Police torture

What is police torture?

The United States Supreme Court, in Brown v. Mississippi (1936), equated “confessions obtained by violence” (p. 286) with torture and declared that by either name the practice was unconstitutional. In Chambers v. Florida (1940) the Supreme Court held that in some instances it was torture to when psychological (or mental) pressure was used to obtain a confession.

The view that police torture only occurs during interrogation is fairly standard. In 1931, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement (usually known as the Wickersham Commission) defined the third degree (which it used as a synonym for torture) as “the employment of methods which inflict suffering, physical or mental, upon a person in order to obtain information about a crime” (Wickersham Commission, Lawlessness in Law Enforcement, p. 19). The Commission noted that police in Chicago engaged in “brutal arrests,” but did not include that violence in its analysis of police torture in the city. Courts typically draw a similar distinction between abusive arrests and torture during interrogation, though a few victims have successfully connected violence at the time of arrest and during interrogation into a single claim of torture.

In contrast, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture to include both acts that cause mental or physical pain to obtain information or when law enforcement or instances when government agents engage in the type of vigilante acts that Daniel LaChance aptly calls “street corner justice.” Article 1.1 of the Convention provides:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

Not guilty

Two Chicago police detectives, Michael Neary and Michael Vaughn, were briefly suspended in 1919 after they arrested Keith Southern (Chicago Tribune, January 3, 1920, p. 13). Southern claimed that while investigating car thefts in November 1919, the two officers beat him at the detective bureau, breaking his ribs in the process (Chicago Tribune, December 8, 1919, p. 17; Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1920, p. A5).

Neary and Vaughn claimed that Southern’s ribs were broken when they had to subdue him to arrest him. Southern pressed charges, but in January 1920 the Civil Service Board dismissed his claims. “There is almost no evidence against Neary,” Captain Coffin, who served as president of the board explained. Coffin admitted that there was “some evidence” against Vaughn, “but it is not enough to sustain the charges”(Chicago Tribune, January 9, 1920).

1 rule for crooks, another for “innocent citizens”

In June 1927, John Kimball, the night manager at Chicago’s Newberry Hotel, charged that Lieutenant Leo Carr and several police officers at the Chicago Avenue station forced him to confess to stealing $100 from the hotel (Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1927, p. 20). Two weeks later, members of a criminal gang admitted to a burglaries, including the one Kimball had confessed to (Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1927).

But the police did not drop the charges against Kimball. Instead, as the Chicago Tribune noted, when Kimball was testifying before the grand jury to help indict members of the burglary gang, the case against him was set for a hearing before a Cook County judge. Since he missed the court date to provide evidence to the grand jury, his bond was forfeited and it was only after lawyers and his employer interceded that the charges against him were dropped (Chicago Tribune, July 2, 1927).

Confronted with Kimball’s claim that he falsely confessed after being beaten at the Chicago Avenue station, chief of police Michael Hughes reluctantly ordered an investigation. Yet Hughes’ condemnation of police misconduct lacked conviction. He did not approve, he said, of police officers mistreating “innocent citizens.” But he added, that was not the rule for everyone.

So long as I am chief of police in Chicago criminals aren’t going to be handled with gloves. That’s one thing you can be dead sure about” (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1927).

Hughes went on to complain about reformers, criminologists, social workers, and even the ungrateful people of Chicago, who criticized the hard working police, rather than the criminals. The police, he said, “were driving the crooks out of Chicago and we’re not being nice to them.” Rather than help the police, Hughes complained, the public criticized them (Chicago Tribune, July 3, 1927).

The Chicago Tribune expressed some doubts about the distinctions Hughes drew. “There is pretty general acceptance of the theory,” the paper wrote in an editorial, “that the police must beat up a suspected man, if he has a criminal record, to get the facts out of him.” But, the paper went on, it “isn’t a very pretty theory and it doesn’t work so exceptionally well,” since those confessions were often thrown out in court. The paper went on, more pointedly

The fundamental law of the land is supposed to protect any one from cruel and unusual punishment, but that is merely highbrow stuff for the he-man chief” (Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1927, p. 10).

A disgrace to civilization

In 1913, William Kirk, a realtor, was arrested for driving with a missing tail light and taken to Chicago’s 22nd Street police station. While he waited for the paper work on his arrest to be processed, Kirk watched a police officer, later identified as Peter Bronson, bring a young man into the station. Bronson, the young man, and a second police officer, who was later identified as William Sammons, went into a nearby office and one of the officers shut the door. Within seconds, Kirk heard thuds and screams coming from behind the closed door. The noises continued for nearly ten minutes; they stopped only when the police lieutenant, Michael Morrissey, went into the office and, according to Kirk, told Bronson and Simmons to “Take that man to a cell if you want to do any beating” (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).

