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A Chronicle of Woe: US Policing Culture From Iraq and Vietnam to Jon Burge’s Chicago

The culture of US policing needs to move beyond current practice and operations.

It is perhaps time for a broader national discussion about the culture of policing and law enforcement practices that have fostered the distrust and unease between police and increasingly diverse communities. (Photo: Amnesty Finland)

The Washington Post newspaper published a feature article titled “Thousands Dead, Few Prosecuted” on April 11, which explored the still evolving drama of police shootings of people across the United States and the low level of convictions for such incidents by officers across the country. According to the article, only 54 officers have been charged – and the majority of them have been acquitted or cleared – in a context of thousands having been killed in such incidents since 2005. It is one indication of the extent to which dubious practices have become established in the culture and operations of US law enforcement agencies.

On April 13, 2015, four employees of Blackwater, a private US security firm contracted by the US government, were sentenced to long prison terms for the murder of Iraqi civilians in 2007. The New York Times reported the men had been among several private US security guards who fired into Baghdad’s crowded Nisour Square on September 16, 2007, and in October 2014 they were convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqis in what prosecutors called a wartime atrocity. Yet, as they awaited sentences that they knew would send them to prison for most, if not all, of their lives, they defiantly asserted their innocence.

This incident followed upon the widespread publication of reports about torture and abuse at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, in which US military personnel were involved. Further, in March 2010, Harper’s Magazine published a report by Scott Horton – “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle” – which raised serious questions about official accounts of the deaths of detainees at the notorious facility used to detain suspects in the US war on terror.

The fetish for the criminalization, imprisonment and killing of citizens needs to be explored at every level.

The cumulative impact of these reports has been to raise serious questions about, and scrutiny of, the training and practices of US personnel in civilian law enforcement and military agencies and the veterans of these agencies hired by private security contractors. When the August 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer triggered sometimes violent protests and the police deployed military surplus equipment and vehicles to confront the protesters, it was evident that the culture and practices of law enforcement needed to be revisited. It would seem that the “rule of law” needs to be restored in a society where current legislation and law enforcement practices have created a situation in which, according to The Economist, “America has around 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of its prisoners.” The fetish for the criminalization, imprisonment and killing of citizens needs to be explored at every level – federal, state and local – to devise a strategy for lifting the society beyond its current image and practice. In effect, the United States as a country will have to revisit its culture of policing and the waste of resources and lives that this culture represents for a society that, paradoxically, espouses its commitment to freedom as a national virtue on the global stage.

This issue assumes even greater urgency in light of the decision by the City of Chicago and its mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, to pay a settlement of $5.5 million to victims of torture conducted by a former Chicago police commander, Jon Burge, who left the police force in 1993 as a result of torture allegations. Burge was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in 2010. His career trajectory offers an interesting insight into the culture of policing that has become a part of contemporary American life. Burge volunteered for service in Vietnam in 1968 and according to a story carried in The Washington Post:

What, exactly, Burge did in Vietnam is a bit of a mystery. In its 2005 profile of Burge, the Chicago Reader suggests Burge may have honed his torture techniques on suspected Vietcong soldiers and sympathizers. Multiple members of Burge’s Ninth Military Police Company told the newspaper that they had either witnessed or heard of interrogations using a “field phone” similar to the black box Burge would later be accused of using. In what they called “the Bell telephone hour,” soldiers would shock prisoners in an attempt to obtain information.

Whatever he did in Vietnam, Burge was honorably discharged in 1969. When he applied to the Chicago Police Department later that year, the officer assigned to do a background check praised Burge as “all man.” Burge was hired in 1970 and was promoted to detective two years later.

That’s when the torture allegedly began.

More than 120 people – mostly African-American men – have accused Burge of shocking, beating or suffocating them into confessing.

Burge had gone to Vietnam in the aftermath of the My Lai massacre by the US military, which occurred in March 1968. It was perhaps a measure of the casual brutality of a failed war that Burge became involved in the use of torture. He later adopted similar practices in the Chicago police force for more than two decades and was promoted to a high rank over the course of his career. The Burge case also poses a very interesting question about the culture of policing as it pertains to the rule of law in the United States: To what extent does the culture of policing within the United States reflect the practices and culture of its military abroad? Is it mere coincidence that Burge was accused overwhelmingly by African Americans of torture during his career in Chicago, following the report of his torture of Vietcong soldiers and their presumed allies/sympathizers in Vietnam?

