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City wants silence on ‘code of silence’ in CPD whistleblower case

There is no "code of silence," says a letter writer — only fear. | File photo

When a pair of Chicago Police officers try to make the case that they were ostracized for reporting wrongdoing by fellow cops, city lawyers don’t want jurors to hear the words “code of silence” uttered in the courtroom.

Officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department in 2012, well before Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged the existence of a “code of silence” in the department in a speech to the City Council in December 2015, after protests erupted across the city after the release of the video of Laquan McDonald being fatally shot by a Chicago police officer.

When the case moves to trial on May 31 in federal court, lawyers for the city want U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman to ban any reference to the mayor’s remarks, as well as the words “code of silence” and another euphemism used in Emanuel’s speech, “thin blue line,” and the phrase “blue veil.” They also don’t want to hear Emanuel repeat his comments on the witness stand. City lawyers have fought a motion to force the mayor to testify in the case.

City lawyers want to bar any reference to other fallout of the McDonald shooting. A mayoral task force report that found officers’ willingness to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing by fellow cops is “an unfortunate element of police culture, past and present,” and a federal investigation of the department was launched in December.

“The sole purpose for the introduction of this testimony is to invoke images in the minds of jurors that officers run amok to protect their own like they have seen in many movies,” city attorney Alan King wrote in one of more than a dozen motions filed last month, seeking to bar different pieces of evidence. “The jury’s decision, however, must be based upon facts, not the speculation or rumination of witnesses regarding the general nature of police officers.”

King and a spokesman for the city Law Department declined to comment on the code of silence, citing the pending litigation.

Spalding and Echeverria sued the city and a dozen police officers, alleging conspiracy and violations of the Illinois Whistleblower Act. Spalding and Echeverria seek at least $500,000 each for loss of income and benefits, loss of earnings potential and emotional distress.

In his speech to the City Council in December, Emanuel said: “This problem is sometimes referred to as the thin blue line. Other times it is referred to as the code of silence. It is the tendency to ignore, deny or in some cases cover-up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”

Litigants have tried many times to prove the existence of an unspoken Chicago Police Department directive on officers turning in fellow officers, often with some success, Northwestern Law School professor Locke Bowman said, noting that city officials have until recently denied a “code of silence” exists.

The lawsuit by Spalding and Echeverria is the first to come to trial since Emanuel and other city officials have admitted the existence of the code, Bowman said.

“It’s notoriously difficult to prove because it’s a code of silence — I mean, that’s the whole point of the code, that you don’t talk about it or any wrongdoing,” Bowman said. “That’s why the mayor’s comments are so significant and why this issue is being so hotly debated in this case now.”

Spalding and Echeverria’s case is an especially rare instance in which Chicago Police officers are claiming that the code exists, and that they were punished for crossing their fellow officers by reporting wrongdoing.

In 2007, the two officers reported that Sgt. Ronald Watts was stealing cash from drug dealers, going first to their supervisors and then to the FBI. Spalding and Echeverria helped federal investigators build a case against Watts and Officer Kallatt Mohammed, both of whom pleaded guilty to charges.

But Spalding and Echeverria claim in a lawsuit they were branded as “rats” by their superiors when they returned to their regular jobs and were put on night shifts and details where they spent entire shifts in a windowless room without a phone or radio. Fellow officers told them police commanders had warned them not to respond if Spalding or Echeverria called for backup.

After Spalding was transferred to a fugitive apprehension unit, she said her supervisor told her the team didn’t like her and Echeverria and wouldn’t back them up.

“I’d hate to one of these days have to be the one to knock on your door and tell your daughter you’re coming home in a box,” he told her, Spalding said in a deposition. “That’s how serious it is.”