Kirk, who said he followed Morrissey over to the office, looked in and saw the young man on his hands and knees while the two officers were kicking him (Chicago Tribune, January 30, 1913, p. 1).

The Chicago police department opened an investigation after Kirk filled a formal complaint about what he saw at the station. Captain Ryan, of the 22nd Street station, was ordered to prepare a report.

Predictably, there were two very different versions of what transpired.

haas-photo-copy
Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p. 7

The young man who was arrested, Fred Haas, a telegraph operator who worked for Armour & Company, claimed that he was arrested by Bronson at the corner of Clark and 18th streets. Haas said Bronson stopped him because he thought Haas was Robert Webb, a bandit wanted for murder, and then arrested him when he found Haas was carrying a billy club for protection. Haas also said that Bronson was drunk when he made the arrest. Haas’s account was corroborated by Joseph Schmidt, who was with him when he was arrested (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3). Charles Sullivan, the man who shared a cell with Haas the evening of his arrest, confirmed that Haas was in bad shape when he was taken to the cell: blood covered his face and his clothing was torn (Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1913, p. 6).

While the accounts offered by Haas and Schmidt suggested a mistaken arrest gone very much awry, the police story set out in Captain Ryan’s report on the case hinted at interracial, perhaps homosexual, vice. Officer Bronson told Ryan he arrested Haas, who was white and described in the press as “slim” and “rather weak physically,” at a “negro resort,” a euphemism for a gambling spot often frequented by prostitutes female or male. The resort, according to Bronson, was at 17th and Dearborn streets, at the edge of Chicago’s notorious Levee District (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7; Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3).

As one might expect, the police also denied beating Haas. Officer Bronson claimed that Haas had to be subdued after he resisted arrest, and then again at the station after Haas “became stubborn” when they tried to take him to the cell. But Bronson was sure that nothing else was done to Haas during his arrest or time at the station. (Chicago Tribune, January 31, 1913, p.7).

For some reason, Ryan did not interview either Lieutenant Morrissey or Officer Sammons for his report.

The story quickly became complicated: The Chicago Tribune asked why the police claimed that Haas was arrested for making a disturbance at a resort in an area that the police department claimed had been cleaned of vice. That paper (along with Haas’s attorney) also wondered why no “inmates” of the resort had been arrested with Haas (Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1913, p. 3; Chicago Tribune, February 3, 1913, p. 11). Meanwhile, Charles Thompson, alderman for the 25th Ward, demanded Chicago’s city council investigate the “torture chamber” methods used at the 22nd Street station. “The attack on young Haas was one of the more brutal affairs ever brought to my attention,” the alderman explained,

and it is nearly (sic) time that something be done to protect citizens from outrages of this kind. It is a disgrace to civilization and gives the city a bad name. It isn’t the first time I have heard of brutal police and their tactics. I will do everything in my power to oust men of this type” (Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1913, p. 2).

But then, after all the fury, very little happened. Haas pled guilty to carrying a concealed weapon (the billy club) and was fined $25 (Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1913, p. 12).  And the alderman on the city council voted not to hold an investigation on police use of the use of the third degree. Twenty alderman voted in favor of holding an investigation; 35 voted against doing so (Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1913, p. 6).

A black eye

In 1914, Catherine O’Callaghan said she was called to Chicago’s Stockyards police station late one evening to get her sixteen-year-old son, Daniel. As she walked into to the station, she heard her son screaming and begging in another room (Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1914).

When she opened the door to that room, she saw her son between four police officers. As she watched, the officer to Daniel’s left hit him a blow that swung him forward, then the officer to his left hit him with a blow that sent him reeling back. Another office, who she identified as Thomas Coffey, hit Daniel over the head (Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1914, p. 8).

Mrs O’Callaghan complained to Thomas Cronin, the Captain of the station. Cronin admitted that Daniel, who had been arrested on suspicion of stealing car tires, had been interrogated by officer Coffey and three others, who were identified as John Adams, James O’Connor, and Peter Carney. But Cronin denied that any of the officers struck or otherwise harmed Daniel, a claim that seemed somewhat dubious in light of the fact that one of Daniel’s eyes was swollen shut and marked by “a long blue streak directly across it,” and a large lump on the back of his head (Chicago Tribune, December 5, 1914, p. 8).

