The following is an excerpt from The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, in which Laurence Ralph examines the use of torture—including beatings, electrocution, suffocation, and rape—by officers of the Chicago Police Department.
I’m a researcher who is writing a book on the history of police torture in your city. The more I learn about this history, the more I feel the need to write to you, even though I cannot be certain who exactly you will be. If history is any guide, you—and all other future mayors of Chicago—are likely a well-connected politician who has a cozy relationship with exactly the instruments of government that I am suggesting are most in need of change. But I must write to you anyway because I believe that change is always possible, however unlikely it may seem in the present.
Indeed, you might already be a career politician, comfortably settled into the state capitol, but you might be, at this very moment, a high school student with lots of big and unrealistic ideas. You may be white or Black, Asian or Latino, or you might not identify with any race at all. You may be gay, straight, or have a fluid gender identity. You may become Chicago’s mayor five years from now, or maybe twenty-five years. Regardless of who you are and how you find yourself as the public persona of this city, it is my sincerest hope that you want to change the culture that has allowed torture to scandalize the Chicago Police Department.
You likely have been briefed about police torture. Perhaps you have gotten assurances from the superintendent of the police department. You might have even met with survivors of police torture. But what I have found in studying this issue for more than a decade is that its complexities are endless. And thus, a strict historical approach, or a policy-oriented approach, doesn’t actually clarify the full extent of the problem. To do that, we need not facts but a metaphor.
The first thing you must know is that the torture tree is firmly planted in your city. Its roots are deep, its trunk sturdy, its branches spread wide, its leaves casting dark shadows.
The torture tree is rooted in an enduring idea of threat that is foundational to life in the United States. Its trunk is the use-of-force continuum. Its branches are the police officers who personify this continuum. And its leaves are everyday incidents of police violence.
Let’s begin with the roots, as they are, so tragically, steeped in fear. For all of our achievements as humans, we are still a species that is ruled by very basic instincts, instincts developed millions of years ago and ones shared by most animals. The most basic of instincts is the desire to keep ourselves alive; thus, we are incredibly attuned to danger, and fear shapes much of our emotional life. Because we are fearful of threats, what we crave—perhaps even more than food or companionship—is a sense of safety.
The very idea of safety in the United States is rooted in the frontier logic that justified the settlement of this country in the eighteenth century. For the white settlers, safety was premised on viewing Native Americans as threats and so transforming them into “savages.” It has long been said, most notably by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that the idea of the frontier—the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness and danger—stimulated invention and rugged individualism and was therefore an important factor in helping to cultivate a distinctive character among the citizens of the United States. This “traditional” narrative has long celebrated our frontier spirit, but the unspoken shadow of that narrative is the fact that invention and individualism are inseparable from the other thing that happened on the frontier—namely, destroying the other. The “civilized” world believed that it had to beat the savages into submission in order to ensure the future of the white race.
This frontier logic is still prevalent today. It is foundational, in fact, to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits cops who gun down African Americans under the pretext that those cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against Black people works to turn the police officers who actually committed the violence into the victims of those Black people. This is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear became rooted in the security apparatus of the United States. But those roots would likely erode were it not for the financial, political, and psychological investment in fear.
Today this investment takes the form of public funding that grounds, supports, and nourishes this country’s enduring logic of threat. Indeed, a key resource that maintains the racial caste system in the United States is the ever-increasing amount of public funding invested in policing and incarcerating people of color. Public funding is the lifeblood of the torture tree. And yet it remains debatable as to whether this funding has made our society any safer, especially for a person of color at the receiving end of police violence. Of the ten most populous cities in the United States, Chicago has the highest number of fatal shootings involving the police from 2010 to 2014. Given that these shootings are often found to be unwarranted, you may be aware that it is common practice for civilians to sue the city and the police department. I’m sure you know that your constituents absorb the cost of those misconduct payouts. But do you realize just how massive the costs have been?
Police misconduct payouts related to incidents of excessive force have increased substantially since 2004. From 2004 to 2016, Chicago has paid out $662 million in police misconduct settlements, according to city records. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that these figures will decrease. Hundreds of Chicago Police Department misconduct lawsuit settlements were filed between 2011 and 2016, and they have cost Chicago taxpayers roughly $280 million. When I was writing this letter in July 2018, the city had paid more than $45 million in misconduct settlements thus far, in that year alone. Keep in mind that misconduct payouts are only a fraction of what the city spends on policing. Chicago allocates $1.46 billion annually to policing, or 40 percent of its budget—that’s the second-highest share of a city budget that goes to policing in the nation. It trails only Oakland, which allocates 41 percent.
I recently came across a report about the funding for police departments in several U.S. cities. The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 authored it. This report is of interest to you. As I read it, one quote in particular stood out:
For every dollar spent on the Chicago Police Department (including city, state, and federal funds), the Department of Public Health, which includes mental health services, receives two cents. The Department of Planning and Development, which includes affordable housing development, receives 12 cents. The Department of Family and Support Services, which funds youth development, after school programs, and homeless services, receives five cents.
As mayor, you have the opportunity to shift these priorities. Needless to say, the way you decide to use public funding reflects your values and the values of your constituents. Your job requires you to defend your constituents’ wants and needs as you negotiate the budget with city council members each year. I know that it will be tempting to spend huge portions of the city’s budget on the police department, especially since that is what the vast majority of cities across the country are doing.
Did you know that our country currently spends $100 billion a year on policing, and $80 billion on incarceration? Well, with this trend, your political advisers might argue that adopting a “tough on crime” stance will be key to your longevity as an elected official. But if you want to address the problem of police violence and make Chicago safer, you must resist the urge to follow the status quo.
