Of the ten most populous cities in the United States, Chicago has the highest number of fatal shootings involving the police from 2010 to 2014.1 Given that these shootings are often found to be unwarranted, you may be aware that it is common practice for civilians to sue the city and the police department. I’m sure you know that your constituents absorb the cost of those misconduct payouts. But do you realize just how massive the costs have been?

Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records.2 Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million.3 When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in that year alone. Keep in mind that misconduct payouts are only a fraction of what the city spends on policing. Chicago allocates $1.46 billion annually to policing, or 40 percent of its budget—that’s the second-highest share of a city budget that goes to policing in the nation. It trails only Oakland, which allocates 41 percent.4

I recently came across a report about the funding for police departments in several US cities. The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 authored it. This report is of interest to you. As I read it, one quote in particular stood out:

For every dollar spent on the Chicago Police Department (including city, state, and federal funds), the Department of Public Health, which includes mental health services, receives two cents. The Department of Planning and Development, which includes affordable housing development, receives 12 cents. The Department of Family and Support Services, which funds youth development, after school programs, and homeless services, receives five cents.5

As mayor, you have the opportunity to shift these priorities. Needless to say, the way you decide to use public funding reflects your values and the values of your constituents. Your job requires you to defend your constituents’ wants and needs as you negotiate the budget with city council members each year. I know that it will be tempting to spend huge portions of the city’s budget on the police department, especially since that is what the vast majority of cities across the country are doing.

Did you know that our country currently spends $100 billion a year on policing, and $80 billion on incarceration? Well, with this trend, your political advisers might argue that adopting a “tough on crime” stance will be key to your longevity as an elected official. But if you want to address the problem of police violence and make Chicago safer, you must resist the urge to follow the status quo.

The social programs that have been shown to improve people’s well-being in the United States center on health care, education, housing, and the ability to earn a living wage—programs that work to stabilize people’s lives. Time and time again, the research in my field of study has shown that spending money on policing and prison (what scholars call punitive systems) has little proven benefit.6 To the contrary, Chicago’s spending on policing and incarceration has contributed to a cycle of poverty that has had an impact on generations of people living in low-income communities of color.7 As you might imagine, the investment in police forces, military-grade weapons, detention centers, jails, and prisons also contributes to an “us versus them” mentality in the police department that justifies police violence.

Although there has been some news coverage on this issue, most of the Chicagoans whom I spoke with for this study were unaware of the financial aspect of policing. When I told them about it, they were upset and disgusted but not particularly surprised.

A Black woman named Monica knew that the city used public funding to finance police violence and to compensate the wrongly convicted. But she thought this approach was shortsighted. “It can’t just be money,” she said. “Money is not enough.”

While speaking about the torture survivors who had spent decades in prison, she elaborated: “Money doesn’t fix the time that has been taken from them, nor does it fix the mental strain that has occurred. It doesn’t fix their access to education or jobs. It’s not enough to just give people money, or to just release them from prison. There needs to be a holistic package.”

Monica thought that elected officials like you should work to funnel funding from policing into public resources and social services. Other people I interviewed agreed with her. They hoped that instead of spending this money merely to compensate torture survivors for what they have endured, the city would instead use a larger share of its public funds for mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits. These residents regretted the fact that they were implicated in defending police torture. They could only hope that the wider public would start to pay attention to the present reality, the reality that every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day.

Case in point: On July 5, 2018, Chicago youth of color staged a die-in at city hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million to build a cop academy. The young protestors set up cardboard tombstones with the names of people who had been killed by the police written on them with black ink. They also wrote the names of schools and facilities that had shuttered because of a lack of public funding.

Speaking about her reasons for helping to organize the event, twenty-year-old Nita Teenyson, said: “In my neighborhood there are no grocery stores. We live in a food desert. There are a bunch of schools getting shut down. The mental health facilities are shut down too. And that just leaves people with nothing to do. They become a danger to themselves and their community.” “But if we had those resources,” she continued, referring to the funding earmarked for the police academy, “we wouldn’t even need the police to try to stop those people because resources would already be in place to help them.”

