Armanda Shackelford | Photos by Tiffany Walden [The TRiiBE]

“Free Gerald Reed! Free, free, free Gerald Reed!”

Wrapped up in coats, hats and gloves, about a dozen people stood outside the Cook County Criminal Courts building on a frigid Friday morning this past December. Some of them held signs decorated with phrases such as “Free them all!,” “Stop police torture!” and “Honk to free Gerald Reed.” As cars drove single file down 26th and California during the morning rush hour, many drivers did as they were told and honked at the protestors, who cheered loudly back at them. 

“We want Gerald’s freedom,” said Armanda Shackelford. She’s the mother of Gerald Reed, one of the many victims accusing former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and his notorious Midnight Crew of torturing them into false confessions.

“We don’t only want Gerald’s freedom,” Shackelford continued. “We want all the wrongfully convicted men and women, we want them all free.” More than 100 people were tortured by the Midnight Crew between the 1970s and 1990s.

Shackelford can’t even tell you how many times she’s been back and forth to the courthouse, fighting for her son’s freedom. Reed was 27 years old when police arrested and questioned him about the double murder of Willie Williams and Pamela Powers in 1990.

According to his mother, police beat Reed so badly that they dislodged a titanium metal rod in his right leg. Attorneys later discovered medical records documenting Reed’s complaints of pain and injuries from being kicked by Detectives Michael Kill and Victor Breska. Reed’s injuries went untreated for 26 years, Shackelford said. 

In December 2018, Reed got his first taste of freedom when Judge Thomas Gainer ordered a new trial for him based on his allegations of torture by Burge’s detectives. 

But freedom never came for Reed or his mother.

More than a year later, Reed, 56, is still incarcerated. A new judge, Thomas Hennelly, recently took over the case and it’s been going through a series of setbacks ever since — including the one that brought Shackelford back to court on Dec. 20, 2019: another court continuance.

“So why is he still in jail a year later? Why? We know why,” said Frank Chapman, a field organizer and co-chair for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Chapman spoke into a megaphone, leading protestors in the “Rally for Gerald Reed” before the day’s court proceeding. 

“Because this is a racist system,” Chapman said. “They won’t give us no justice, but we’re going to demand justice.”

And one of the first people on their list is Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

• • •

The activist community has had its eye on Mayor Lightfoot since her 2019 run for the office. Despite her past as both a federal prosecutor and the Chicago Police Board President, where she led a task force that noted CPD’s history of racial discrimination and published a report with remedies, Lightfoot didn’t want voters to write her off as a typical law-and-order candidate. 

While community organizers pointed out the time she sided with high-ranking officers in a case where investigators recommended firing an officer for lying about a fatal shooting they determined unjustified, Lightfoot focused her campaign on police reform and accountability, stressing the importance of doing so without destroying communities most affected by incarceration rates.

Since her win, Lightfoot has made some moves to suggest her seriousness about police accountability. In December, she fired Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson after he allegedly lied to her about why he had fallen asleep in his city-owned vehicle after a night of drinking with a woman in his security detail. 

Soon after, Lightfoot appointed retired Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck as interim superintendent, but the activist community disapproved of that choice. In an open letter to Chicago residents, Black Lives Matter — Los Angeles warned of Beck’s muddy past.

“Under Chief Beck, the Los Angeles Police Department became the most murderous police department in the nation with 45 officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths in 2017,” the letter begins. “It was Chief Beck who rolled out a predictive policing program that cast a wide net over mostly South and East Los Angeles neighborhoods — where we live — creating hot spots and enabling the heightened surveillance and criminalization of Black and Brown communities.”

Beck joined LAPD in 1987. During his tenure, he witnessed events including the 1992 riots after the Rodney King verdict and the Rampart corruption scandal, according to the LA Times. Beck was lauded for rehabilitating the LAPD’s Rampart Division and working to improve relations between police and South L.A. residents.

In a meeting with independent media outlets in December, Lightfoot acknowledged the legacy of Burge on CPD. “Keep in mind, Jon Burge was fired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993,” she said. “Granular point, most of the people who worked with him are long since retired. But the effects of what they did as a reality, but also psychologically, remain.”

Lightfoot pointed to the court-ordered consent decree and better training as an opportunity to change the culture of unlawful and racially discriminatory forces within CPD. 

“Fundamentally, why I’m excited about Charlie Beck being here is because he’s a leader that’s gone through a consent decree in Los Angeles,” Lightfoot added. “He brought violent crime down by 50% in Watts by working with the community and increased the homicide clearance rate to 80% by working with the community. You cannot get those kinds of numbers if you are not actively engaged in a respectful relationship with the community.”

For many activists and institutions such as the Chicago Justice Project, putting an end to CPD’s legacy of torture and abuse isn’t as simple as a consent decree or a change in leadership. 

It requires Lightfoot, city leadership and CPD to join together and recognize what Burge did and put mechanisms in place to reestablish trust in Chicago’s understandably wary Black community. 

