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. Read More