Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Federal jury’s verdict in Burge case will say more about us than about him

Let me say up front that I don’t have a clue how the trial of one-time Chicago police Commander Jon Burge is going to turn out.

Burge himself spent parts of three days testifying on his own behalf, insisting that he was proud of his record as a police officer and claiming that he never did anything that could be construed as torture against would-be criminal suspects.

OF COURSE, THAT was the same thing that he said when testifying during a civil lawsuit related to the conduct of Chicago Police during his time as commander of the then-Pullman Area violent crimes unit on the Far South Side.

Federal prosecutors believed him so much that they brought the current charges of perjury, claiming they can show the whole thing is a lie. Burge seems determined to think of himself as the ultimate victim, being persecuted by clueless people who don’t understand the realities of maintaining the public safety and protecting people from violence.

Which means that the outcome of this case is going to come down to how sympathetic the people on the jury panel are toward police. Are they they kind who are willing to give police some leeway when it comes to their professional conduct?

Are they also the kind of people who think that certain “criminals” deserve what they get, which means they’re not about to get all worked up over reports of violence and abuse?

I DON’T KNOW the jurors. We ultimately will have to see how they rule in this case.

The one thing I do know, however, is that there are people among the public who will be upset if a “guilty” verdict is returned against Burge. And I’m sure most of those people perceive themselves as being decent and respectable contributors to our society.

It caught my attention that the Chicago Tribune, in reporting that Burge had finished his testimony Monday morning, had a supporter among the people who chose to use the newspaper’s website to make their own anonymous comments. As this one commentor put it, “hire more police officers like Mr. Burge, and Chicago won’t have anymore days when 40 are shot in 24 hours.”

Not that those who chose to comment on the Chicago Sun-Times website were any more sympathetic. Among the least racist remarks I read there was one that said, in part, “he dealed with the scum of the Earth on a daily basis,” adding later, “who cares if he fried their ______” (insert racist epithet here).

THIS WAS A reaction to the stories that tried to make a dramatic point against Burge by pointing out the moment of his cross-examination when prosecutors got Burge to admit that he named his boat, “the Vigilante.” As though this is a clue to the psyche of the one-time Chicago cop who probably thought all this was behind him when he retired in 1993 and moved to Florida.

Personally, I got a giggle out of Burge’s explanation for the boat name – he claims it turned up on a computer-generated list of names, and that it was the only one he had never heard before.

So being the “captain” of the “Vigilante” merely means that Burge is an individualist – if we’re to believe Burge.

In reading the reports of Burge’s testimony (he was on the stand for a combined total of about six hours last week, along with one hour on Monday), it becomes apparent that there was no great dramatic moment such as what a courtroom television drama would give us.

PROSECUTORS DID NOT catch Burge in a blatant lie. They didn’t come up with some discrepancy that he could not explain. They weren’t able to crack him psychologically (perhaps because they didn’t consider putting a typewriter cover over his head to make it difficult for him to breathe) to get him to talk.

Burge still maintains that he did nothing illegal or immoral back when he was a part of the Chicago Police Department.

Which means this case, once again I will write, will come down to how sympathetic the jurors are toward police use of physical force in the performance of their duties. Which, to be honest, is sometimes necessary. We wouldn’t arm officers with firearms and clubs if we didn’t think there were times when those weapons would have to be used.

Which means these jurors are going to have to make a judgment call. And we in society are going to have a mixed reaction. Some of us will be gratified, while others will be appalled, no matter how the jurors rule.

PERSONALLY, MY OWN thoughts about Burge go back to my days when I was a police reporter for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. We’re talking back in the late 1980s when I used to pay attention to every murder and many crimes committed in the city (and it also was an era when the city’s homicide totals reached record highs) as part of my job.

Even in that environment, the stories that passed through the rumor-mill out of the Pullman Area (which, as part of a city attempt to erase the image of the Burge era is now known as the Calumet Area) police were that something funky was taking place in those neighborhoods at the far south end of the city.

I’m not claiming that I knew anything definitively about Burge. If I had, I would have written it. Perhaps what I am saying is that there was a lot of smoke, which, to follow the old cliché, means there might very well have been a fire. Which is probably about as superficial a thought as those people who want to believe that anyone who comes to the attention of the police must have done something to warrant it.

Regardless, I will be one of the many people scattered across the Chicago area who will be anxiously awaiting the jury’s verdict. Not that I expect the verdict to resolve the issue in anyone’s mind. I think most of us made our decision a long time ago, and we’re hoping that the jury verdict reaffirms our own way of thinking.


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