Fed judge: Emanuel may be called to testify about code of silence

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel is headed west for his family Thanksgiving. | Sun-Times file photo

A federal judge put City Hall in a pickle Wednesday, ruling that Mayor Rahm Emanuel may be called to testify during a civil trial about the Chicago Police Department’s notorious code of silence.

But U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman said he reluctantly made the ruling only because city lawyers turned agnostic in court on the question of whether such a code exists — promising not to deny it when a whistleblower lawsuit goes to trial, but refusing to confirm it. Meanwhile, Emanuel has already acknowledged the code in a speech to the City Council last December.

Under those circumstances, Feinerman ruled that Emanuel may be called to testify — perhaps simply by video — and elaborate on those comments to the council. While the judge entertained the notion of simply introducing the mayor’s City Council comments to a jury, lawyers for a pair of officers suing the city noted that Chicago lawyers might try to explain the comments away.

“Their boss, the city’s chief executive officer, has stated in public that there is a code of silence,” Feinerman said.

A spokesman for the city’s law department and lawyers for the officers suing the city, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, declined to comment.

In his speech to the City Council, 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.”

The judge seemed to suggest his ruling could change if the city changes its position before the May 31 trial. However, that might force City Hall to acknowledge the code of silence in federal court.

Feinerman said he is “very reluctant to impinge on the time of the mayor of the third-largest city in the United States.” He also noted that Emanuel likely made his comments in an effort to try to repair the situation at CPD, so the judge said his ruling proved the adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

“Now I’m saying, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. Mayor. Now you get to come testify in this case.’ ”

During a daylong pretrial conference in Feinerman’s courtroom, the judge also ruled jurors may hear the words “code of silence” during the trial. City lawyers had sought to bar the phrase and similar euphemisms.

“The case itself is about the code of silence,” Feinerman said.

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 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.”

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.

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