This question assumes a particular importance when it is recalled that the use of procedures that violate due process in police investigations was articulated by Justice Hugo Black’s opinion for the US Supreme Court in the 1940 case, Chambers v. State of Florida, 309 U.S. 227. In that case, citing the record of police interrogation of the defendants as a violation of due process, Black reversed the decision of the Florida courts to impose death sentences upon four African Americans for murder. In his statement Black declared:

Tyrannical governments had immemorially utilized dictatorial criminal procedure and punishment to make scape goats of the weak, or of helpless political, religious, or racial minorities and those who differed, who would not conform and who resisted tyranny.

Three decades later, Burge began to build a career as a police officer adept in the use of torture. It has required decades for his victims to be acknowledged officially and offered compensation for the abuse by the City of Chicago, and Burge’s career raises fundamental questions about the culture of policing in the contemporary United States. Further, the recent discovery of a facility that has reportedly been used since the late 1990s by the Chicago Police Department for detention and interrogation of detainees without any official record of such activity speaks to illegal police operations in Chicago. In effect, Burge left the department in 1993, but the facility for illegal detentions was in use several years later. Did Burge’s success encourage his colleagues and a subsequent generation of police officers in Chicago to embrace his commitment to the use of extralegal practices, perhaps including torture?

The further irony of this contrast between Hugo Black and Jon Burge is that Black was a son of the Jim Crow South who showed his disdain for Southern law enforcement practices in the 1940 Chambers v. Florida decision. On the other hand, Burge was a product of the North who came of age during the period after the 1954 Brown decision, which dismissed segregation as legal doctrine. Three decades after a progressive Southern jurist had moved the federal judiciary forward on the issue of due process for detainees and suspects, the Northern law enforcement official began his career in the Chicago Police Department and sought to perpetuate the morbid terror of the Jim Crow regime.

Burge built a career as a police officer adept in the use of torture.

The longevity of Burge’s career and the impunity afforded him – even after his dismissal from the Chicago Police Department in 1993 – raises a fundamental question about the culture of policing in the United States. If, as The Washington Post recently reported, thousands of police killings in a decade have resulted in 54 indictments, how can this situation be addressed?

The Burge case highlights the need for one possible approach: an exploration of the culture of policing through an examination of the recruitment practices, personality profiles of officers and the socialization processes that inform police behavior at both individual and systemic levels. The revelation of the scale of the problem across the country – and the apparent lack of serious efforts to address the problem – would suggest that police recruitment, training and operational procedures need to be examined to identify the reasons for the current culture of US policing.

The history of US race relations carries within it many of the seeds of the pathologies that continue to define the society and, in this case of police killings, it is perhaps useful to look at some of the early findings on this issue of police abuse. In the seminal compendium on US race relations, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Gunnar Myrdal explored the ways in which Southern law enforcement and the local courts had shaped the “rule of law” in the region:

… he (the Southern police officer) stands not only for civic order as defined in formal laws and regulations, but also for “white supremacy” and the whole set of social customs associated with this concept. In the traditions of the region a break of the caste rules against one white person is conceived of as an aggression against white society and, indeed, as a potential threat to every other white individual….

To enable the policeman to carry out this function, the courts are supposed to back him even when he proceeds far outside normal police activity. His word must be taken against Negroes without regard for formal legal rules of evidence, even when there are additional circumstantial facts supporting the contention of the Negro party. That this is so is freely admitted in conversation with both judges and police officers in the South. (1)

This issue of deference to the use of extralegal practices by police officers has not been restricted to the Jim Crow South. There is the recent case of Eric Garner, a man subjected to a chokehold by a police officer in New York City in 2014, whose death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. The grand jury in New York that heard the evidence in the case subsequently determined that there should be no prosecution of the police for Garner’s death.

In the current context of American life, it is to the credit of The Washington Post that it has published the analysis of the disparities between the deaths of people killed by police officers and the number of officers indicted and ultimately sanctioned for these deaths. It is perhaps time for a broader national discussion about the culture of policing and law enforcement practices that have fostered the distrust and unease between police and the increasingly diverse communities that they must serve and protect in the United States. It is also important to recognize that notwithstanding millions of Americans of every hue electing President Barack Obama, contemporary America continues to live in the shadow of Jim Crow. (2) For those prognosticators who perceived that Obama’s ascent to the presidency represented the emergence of a postracial United States, it is perhaps time to revisit their assessments. (3)


1. Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944), p. 535.

2. See Bill Quigley, “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System,” The Huffington Post, and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York, The New Press, 2012.

3. NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr remarked in 2008: “Welcome to the latest buzz word in the political lexicon, post-racial. It is what Senator Barack Obama signals in his victory speech in South Carolina when he tells of the woman who used to work for segregationist Strom Thurmond and now, knocks on doors for the Obama campaign.”

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