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.

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).