The Jon Burge Police Torture Scandal and the Explanatory Limits of the Carceral State Paradigm

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:20 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Andrew Baer, University of Alabama at Birmingham
An examination of a police torture scandal in 1970s and 1980s Chicago suggests that historians of post-World War Two America may be assigning too much agency to the carceral state, a concept that has been deployed more than it has been defined. As constituted, the carceral state paradigm sheds little light on the causes, character, and consequences of police violence and misconduct. Indeed, racist police violence was certainly not unique to the period after 1964, when a “major punitive turn in American policy and culture” became evident.1 Moreover, the Jon Burge police torture scandal appears disconnected from defining features of the carceral state. Law-and-order rhetoric, federal funding of local law enforcement, the war on drugs, the rise of mass incarceration, and police militarization run parallel to the emergence of torture in 1970s Chicago, but do little to explain its origins or purpose. Likewise, Chicago’s social movements for police accountability did not orbit around issues of federal policy. Rather, local activists responded to local crises and fought to change policy at the municipal level. The carceral state formulation thus threatens to monopolize explanatory models for historical events of this period. If everything is the carceral state—and the carceral state is everything—scholars may be overlooking other historical explanations for criminal justice outcomes. In postwar Chicago, changes in the social,economic, and demographic landscape facilitated the Burge torture regime far more than any national anti-crime agenda. In addition, the Rights Revolution failed to alter local police officers’ institutional incentives or personal loyalties. Wielding great discretion on the streets and in interrogation rooms, officers continued to shape racial disparities throughout the last third of the twentieth century.

1 Heather Ann Thompson and Donna Murch, “Rethinking Urban America through the Lens of the Carceral State,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 41, Issue 5, 751-755.