Nita’s description of how the lack of resources in her community contributes to violence was laced with resentment, because a vast expenditure of time and resources was being spent to clean up a problem that should not have existed in the first place. And to make matters worse, the cleanup was taking resources away from larger efforts to make life better in her community.8

•••

While the roots of the torture tree symbolize the collective fear that materializes in public funding for the police, its trunk represents the police use-of-force continuum. If you don’t have a law enforcement background, you may not know exactly what this continuum is. It’s a set of guidelines, established by the city, for how much force police officers are permitted to use against a criminal suspect in a given situation. The progression of force typically begins merely with the presence of a uniformed officer, who can deter crime simply by parking his squad car on the corner; a step above that is a verbal show of force, such as a cop commanding someone to put his hands above his head; a step above that are the physical tactics an officer might use to establish control of a criminal suspect, like putting him in handcuffs; a step of above that are more aggressive techniques that could inadvertently cause injuries or bruising, such as kicking or punching a criminal suspect to subdue him; a step above that is using weapons that have a high probability of injuring someone but are not designed to kill, such as pepper spray; and the last step is the use of weapons that have a high probability of killing someone or at least causing serious injury.

Scholars of policing have often thought that police officers were obligated to be extremely cautious when determining which level of force to use on a civilian. It was this cautiousness, in fact, that was said to distinguish a police officer from a soldier at war. The rationale was that in wartime, one’s cautiousness could be a liability. This is why, when encountering the enemy, soldiers needed to start with the highest level of force and work their way down the continuum. Police officers, however, were supposed to start at the lowest level of the continuum and then work their way up. But most of the Chicagoans I spoke with thought that this distinction no longer exists. Police officers ascend this continuum in the blink of an eye.

In describing this use-of-force continuum, I must make something clear: the protocols that constitute it are human judgments, suffused with assumptions about fear and danger that are too often tied to race. That being said, the way that police officers move up this continuum while deciding how much force to use on a criminal suspect is extremely subjective.

In recent decades, scholars have pointed out that the subjective nature of the use of force among police officers is informed by military thinking. For a long time, soldiers have returned from wars and joined their local police departments. Likewise, police officers have long taken on second jobs—sometimes even second careers—as military personnel. What’s more, when soldiers fight wars overseas, it is common for their perception of the enemy to be shaped by the marginalized groups they grew up hearing stereotypes about. And when they return home, it is common for their ideas about those marginalized groups to be newly informed by the enemy they were just fighting against.

The phenomenon referred to as “the militarization of the police” is often used to describe the way that military equipment—including armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, submachine guns, “flashbang” grenades, and sniper rifles—once used overseas eventually are allocated to local police stations in small and large cities and towns across the United States. But less often discussed is how alongside this military-grade equipment comes a military mind-set wherein the police treat residents as if they were enemy combatants, as if their job were to occupy and patrol a war zone. This is the mind-set of Richard Zuley—a Chicago police officer who became a torturer overseas. But I’ll tell you about him later.9

For now, I only mean to say that I used to picture the use-of-force continuum as it is described in so many scholarly books: a staircase on which the mere presence of police officers resides at the bottom and death and torture reside at the top. But as I talked to more and more Chicagoans, I realized that the ethos of “justifiable” force that grants police officers permission to mistreat people blends into police torture—the two ends form a circle—until you can’t easily distinguish where mistreatment ends and torture begins.

•••

While the torture tree’s trunk is the standard set of protocols that guide a police officer’s decision-making process, the branches are the manifestation of those actions, which is to say, they are police officers themselves. Indeed, future mayor, in the anatomy of this tree, police officers are the branches because they are the human outgrowth of the use-of-force continuum.

I know you may be thinking, do all police officers grow out of this terrible tree? Well, the answer is yes and no. No, all police officers are not inherently connected to this structure. But yes, abiding by the use-of-force continuum makes them susceptible to losing their humanity—and to becoming hollowed out, wooden, and one with this tree.

A twenty-six year old Black man named Malik made me realize this when he told me a story about meeting a retired cop in the local pub that he went to after work on Fridays.10 What sparked Malik’s conversation with this retired cop was one of his enduring childhood memories: the delight of going to the police station, where the officers would hand him free football cards. Reflecting on that fond memory one day, Malik sat next to this man. Malik knew he used to be a police officer. He seemed to be at the bar, and plastered, every time Malik went in. But on this particular day, Malik decided to ask him a question: “Hey, man, why do you drink so much?”

He would never forget the officer’s response: “If you’d seen the things that I’ve seen, you’d be drunk all the time, too.”

The cop began sharing stories with Malik, “really gruesome, vicious stories” that, Malik now says, he wishes he never heard. “It was like a horror movie, what he had to live through for so many years.”

The retired officer told Malik that what he had seen and experienced had changed him. Being a policeman had altered his mentality. When he saw people on the street, especially Black people, he couldn’t help but think of the threats they might pose and the ulterior motives they might have. After a while, the cop’s cynicism was not relegated to the criminal underworld that he patrolled on his beat. “Now, because he was conditioning himself to think in a certain way,” Malik said, “his police work was affecting his loving marriage.” He was no longer able to transform himself back into a devoted father when he left the police precinct at nights.