Undeterred, Catherine O’Callaghan filed a charge against the four officers. The superintendent’s office did assign an investigator to the case, and he made inquiries at the station. Once again, Captain Cronin denied that anything untoward had happened to Daniel O’Callaghan. And, making an argument that was echoed in other cases, Cronin pointed out that Daniel O’Callaghan was no innocent youth. In fact, Cronin said, O’Callaghan was up to his old tricks and had been arrested yet again for tire theft (Chicago Tribune, December 6, 1914, p. H14).  Apparently, the investigation did not go any further.

 

Goldfish & prairies

The “goldfish room,” which figured so prominently in Edmund Fitch‘s claim of police torture in 1923,  also played a role when the police interrogated James Sweeney in 1921. Sweeney, along with Harry Bartlett and several others, had been arrested and convicted for bombing the Beehive Laundry Company during a labor dispute (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502 (1922)).

At trial, Sweeney testified he was interrogated at length by Chicago police officers at the detective bureau and at the state’s attorney’s office. After being held for more than a day at the Brighton Park police station, Sweeney was taken to police chief Fitzmorris’s office for an hour, and then to the state’s attorney’s office. He remained at the state’s attorney’s office for most of the night; he was interrogated there for roughly four hours by two assistant state’s attorneys, Charles Wharton and Milton Smith, and the chief of detectives, Michael Hughes. Then he was taken to a cell, where he stayed less than half an hour before three officers took him to chief Hughes’s office. As they escorted, the officers told Sweeney they were going to show him the goldfish (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511-512).

As the Illinois Supreme Court put it, “They showed him the goldfish, which was a beating.”

They dragged him around by his hair and started beating him with a rubber hose. He said that Chief Hughes beat him, and two or three other officers who he did not know by name; that [police sergeant] Egan was there at the time and used his fist; that he could recognize the other two officers and had seen one of them in the courtroom since the trial started, — that is, one beside Egan. He said they told him to come clean and tell everything he knew, and plenty besides, or be found out in some prairie (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 511).

Still Sweeney did not confess, so they took him back to a cell for a while, then back to Hughes’s office, where he was beaten again. Then he went back to a cell, and then back to Hughes’s office a third time, where he was beaten once more. After the last beating, Sweeney confessed (Illinois v. Sweeney, 304 Ill. 502, 512). Sweeney also testified that while he was in custody before his confession he had no time to sleep and was fed a single sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Sweeney’s attorney objected when the state tried to submit his confession into evidence at trial. During a hearing on whether the confession was voluntary, Sergeant Egan testified that he did not harm Sweeney or see anyone else do so. None of the other officers or state’s attorney’s testified. The trial judge, M. L. McKinley, held the confession was voluntary and admitted it into evidence. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed.

“Boy Bandits,” 1903-1904

In the winter of 1904, the three so-called “boy bandits,” James Sammons, John Lynch, and Hugh Reilly (not to be confused with the Hugh Reilly who had a violent brush with the police in 1902), told a jury that they had been tortured by police inspector John Revere and other officers at the Stock Yards station in 1903. The three young men, Reilly and Sammons were eighteen-years-old, and Lynch nineteen (some reports set his age at 21), stood accused of murdering Patrick Barrett during a robbery of Barrett’s saloon on Wallace street (Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1903, p.3; Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1904, p. 12; Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1904, p. 5).

There was little sympathy for any of the suspects in Chicago’s press. The Tribune noted that Lynch and Reilly numbered several criminals among the members of their families, and that all three were were all products of a failed system that had arrested them and then had set them free again to rob and kill (Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1903, p. 3; Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1903, p. 4).

As a result, the paper was quick to believe Inspector Revere when he denied the bandits’s claims of torture. It dismissed Lynch’s claim that he had been starved and beaten until he confessed, as quickly as Sammons’ charge that he was “beaten and kicked until I thought my ribs were all stove in.” But it was particularly doubtful about what it referred to as Reilly’s “sensational charges” (Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1904, p. 12). 

“Revere,” Reilly said, “had his men tie a rope around my neck and hang me to the bars of the cell at the Stockyards station.” He added: “My toes could just touch the floor, and I was left there for twenty minutes. After that I was ready to ‘confess’ to anything “(Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1904, p. 12).

The jury was equally disbelieving, and convicted all three for Barrett’s murder. It did, however, sentence the defendants differently. It sentenced both Lynch and Sammons to death, but chose to sentence Reilly, who, it was claimed, cried after Barrett was killed, to life in prison. The state’s attorney’s office blamed sentimentality for the jurors’ decision not to execute Reilly, but assistant state’s attorney Robert E. Crowe praised the verdicts against Lynch and Sammons:

A few more such verdicts and the young criminals would cease to harass the city. The jury has told them that death to their victim means death to them (Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1904, p. 5)