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The Cost of Corruption: Chicago’s Legacy of Police Misconduct

September 25, 2023

The “false confession capital” of the nation: that’s the nickname Chicago has earned itself over the years thanks to rampant police misconduct.

A 2012 episode of “60 Minutes” popularized the nickname in a scathing episode featuring Chicago teens forced into false confessions that landed them in prison for half their lives. 

But defense attorneys had called Chicago the false confession capital long before the episode aired. 

According to data gathered by the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, Cook County accounts for almost one out of every four of the nation’s false confessions. And this year, for the fifth year in a row, Chicago ranked first in the country for exonerations. 

The bulk of exonerations in Illinois stem from police misconduct by corrupt law enforcement officials.  Many of these incidents revolve around the actions of former Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts, who has been accused of planting drugs or weapons on those who resisted extortion demands. 

In 2022, 97 exonerations were recorded in Illinois—all directly related to the officer’s indiscretions. 

In the same year, records indicate another 25 exonerations in Illinois related to murder convictions. Many of these cases are associated with allegations of coerced confessions by Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara.

The takeaway from this data is crystal clear: Chicago’s Police Department has a problem. 

So how did the city get here? Where did things go so wrong, and why does it continue? This article unravels a legacy of corruption with the hope that Chicago can find a way forward and return to – or find – a path of justice owed to its citizens. 

“Broadly Ineffective” At Detecting Police Misconduct 

The Chicago Police Department is the second largest police department in the nation after New York City—and many of its men and women uphold their oath to protect and serve. 

Unfortunately, there have also been enough dishonest officers over the decades to suggest the department’s culture has long been rooted in corruption. 

Part of the problem is that the department has historically been unable to address officer wrongdoing on its own. A 2017 US Department of Justice report called the Chicago Police Department  “broadly ineffective” at detecting police misconduct within its ranks. 

The categorization is harsh, but sadly accurate. 

CPD’s laundry list of corruption scandals over the years is well-documented.  Some date back to the days of prohibition, when a Chicago Police Chief was discovered vacationing with a known associate of Al Capone

Despite a slew of negative press throughout the 20th century, the department did little to steer  away from its increasingly tarnished reputation. 

By the 1970s, the community’s allegations of abuse had increased sharply. In response, Illinois Rep. Ralph Metcalfe commissioned a report titled “The Misuse of Police Authority“, which was released in 1972.  

The report unearthed a troubling pattern of violent behavior and excessive force within the department. In one of the report’s eyewitness accounts, officers knocked a frightened woman unconscious after she refused to exit her vehicle. The unarmed woman lost a tooth and required six stitches. 

Another woman told the story of an off-duty police officer shooting her son dead at Kenwood High School after claiming the young man had a gun despite teachers and students swearing they never saw one.

The timing of Metcalfe’s report was no coincidence—by now, the culture of corruption within the department had taken a turn for the worse. 

Jon Burge and The Midnight Crew

Just two years before the Metcalfe Report, notorious police Commander Jon Burge had joined the Chicago Police Department. It wasn’t long before allegations of suspects tortured into false confessions began to surface. 

Burge’s career trajectory from a decorated Vietnam veteran to a high-ranking police commander appeared promising from afar. But his “midnight crew” soon became synonymous with brutality and excessive force. 

By the end of their reign, Burge and 53 of his officers were accused of subjecting over 100 suspects on Chicago’s South Side to severe physical abuse.

One of the most infamous wrongful conviction cases associated with Burge is that of Andrew and Jackie Wilson, who were both tortured into confessing to the murder of two police officers in 1982. 

The Wilson siblings endured brutal treatment until they admitted to the allegations against them. They suffered punches and kicks. Revolvers were menacingly cocked and placed in their mouths. Andrew found himself bound to a radiator and subjected to burns. Both Andrew and Jackie were forcibly attached to a hand-cranked generator and subjected to excruciating electric shocks.

