As one of the most notorious police brutality cases in Chicago history comes to a close, civic activists are hoping to turn public attention to proposed legislation that would make it a federal crime for law enforcement officials to torture suspects.
Jon Burge, the former Chicago Police Cmdr. convicted in June of obstruction of justice and perjury for his false denials about his use or knowledge of torture to coerce confessions, is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 5. But the Illinois Coalition Against Torture and other victims’ rights supporters have been tirelessly working for months to garner support for H.R. 5688, known as the Law Enforcement Prevention Act of 2010.
Introduced in Congress last summer, H.R. 5688 would create a federal law that would allow law enforcement officials to be punished for engaging in acts of torture regardless of when or where the torture took place. In effect, the law would remove any possibility of a statute of limitations defense for police officers and other government officials accused of torture in their official capacities.
The only federal law now addressing torture applies to acts committed outside the U.S. Burge, of course, was not subject to that law. Nor could he be charged with aggravated battery and armed violence in connection with the torture allegations because the statute of limitations had expired.
According to Joey Mogul, an attorney with the People’s Law Office and member of the Illinois Coalition Against Torture, the language of H.R. 5688 mirrors that of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which prohibits any type of torture by any actor and has no statute of limitations.
“We felt there should be the same type of statute for acts committed within U.S. territory,” said Mogul.
Calls to the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police and Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 for comment about the proposed legislation were not returned.
Activists are concerned that once Burge is sentenced, the issue of police torture will attract less attention. And, with Congress adjourned until after the November elections and appropriations measures and infrastructure spending also on the agenda, it appears the bill, which is still in the judiciary committee, may die there.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who sponsored the bill, says he doesn’t expect to see any movement on the bill this year but plans to do what he can to keep the issue fresh in the minds of his constituents and colleagues. He believes people are sometimes reluctant to place restrictions on law enforcement. In any event, he said his efforts are not motivated by the Burge decision and that he will simply reintroduce the bill in January should it not make its way out of committee by term’s end.
Davis said there can be no “full protection under the law as long as we allow these experiences to occur and as long as they occur disproportionately.”
In the meantime, the coalition hopes to gain public support for the bill. “When people sit down and realize Burge’s acts are international human rights violations,” Mogul said, “it’s self-evident that legislation is needed.”