Chicago Justice Project

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

AREA Chicago talks to Joseph Lipari and Tracy Siska, creators of a web platform intended to network reports of police abuse throughout the city.

Allegations that Chicago police officers engaged in acts of torture at the old Area Two and Three Headquarters date back to 1973. An official inquiry, released in May 2006 and focused around former Commander Jon Burge, produced a report—limited in scope and weak in impact—that was met with disappointment by victims and reform advocates. The statute of limitations had passed, and the report gave no indication that such practices were systematic and ongoing, an opportunity to redress past injustices and address a current problem lost. Joseph Lipari (JL) and fellow UIC graduate student Tracy Siska (TS) believe a more user-friendly search engine could more effectively expose the Chicago Police Department’s de facto policy of torture. They formed the Chicago Justice Project (CJP) with the idea that justice is best practiced not blindly, but transparently. The pair maintain a blog at, but are expanding their web presence. They are digitizing documents relating to the Burge torture ring, only a small percentage of which have been made publicly available.

TS The CJP came about because of the lack of a central place for anyone to get information on the criminal justice agencies and their agents. On a daily basis, these agencies create thousands of pages of documents that are part of the public records but are not open because the agencies refuse to provide access. There are tens of thousands of pages of documents [relating to the Burge saga] which, if they were just organized in a fashion that made them accessible, could lead to identifiable patterns that might suggest improvements to the criminal justice system.
We plan on creating a database that is accessible online and that assists the public, media, policy makers, and researchers on gaining context to an event, policy, or agent of a particular criminal justice agency. A goal is to link all relevant data and documents relating to police torture with all other associated items. A user could enter in a name of a Burge torture victim and be able to access all relevant court records, police reports, trial and deposition transcripts, civilian complaints against officers and prosecutors, and other types of records created by criminal justice agencies.

JL Initially our approach was to create a database built around specific keywords. But we quickly came to realize a number of problems with that approach. What we found significant in a particular document might not be useful for others who need to use this data. And we can’t determine how people in the future will need to use it, so we didn’t want to catalogue and present these documents in a way that would limit how anyone could access them. We didn’t want to act as gatekeepers of this information.

TS We want to create an organization that is respected for collecting and releasing unbiased information. We believe that the actions within the criminal justice system are bad enough that unbiased information is more than horrific enough to create an atmosphere of change. Free access to data on the everyday working of criminal justice agencies is the surest way to guarantee that these agencies and their agenTS are accountable for their actions. When a prosecutor who has taken several questionable confessions runs for a judgeship we hope that the information we have collected assists voters in making their decision.

Allegations of torture circulated decades be-fore any talk of an investigation started, investigative reporting has been going on for almost two decades. Why has there been no outcry from the public or politicians? And how does CJP intend to bring more attention to the issue?

JL The papers frequently employ a pro “law and order” language, while at the same time casting a tone of skepticism towards those who were tortured. To the victims who have come forward, reference is routinely made to them as “cop-killers” and “gangbangers.” “Alleged torture victims” were “possibly shocked.” On the other hand, Burge and his gang are portrayed in a positive light.

TS There is still a major undertone of racism in the media and throughout Chicago. Most whites in Chicago do not care about the tactics of the police because they are being use against ‘others.’ Torture is accepted as long as it is done to bad people, you know, young black gangbangers. The media plays a serious role in framing the political and public discourse in relation to crime. There is a great danger of unconfirmed research making it to the media and thus the public and politicians. The danger is that social policy is altered because of the results of incomplete research. We want to work with journalists to make sure they have access to correct data that will inform the public of the true circumstances regarding the criminal justice system. But we also will assist the public in deciphering the clutter of media management of the Chicago Police Department (cpd) by bypassing the media and bringing the information directly to the public through our website.

Critics charge that the Burge report doesn’t acknowledge the extent of police torture. What do you see allowing the practice to be tolerated and institutionalized in Chicago? How will your work address this problem?

JL Particularly when it comes to young African-American men there is a high tolerance for aggressive policing. In the minds of many people it becomes acceptable to cross the line in Chicago, in order to prevent the city from “becoming another Cleveland or Detroit.”

TS When people talk about why those who could have spoken up but didn’t, they always bring up the word conspiracy. That loses most people because they cannot believe that all those people involved conspired to harm these individuals. They are right because there was never a secret conversation among all the participants agreeing to deprive young poor black men of their civil rights; however, a conspiracy is exactly what did occur. A conspiracy of mutual interests.
The cops who tortured individuals benefited from the confessions because they cleared otherwise not clearable cases. The prosecutors who took their confessions and prosecuted these men benefited because they obtained convictions in cases they would not have otherwise. The judges benefited because they were able to sentence these violent criminals to long sentences they would not have otherwise been able to without the coerced confessions. Not a single agency or agent would have benefited from speaking up to stop the torture; however, they did benefit from not speaking up with commendations and promotions.
Being an advocate for transparency and accountability does not come from a negative view of the system. For a criminal justice system to be successful in its work it must be a partner with the community, and we believe that only through transparency and accountability will the system in Chicago move towards this end. Identifying and rooting out improper policies and procedures will greatly enhance the relationship between criminal justice agencies and the many communities of Chicago.

Research & action links

The conspiracy of mutual interests that sanctions the use of torture and other forms of aggressive policing in low-income and transitional communities continues to function through a code of silence. The saga has focused on the contradictory but ultimately brutal career of Jon Burge, and the major Chicago media outlets have largely accepted without question the official line that such violations were the doings of a few rogue elements (some of whom are still drawing a pension from the city) and are a thing of the past. But research conducted by the following groups and individuals suggest that there is much more to the issue than the city, the CPD, and special prosecutors have admitted.

The People’s Law Office PLO lawyers handling the civil suit of former Death Row inmate Andrew Wilson, convicted in 1982 for the murder of two Chicago policemen, were the first to uncover and document a pattern of systematic torture of individuals held at south side Area 2 and 3 headquarters. In the late 1990s, when the PLO began handling the case of another former Death Row inmate Aaron Peterson (the son of a Chicago police officer) they found more than 60 victims who shared similar stories of brutal beatings, burnings, suffocation, electrocution, and sexual abuse. The list now approaches 200.

The Invisible Institute The work of writer and activist Jamie Kalven explores the “institutionalization of denial” and the means by which a de facto policy of aggressive policing in Black communities continues, nearly fifteen years after the city dismissed Burge. Kalven’s work recently drew the attention of city lawyers, seeking to subpoena his extensive notes on crime and police corruption at Stateway Gardens. Kicking the Pigeon, an extraordinary photo-journalistic account of post-Burge abuses at Stateway, can be accessed at

John Conroy
For more than fifteen years John Conroy has covered police torture for the Chicago Reader. And for much of that time his was the lone voice in Chicago journalism investigating the topic. Two particular articles, “The Police Torture Scandal: A Who’s Who” (June 16, 2006) and “House of Screams” (January 26, 1990—his first report on the subject) are useful in introducing the key figures of this ongoing saga. A complete archive of Conroy’s reporting on police torture for the Reader can be found at

For more information on the torture that occurred at area 2 police headquarters between 1972 and 1991 see

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