Andrew Wilson’s unusual injuries were noted by a jailhouse doctor, who alerted Cook County’s State Attorney, Richard M. Daley. Despite these concerns, no substantive investigation took place.

In 1989, Andrew Wilson filed a $10 million federal lawsuit alleging that Burge and his detectives coerced his confession. Although the trial resulted in a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict, the lawsuit opened a floodgate of litigation that CPD would never be able to close. 

Burge was eventually suspended by Police Superintendent LeRoy Martin in 1992, and hearings to dismiss him began as more accusations were filed. The Police Board voted to dismiss Burge in 1993. 

In 1999, ten death row inmates and other prisoners collectively known as “The Burge Ten” attempted to prove that they were coerced into confessions to win their freedom. 

Six of the death row sentences were reversed or remanded by the Illinois Supreme Court. A handful were offered deals to drop their claims altogether. By 2003, four more of Burge’s death row prisoners were pardoned by Governor George Ryan. 

Although the probe found that Burge likely committed torture, the statute of limitations prevented criminal charges from being filed. 

Burge was eventually arrested on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2008 when he was accused of lying in written answers he submitted in 2003 as part of a federal lawsuit over the torture claims. e was found guilty in 2010, and a federal judge sentenced him to four and a half  years in prison. 

By 2022, the City had paid out more than $210 million in Burge-related settlements. 

Reynaldo Guevara Frames Murder Suspects 

As Burge’s career in law enforcement began winding down to its tumultuous end, another officer’s career was just getting started. A staggering 51 people accused CPD Detective Reynaldo Guevara of framing them for murders that occurred between the 1980s and early 2000s. 

Detective Reynaldo Guevara’s career as a police officer began when he joined the force in 1976. As a Humboldt Park native, Guevara seemed perfect for CPD’s Elite Gang Crimes North unit. 

But Chicagoan soon began filing police misconduct complaints against Guevara, which the department quietly brushed aside. 

One of the earliest cases involving Guevara was a 1985 case involving two honor roll students. The parents of the teens sued the city after Guevara burst into their home and allegedly yanked one child’s arm so forcefully that it broke. 

Humboldt Park residents sounded the alarm for years, detailing Guevara’s methods of obtaining confessions: torture, fabrication of evidence, bribery, witness manipulation, falsification of reports, suppression of evidence, and perjury.

Despite racking up numerous complaints, Guevara was promoted to detective in 1999, as the accusations against him continued. But his peers and superiors went out of their way to ignore and even enable Guevara to continue his reign of injustice. 

Prosecutors built their homicide cases around Guevara’s alleged eyewitnesses. Judges turned a deaf ear to those who claimed they had been beaten or coerced into confessions. Meanwhile, innocent people spent decades behind bars while the real murderers escaped justice. 

In 2001, an FBI transcript revealed that Guevara had accepted several bribes to manipulate murder case line-ups. Despite this damning evidence and growing consensus on Guevara’s corruption, the City of Chicago has consistently defended him in court. 

Chicago taxpayers have forked over more than $76 million in jury verdicts, settlements, and payments to private law firms for cases arising from Guevara’s misconduct. Additionally, more than $23 million has been paid to outside law firms to defend him in civil lawsuits, and the City currently shells out over $300,000 each month for legal defense. 

To date, 39 people allegedly framed by Guevara have had their convictions overturned. As of March 2023, eleven new federal lawsuits have been filed against him. 

Ronald Watts Plants Drug Evidence 

The crimes perpetrated by Ronald Watts add to a distressing legacy of corruption within the ranks of the Chicago Police Department. By the time he retired in 2005, he had left behind a trail of destruction that no one could have predicted. 

For over a decade, Watts allegedly shook down drug dealers at the Ida B. Wells housing project on the City’s near south side, and framed its residents for drug-related crimes. But everything came to a crashing end in 2012 when Watts attempted to extort a drug dealer who happened to be an FBI informant. 