The social programs that have been shown to improve people’s well-being in the United States center on health care, education, housing, and the ability to earn a living wage—programs that work to stabilize people’s lives. Time and time again, the research in my field of study has shown that spending money on policing and prison (what scholars call punitive systems) has little proven benefit. To the contrary, Chicago’s spending on policing and incarceration has contributed to a cycle of poverty that has had an impact on generations of people living in low-income communities of color. As you might imagine, the investment in police forces, military-grade weapons, detention centers, jails, and prisons also contributes to an “us versus them” mentality in the police department that justifies police violence.
Although there has been some news coverage on this issue, most of the Chicagoans whom I spoke with for this study were unaware of the financial aspect of policing. When I told them about it, they were upset and disgusted but not particularly surprised.
A Black woman named Monica knew that the city used public funding to finance police violence and to compensate the wrongly convicted. But she thought this approach was shortsighted. “It can’t just be money,” she said. “Money is not enough.”
While speaking about the torture survivors who had spent decades in prison, she elaborated: “Money doesn’t fix the time that has been taken from them, nor does it fix the mental strain that has occurred. It doesn’t fix their access to education or jobs. It’s not enough to just give people money, or to just release them from prison. There needs to be a holistic package.”
Monica thought that elected officials like you should work to funnel funding from policing into public resources and social services. Other people I interviewed agreed with her. They hoped that instead of spending this money merely to compensate torture survivors for what they have endured, the city would instead use a larger share of its public funds for mental health services, housing subsidies, youth programs, and food benefits. These residents regretted the fact that they were implicated in defending police torture. They could only hope that the wider public would start to pay attention to the present reality, the reality that every Chicagoan is financing torture, every day.
Case in point: On July 5, 2018, Chicago youth of color staged a die-in at city hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million to build a cop academy. The young protestors set up cardboard tombstones with the names of people who had been killed by the police written on them with black ink. They also wrote the names of schools and facilities that had shuttered because of a lack of public funding. Speaking about her reasons for helping to organize the event, twenty-year-old Nita Teenyson, said: “In my neighborhood there are no grocery stores. We live in a food desert. There are a bunch of schools getting shut down. The mental health facilities are shut down too. And that just leaves people with nothing to do. They become a danger to themselves and their community.” “But if we had those resources,” she continued, referring to the funding earmarked for the police academy, “we wouldn’t even need the police to try to stop those people because resources would already be in place to help them.”
Nita’s description of how the lack of resources in her community contributes to violence was laced with resentment, because a vast expenditure of time and resources was being spent to clean up a problem that should not have existed in the first place. And to make matters worse, the cleanup was taking resources away from larger efforts to make life better in her community.
While the roots of the torture tree symbolize the collective fear that materializes in public funding for the police, its trunk represents the police use-of-force continuum. If you don’t have a law enforcement background, you may not know exactly what this continuum is. It’s a set of guidelines, established by the city, for how much force police officers are permitted to use against a criminal suspect in a given situation. The progression of force typically begins merely with the presence of a uniformed officer, who can deter crime simply by parking his squad car on the corner; a step above that is a verbal show of force, such as a cop commanding someone to put his hands above his head; a step above that are the physical tactics an officer might use to establish control of a criminal suspect, like putting him in handcuffs; a step above that are more aggressive techniques that could inadvertently cause injuries or bruising, such as kicking or punching a criminal suspect to subdue him; a step above that is using weapons that have a high probability of injuring someone but are not designed to kill, such as pepper spray; and the last step is the use of weapons that have a high probability of killing someone or at least causing serious injury.
Scholars of policing have often thought that police officers were obligated to be extremely cautious when determining which level of force to use on a civilian. It was this cautiousness, in fact, that was said to distinguish a police officer from a soldier at war. The rationale was that in wartime, one’s cautiousness could be a liability. This is why, when encountering the enemy, soldiers needed to start with the highest level of force and work their way down the continuum. Police officers, however, were supposed to start at the lowest level of the continuum and then work their way up. But most of the Chicagoans I spoke with thought that this distinction no longer exists. Police officers ascend this continuum in the blink of an eye.
In describing this use-of-force continuum, I must make something clear: the protocols that constitute it are human judgments, suffused with assumptions about fear and danger that are too often tied to race. That being said, the way that police officers move up this continuum while deciding how much force to use on a criminal suspect is extremely subjective.
In recent decades, scholars have pointed out that the subjective nature of the use of force among police officers is informed by military thinking. For a long time, soldiers have returned from wars and joined their local police departments. Likewise, police officers have long taken on second jobs—sometimes even second careers—as military personnel. What’s more, when soldiers fight wars overseas, it is common for their perception of the enemy to be shaped by the marginalized groups they grew up hearing stereotypes about. And when they return home, it is common for their ideas about those marginalized groups to be newly informed by the enemy they were just fighting against.
The phenomenon referred to as “the militarization of the police” is often used to describe the way that military equipment—including armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, submachine guns, “flash-bang” grenades, and sniper rifles—once used overseas eventually are allocated to local police stations in small and large cities and towns across the United States. But less often discussed is how alongside this military-grade equipment comes a military mindset wherein the police treat residents as if they were enemy combatants, as if the duties of law enforcement were to occupy and patrol a war zone. This is the mindset of Richard Zuley—a Chicago police officer who became a torturer overseas.
I used to picture the use-of-force continuum as it is described in so many scholarly books: a staircase on which the mere presence of police officers resides at the bottom and death and torture reside at the top. But as I talked to more and more Chicagoans, I realized that the ethos of “justifiable” force that grants police officers permission to mistreat people blends into police torture—the two ends form a circle—until you can’t easily distinguish where mistreatment ends and torture begins.
Laurence Ralph is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He is the author of Renegade Dreams: Living with Injury in Gangland Chicago, published by the University of Chicago Press.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph, published by the University of Chicago Press © 2019. All rights reserved.