Reporter who exposed Chicago police torture 25 years ago reflects on historic reparations deal

Photo credit: Carlos Javier Ortiz

Former investigative journalist John Conroy—that’s how he describes himself these days—spent the better part of two decades writing about police brutality in Chicago. He never expected to see what happened last week: a unanimous vote by the city council authorizing $5.5 million in reparations to scores of victims of police torture, mostly African American men from the south side of the city.

“I think it’s a miracle, really,” Conroy told me when we talked a few days ago.

Conroy has a unique perspective on the news: He is the reporter who, as Don Terry wrote for CJR five years ago, “did more than anyone else in all of journalism to expose police torture in Chicago.” Twenty-five years ago, Conroy’s “House of Screams” story for the alt-weekly Chicago Reader shone a light on allegations of abuse by police commander Jon Burge and his detectives. Six years later, another long article for the Reader challenged the city to confront police torture: “The courts know about it, the media know about it, and chances are you know about it. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?”

Eventually, something was done: Other journalists contributed key reporting that advanced and broadened the story; Burge was put on trial and convicted; and the city paid millions in settlements and legal fees for victims, before Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the reparations package this spring “to bring this dark chapter of Chicago’s history to a close.”

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It’s hard to say how Conroy’s stories might have landed now, when stories of police abuse seem so much a part of the national conversation. On the heels of abuse and misconduct allegations in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere, the reparations could be important, Conroy said, if other municipalities follow the city’s lead.

But for Chicago itself, he isn’t sure they are a signal that the city has healed.

“I don’t know that it says anything about the city because the city has seemingly gone on perfectly happy with this torture scandal in its midst for so long,” Conroy said. “It’s hard for me to see anything more than a confluence of forces, a sort of a chance meeting of players in a way, that ended up with this ordinance. The city lived very comfortably with this.”

Conroy no longer writes about police abuse. When CJR profiled him in 2010, he was working a series of freelance gigs, having been laid off from the Reader in 2007. He later found work with the Better Government Association, an investigative and good-government nonprofit in Chicago, where he stayed for two years. In 2012, after the smash success of his play My Kind of Town, set against the backdrop of the abuse scandal he helped uncover, Conroy joined the faculty at DePaul University College of Law, where he is a senior lecturer and director of investigations for the legal clinics.

“My students don’t ask about this,” he said. “Some are not from the city. A lot of them, probably 80 percent, maybe 90 percent, don’t know who Jon Burge is. And I don’t talk about it, unless we have a false confessions class—in that context I do talk about it. I don’t talk about my role, but I mention it.”

In news coverage of the reparations, Conroy’s groundbreaking reporting often was not even a footnote, which was a shame.

“His role in this saga was and is profound,” said Locke Bowman, executive director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University. The center has represented some of the torture victims over the years, though it was not directly involved in the reparations negotiations.

“When I work with students over the years on various litigation projects we’ve had related to the Burge scandal, the first thing I direct them to is the archive of John’s stories,” Bowman said. “He played a pivotal role in creating a record, a public record. He created an archive that at the moment remains the go-to account of what happened. And that’s remarkable.”

Bob Herguth, director of investigations for the Better Government Association, said Conroy pursued the Burge stories relentlessly.

“This has been his career in journalism, his calling,” Herguth said. “He has helped frame the issue not just for his readers but for in some ways the profession in Chicago.”

In his unassuming way, Conroy noted that he wasn’t alone in reporting the Burge stories over the years. Other reporters broke new ground, exposing more abuse and wrongful convictions. If investigative journalism in Chicago were a PGA tournament, he’d be on the board but not at the top, Conroy said.

He noted the work of Tribune reporters Steve Mills, Maurice Possley, and Ken Armstrong, who produced major investigations that led Illinois officials to reevaluate the use of capital punishment. “That changed the course of this state,” Conroy said. “Without them I think we likely would still have the death penalty.”

Today, he finds the most professional satisfaction in the two books he’s written, one on Belfast and one on torture. (The book on torture was published in 2000—ill-timed, he said, because shifting public attitudes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks limited the market.*)

Though he is no longer an investigative journalist, Conroy said, the need for that sort of work remains. “I think that there are a lot of stories that need to be written, and I think the Tribune in particular tries.”

But he misses an earlier era, when support for the work he and others did was easier to come by. “It doesn’t look like journalism will go back to those days,” he said. “I find that sad.”

* Correction: This sentence has been revised to better reflect Conroy’s meaning.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.