In 2013, the City of Chicago hired the global law firm Sidley Austin to investigate Guevara’s corruption at a cost of nearly $1.9 million to taxpayers. A 2022 analysis by the Chicago Inspector General condemned the City’s failure to implement a risk management system to control costs stemming from legal claims against the CPD and its officers. 

He was finally arrested and pleaded guilty to federal charges before receiving a 22-month sentence. 

Since 2016, an astonishing 220 convictions tied to Watts have been overturned. 

It’s Not About “Bad Apples” 

There’s no denying that officers like Burge, Guevara, and Watts need to be pruned from the force. But the problem clearly goes beyond individual officers. There is the more significant systemic problem of a culture of corruption. 

By nature, policing requires a group-based approach. So it follows that police misconduct is not a localized problem—it’s more akin to a wildfire or a contagious disease. The findings of one 2019 study support this idea. 

Data from the study’s analysis of 35,000 police officers showed that one officer’s bad behavior can have a sweeping negative impact. 

Specifically, for every 10% increase in the proportion of an officer’s peers with a history of police misconduct, that officer’s chances of engaging in wrongdoing in the next three months rose by nearly 8%. 

To better understand how this works, researchers at Northwestern University aimed to investigate the larger impact of individual officers engaged in misconduct on their peers. 

The 2022 study examined 30,000 Chicago police officers from 1971 to 2018. Of this data, they detected 160 “crews” of officers that shared tell-tale characteristics. 

In all, four percent of the city’s total police force was found to belong to these corrupt “crews.” The officers within the crews were involved in a disproportionate number of police misconduct allegations, accounting for 25% of all complaints, payouts, and shootings.  

The sociologist who led the study, Dr. Andrew Papachristos, thinks the results could have dire implications. 

“If our results hold, we are talking about possibly thousands of Chicagoans who have been directly subjected to such cop crews—and even more that have been indirectly impacted.”

Looking Towards A More Just Future

So where is the sweeping reform Chicago needs to put an end to the injustice? Until it comes, the consequences of allowing the Chicago Police Department to go unchecked come with a hefty price tag. 

There’s the cost of the people’s trust, the destruction of innocent lives, and the family members they left behind while being unjustly incarcerated, and the wasted taxpayer dollars to the tune of $280 million in legal fees, investigations, and settlements. 

Chicago now faces a critical choice. It can continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars defending its corrupt officers in court. Or it can take measures to prevent future injustices and save taxpayers the burden of rising litigation costs. 

The time has come for Chicago to reckon with its checkered past: it’s just a matter of how. 

Much like the collective resolution adopted in response to the tragic events of 9/11, the city of Chicago could explore the possibility of establishing a mediation process or a special fund to address the mounting corruption lawsuits. 

Resolving multiple cases together offers several advantages. First, it streamlines the legal process, reducing the financial strain on the city and taxpayers. 

Such a move would also send a powerful message that Chicago, including its new mayor, and its new police superintendent,  is committed to acknowledging past wrongs and rectifying them collectively rather than dealing with each case in isolation. 

Reforming the CPD should not be seen as an attack on the vast majority of officers who serve honorably and with dedication. Rather, it is an effort to protect their integrity and hard-earned reputation. 

For the many honest men and women in uniform who strive to make a positive difference in our communities, removing corrupt officers is essential.

There is nothing more dangerous or frustrating for good police officers who work hard and honestly, respecting the rights of those they serve, than the officers who use their positions to satisfy their greed for power and money.  

While police officers undoubtedly face enormous challenges and risks in their daily work, that should never be an excuse for tolerating police misconduct within the ranks. 

The essence of policing is rooted in protecting and serving our communities, and those who wear the badge must hold themselves to the highest standards. 

More importantly, the people they are sworn to protect, through their elected representatives, must hold them fully accountable.  

Chicagoans have long deserved a police department they can trust wholeheartedly. We must insist on a police force that not only upholds the law but also holds its own members accountable. 

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