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Police Abuse: Will a ‘torture’ verdict be the beginning of the end?

by Ritt Goldstein Wednesday, Jul. 07, 2010 at 4:35 PM

Similar to the crime of rape, that of police abuse is substantively underreported. But while news reports have rightly hailed the torture related conviction of former Chicago police lieutenant Jon Burge, all too many issues remain.

Police Abuse: Will a ‘torture’ verdict be the beginning of the end?

by Ritt Goldstein

Copyright July 2010

I saw the news of Jon Burge’s conviction on the Net before I received an email about it – police torture and abuse has become a hot topic. Burge, a former police lieutenant in Chicago, had been found guilty of federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, the case stemming from a 2003 civil suit where Burge denied he engaged in torture or was a witness to it. And while this verdict certainly deserves the celebration it’s widely receiving, perhaps it also provides a much needed opportunity to address some questions we seldom do.

To repeat what seems almost a mantra (though in some communities, it may be closer to a prayer), most police officers are the decent and capable individuals we hope for, however, there is a small proportion of officers which are not. Unfortunately, most of us retreat into such descriptions because we feel decidedly uncomfortable to even speak of ‘rogue cops’, let alone address what wrongs they may be doing. It is as if we must look away lest we see mythology’s Medusa, a primordial concern telling us that looking upon rogue officers will indeed transform us to stone.

I won’t point out the element of intimidation in play every time this occurs. Worse still, though I doubt many put their feelings into words, an appreciation of the ‘significant dangers’ presented by rogue officers is appropriate.

While we have a great many effectively enforced laws ever empowering our police, there exists an almost instinctive wisdom that the laws regarding police accountability are a different matter.

Most of us may be loath to say so, but we are aware that too often police accountability laws provide little more than an empty promise. The fact that news reports on Burge’s conviction spoke of a “decades-long cover-up” speaks considerably upon the ‘empty promises’ too many victims face.

Those of us such facts make too nervous may well retreat to ‘blaming the victim’, and so again find some reassurance, empty though it too may be. Fortunately, as evidenced by the Burge verdict, there are also those of us which do seem to be waking up, addressing the unpleasant reality that police abuse has long been. And for most, truly appreciating the facts will provide a disturbingly rude awakening indeed.

Sadly, there are many victims, though, as with rape, both the stigma and ‘realities’ associated with police abuse keep many from reporting it. And as with any disease that strikes a society, no one is immune; though, some are more susceptible than others.

By now I imagine some readers may be wondering what kind of a *+*#*?/! journalist am I to spout my opinions with such certainty, and the answer is one that wrote police accountability laws before I wrote articles. For those of you who may remember an Al Pacino movie about police corruption called ‘Serpico’, at the end of the film a caption flashes saying Serpico is living ‘somewhere in Switzerland’…I live ‘somewhere in Sweden’. But, before I was forced abroad, I chaired a police accountability hearing in Connecticut’s legislature, a hearing where police experts, political figures, and victims laid bare the truths too many of us try not to even imagine.

I made a video of the Hearing, one which was very widely broadcast at the time on Connecticut public access cable tv, as well as well beyond Connecticut. I was surprised a few years ago when an activist found a copy and put it on the Net.

The one hour video of the Hearing ( ), provides some of the more significant moments during the hours long testimony. Among other highlights, it contains footage of a former mayor describing a police attack on his home, while he was the sitting mayor. It also contains the testimony of a police activist who was the subject of an alleged murder for hire plot, an alleged plot that made The Hartford Courant on several occasions.

About a month after the Hearing, The Hartford Courant wrote an editorial supporting the police accountability legislation I had proposed, “Consider a statewide review board”. It was about six months later that I was finally forced abroad.

Our police are necessary, and most of them truly are the good and decent people we hope for – that is a fact. As to what about those that aren't…that's what reform is about, and what the video speaks volumes to. Michael Moore I’m not, but he didn’t chair a police accountability hearing, nor was he forced to flee for his life.

Perhaps the fact that Serpico left for Switzerland and I for Sweden should say something, something about the need for effective police accountability.

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden. His work has appeared in America’s Christian Science Monitor, Spain’s El Mundo, Sweden’s Aftonbladet, Austria’s Wiener Zeitung, and a number of other media outlets. He is one of few contemporary journalists to have had one of their works read in its entirety upon the floor of Congress.

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