“So he became compromised by the profession,” said Malik.

Malik explained that after the policemen “lost it all,” he turned to alcohol to cope.

“When the cop told me his story, I started to understand a bit more,” Malik said. “That was one of the reasons I agreed to this interview, more so than anything else.”

By talking with the retired cop, Malik experienced a shift in his thinking about the police officers he’s encountered in his life. He didn’t always see them as dehumanized extensions of police force. He remembered that he had recognized kindness and “felt welcomed” in the presence of police officers as a child. But going into his teenage years, he had been harassed by the police so often without cause that, as an adult, he dreaded being around them. He feared them. And it frustrated him that he could never make the police feel as afraid of him as he was of them.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Malik said to me, “my motto up until a year ago, when I was twenty-five—my motto was, ‘The only good cop is a dead cop.’ Sadly, sadly, that’s what I had been pushed to. But it just hurt so bad going through the encounters and being shamed and embarrassed. I had accrued so much debt from the court cases based on senseless traffic stops. Then, once I came across that individual,” Malik continued, speaking about the man at the bar, “things started to shift, and I started to understand their position more. When I came across him, my motto changed. Now, I think, ‘The only good cop is a retired cop.’”

Malik laughed dryly.

“It didn’t change by much,” he admitted, “but at least I’m not wishing death upon them now.”

What Chicagoans like Malik underscored for me was that the process of profiling people does not merely have an impact on the person at the wrong end of the gaze. Making such judgments has an impact on the police officers who put the use-of-force continuum into effect. They are liable to become hardened, stiff, and ultimately unable to untether themselves from the larger structure that persecutes and maltreats marginalized groups.

•••

Last but not least, we have the endpoint of each branch: the leaves. In the metaphor of the torture tree, these leaves are any and every incident of police force. I’m sure you realize that, in Chicago, the high-intensity policing and surveillance of low-income communities shows no signs of letting up, so reducing these incidents will not be easy. But have you considered that, even if you are skilled enough to decrease racial profiling, the relationship between the Black community and the police will likely remain fraught? The rift is so wide that Black Chicagoans may still feel that police torture is getting worse for a very long time, even if (hypothetically speaking) conditions were to improve. This is because many of them have faced numerous incidents of police harassment throughout the course of their life.

When you take a step back, as I did, and listen to Chicagoans talk about policing, you will see new incidents of police force sprout before your very eyes. Each leaf is the product of one such instance of abuse.

There was the story that Tate told about being presumed a terrorist, harassed and humiliated in front of his wife and kids—all because his middle name was Jihad.

“I’m more American than apple pie,” he said, “but instead of looking for the suspect, you’re sitting here talking about my name?”

There was the story about the police telling Rodney to “stop and put your hands where I can see them” when he was walking to work, a command that triggered a lifetime of resentment so that when I interviewed Rodney, I gave him permission to pretend that I was the cop who called him out. I told him to say whatever was on his mind that day, during that encounter.

“Just because I’m Black,” he said, “who the fuck are you to tell me I can’t move anymore? And I don’t have to answer your question. I didn’t do shit to you. I’m a taxpayer. I pay your salary. So fuck off, you know? Don’t fucking tell me I can’t walk no more.”

There was the story of the thirty-four-year-old torture survivor named Jamal, who told me that officers from “the same police department had been targeting me all my life.” When I interviewed him, he said that he had nightmares so often that he suspected an undiagnosed case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Every time I see the police, I’m very frightened,” he confessed. “I’m scared out of my mind because I don’t know what they’re going to do to me. It’s like I’m an enemy. I’m a target to them. So yes, every time I see the police, I’m very frightened,” he repeated.

The leaves of the torture tree can include incidents of racial and religious profiling, the verbal commands Rodney resented having to obey, or the nightmare of torture Jamal experienced and is now forced to relive every time he sees a cop.

I hope that bearing witness to these incidents of force will spark a sense of urgency in you so that you will be motivated to reckon with the torture tree as a whole.

•••

But even as I hold onto this hope, future mayor, I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt discouraged, or if you second-guessed your desire to be mayor of this city. In fact, I would be worried if you did not. Still, there is a silver lining: the torture tree is an organic, living structure, but it grows because of the actions of people. So if you want to address the problems created by the use-of-force continuum, you cannot just rake up the fallen leaves. You cannot just prune the branches. No, to effect change, a concrete step you must take is to reallocate the public funding that allows your city to transform the populations it has systematically marginalized into threats. You must divest this fear-stained funding from the police and into larger efforts to make life better for all of your constituents.

DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16