“Within the department, I think, for the most part, they’re in mass denial,” said Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project. “I think the overwhelming number of officers think [torture] never happened. That it [was] a hoax.”

Because of this, Siska said, the police department and its officers cannot see the impact of Burge’s practices on the department or the communities affected by his brutality.

In the 2017, Johnson apologized to two torture victims during a news conference announcing a new Chicago Public Schools curriculum that would teach students about Burge. According to the Chicago Tribune, the curriculum was mandated as part of a $5.5 million reparations fund, approved by City Council. 

“I think most of these [minority] communities have a significant distrust of the police, the city and the media, and that’s at least in part due to, if not significantly due to Burge,” Siska said, “and nothing outside of transformative change in those communities — around their social conditions — is going to make a difference.”

Burge’s culture of brutal force even extends outside of CPD, according to Siska. Anytime there’s a surge of violence in Chicago, city leadership sees the addition of more officers as the solution to the problem. During former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure, he added thousands of new police officers to the department, which has about 12,000 employees. At the same time, his controversial proposal for a $95-million police training academy on the West Side slowly but surely passed through City Council in the last weeks of his second term. 

Lightfoot opposed Emanuel’s lack of transparency about the academy, but recently she’s gone on record to say that a best-in-class training facility will cost more than $95 million. 

“[CPD is] not a solution to any of the problems most of these communities are dealing with,” Siska said. “It’s about addressing the elimination of poverty. Everything flows from that.”

Because it’s been drummed into the public and media that more policing is the answer to crime, Siska said, city officials are able to get away with spending tax dollars on an inefficient police department. CPD’s budget in 2018 was $1.6 billion, and is expected to rise to $1.7 billion in the 2020 budget, reports CBS Chicago.  

“Even the underserved communities that you go into in Chicago, a percentage of those people want more cops because it’s been so drummed into them,” Siska said. “Englewood, North Lawndale or Austin, what they would really benefit from instead of more cops is $50 million or $100 million in investment, and building awesome schools, building day cares and building local businesses. That’s what will help those communities, that would get rid of the crime.”

As part of Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, according to her office, she is investing more than $750 million over the next three years in South and West side neighborhoods, including Englewood, North Lawndale and Austin.

• • •

After the “Rally for Gerald Reed,” Chapman and Shackelford led supporters into the courthouse. Once the court proceedings began, the bailiff pushed a wheelchair-bound Reed into the courtroom. No more than 10 or 15 minutes went by before the judge dismissed everyone for the day. Reed was rolled back to jail, and protestors made their way back downstairs, where a line of TV cameramen awaited comments from Shackelford about the case.

“I just want to wish everybody a happy holiday and I don’t feel like talking today,” Shackelford told them.

Chapman spoke for Shackelford, “All of this is very unique to Chicago. So, why is Gerald Reed still locked up?”

According to Chapman, Judge Hennelly is trying to make a decision on whether Reed’s 1990 murder confession will be used as evidence in the new trial, which will be pursued by special prosecutor Robert Milan. Reed’s attorneys have asked for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx to take over the case.

EDITED_Gerald Reed
Protestors rallying for the release of Gerald Green outside the Cook County Criminal Courts

“Lori Lightfoot should speak up for justice like anybody in this country who knows they torture people. We want more than apologies. We want actions to get these people out,” Chapman said. “By virtue of all of this, Gerald is still being tortured.”

On Reed’s 55th birthday, a day after Judge Gainor overturned his murder conviction, he experienced a heart attack in jail, Shackelford said. Today, he’s being treated for diabetes as well, Chapman said, “because the conditions in jail is not suitable for anybody.”

Essentially, Reed’s mother and supporters are looking for one of two things to happen:  Reed’s release from jail because his case is dismissed; or Reed to be bonded over until his new trial begins.

“This process of one legality after another is really delaying a decision that will either release Gerald or make him bondable,” Chapman said.

Although Burge retired from the Chicago Police Department in 1993, after years of torture allegations dating back to the 1970s, it’s within reason to believe that the legacy of Burge lives on within CPD and the city of Chicago even today. 

“How long does his era span? Well, there’s an argument to be made [that] it ended when he got fired,” Siska said. “There’s an argument to be made that it lives as long as the people that worked with him, as far as torturing people, stayed employed.”

One of the last detectives who served under Burge, Kenneth Boudreau, retired from CPD in 2014. Burge died in Florida in September 2018. He spent 4.5 years in prison after a 2010 conviction on obstruction of justice and perjury charges.

“You can say that it still spans now because those people [torture victims] are in prison,” Siska says.

Learn more about the Lens on Lightfoot project this Tuesday, Jan. 14, at TRiiBE Tuesday: Can Lori Lightfoot transform Chicago? RSVP here for free admission. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect comments from city leadership on Burge and investments on the South and West sides.