Reckoning with Police Violence

The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence, by Laurence Ralph (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

Reviewed by James Perez, Colorado Mesa University

The Torture Letters, by Laurence Ralph, explores the use of torture by the Chicago Police Department. The text is not simply a historical account or micro-study of the various kinds of torture used specifically at one police station (Area 2, located on 91st Street and Cottage Grove). Rather, Ralph draws on focus groups with Chicagoans from various backgrounds, including those who have endured police torture themselves. He uses a three-prong methodology that is participant-focused, which he calls ethnographic lettering. Ethnographic lettering, he writes, treats subjects as interlocutors, includes exchanges with them in the text, and positions the book’s audience as the addressee of his interlocutors’ own speech and communicative goals (p. 216). From these interactions the author composes a series of inclusive “letters,” and each of the six sections begin by addressing a particular audience. 

The introduction addresses potential politicians in the city, such as future mayors of Chicago. Ralph uses the analogy of a tree (something he calls The Torture Tree) to clarify how torture is situated in society. This torture tree is rooted by a collective fear; the trunk is the police use-of-force continuum (a set of guidelines used by officers when encountering situations); the branches are the police officers; and the leaves are every incident of police force (p. 12). Part I, The Black Box, addresses Chicago’s youth of color. While a black box is commonly linked to airplane accidents, in this context it refers to a torture device used by the Chicago Police Department that delivers electric shocks to a suspect (p. 41). The Black Box also functions as a metaphor that locks up the open secret of torture and racism against the “black” body in Chicago.  Part II, The B-Team, addresses Chicagoans of color who are, or were, in positions of power. The title of this section is taken from the popular 1980s television series, The A-Team. The latter term is used by Ralph to refer to white Chicago officers, while the B-Team refers to Chicago officers of color (p. 88). Ralph posits that the A-Team is given important “hot” cases to solve while the B-Team is only given less important cold cases. This, ultimately, leads to implicit consent: the B-Team stays silent about torture for fear of losing their jobs.

Part III, Charging Genocide, addresses those who were victims of police torture or had loved ones who were victims. The section examines the organization We Charge Genocide, started in the 1950s to campaign against the torture of blacks by police (p. 102). Ongoing issues with prisons and how the incarcerated are treated are both discussed. Part IV, Bad Guys, addresses the variety of audiences already engaged in the book: future politicians of Chicago, youth of color in Chicago, and also a terrorist suspect who was detained at Guantanamo Bay. The torture found in the Chicago Police Department is not simply a concern localized within the city; police torture is a transnational concern (p. 144).

However, Ralph finds deep connections that link even his far-flung examples back to Chicago.  Thus, he discusses a man named Slahi who was tortured at Guantanamo Bay by a military officer who served on the Chicago police force and received his interrogation training at the Chicago Police Department.  Ralph further argues the police have become “militarized” in their interrogation practices (p. 177).

Finally, the Epilogue addresses the reader directly. Although The Torture Letters is difficult to read at times, as it details acts of torture within the Chicago Police Department, this final section arrives at a message of hope despite all that has preceded it. The reader cannot undo the impression left by the evidence of torture contained in the various letters that comprise this book.  Indeed, Ralph insists that ignorance is no excuse for remaining silent about torture (p. 210). The central question he raises, rather is whether anyone, regardless of how heinous his or her crimes, could ever deserve to be tortured (p. 56). Certainly, a constitutional right exists to not be subjected to “cruel” punishment, but the moral question is left for the reader to decide after exposure to the series of letters.

The Black Box and The Torture Tree, Ralph writes, have the potential to be repositioned and, ultimately, serve those who want to advocate for people who suffered police torture. These two artifacts are living and organic in that they are developed and employed by people; civilians have the ability to appropriate the Black Box to expose torture and the Torture Tree can symbolize a shading, or shielding, from torture (p. 211). Although Ralph does not necessarily push the reader to come to a definite conclusion, it is clear there is a message of transparency at stake here: those who commit torture should be held accountable for their actions. Open communication between institutions, such as the police department, and the public should be a right and not a luxury. It is only through this kind of dialogic action that a bridge of trust can be established and fear can be dismantled.