Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday met questions about the Chicago Police Department’s code of silence with a wall of silence.
Emanuel wouldn’t touch the subject with a 10-foot poll. Not after a federal judge demanded his unprecedented testimony even after city attorneys tried to keep him off the stand by acknowledging in federal court that police officers observe a “code of silence” to cover up misconduct by fellow cops.
After an unrelated appearance at a West Side park, Emanuel was asked whether he had hard evidence of a police code of silence before becoming the first mayor ever to admit that such a cover-up code exists.
The mayor was also asked whether he had cleared the historic speech he delivered to the City Council in December with any attorney who might have warned him about the liability he might be creating for Chicago taxpayers in pending and future cases involving excessive force and police wrongdoing.
“And you think now I’m gonna answer that question? You get a do-over because I’m not taking that question. Why don’t you think about it,” Emanuel told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.
The mayor was asked again whether he had hard evidence of a code of silence or whether his statement was more anecdotal. Again, he wouldn’t bite.
“Not given what’s going on. You know that would be wrong. You get a do-over because I expect more out of you,” Emanuel said.
In dozens of police lawsuits across the decades, lawyers for the city have denied the existence of even an unwritten code among CPD officers that dictates Chicago cops turn a blind eye to abuses by their fellow officers.
In December, Emanuel pulled the rug out from under the city’s legal argument. In an emotional address to the City Council and in numerous appearances since then, the mayor acknowledged the code as he has tried to tamp down public furor over his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Last week, City Hall lawyers gave up the ghost in a last-ditch effort to keep the mayor of Chicago off the stand in a 2012 whistleblower lawsuit filed by two police officers who sued the city after helping federal investigators convict two cops of stealing money from drug dealers.
For the first time in the city’s history, city lawyers acknowledged in court that a code of silence does exist even though police coverups are “not pervasive, widespread, and well-settled custom or practice to which the city’s chief policy-makers have been indifferent.”
The city’s statement didn’t go far enough for U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman, who’s overseeing the whistleblower case. That means Emanuel may still have to take the stand when the case heads to trial in two weeks.
“We believe the mayor’s statements will allow [jurors] to conclude the chief executive officer of the city knows this is a culture that permeated the Chicago Police Department and not just a few outliers,” said Jeffrey Taren, a lawyer for police whistleblowers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria.
After Spalding and Echeverria returned to their jobs, they claim they were punished by their superiors, including being assigned to night shifts and spending entire shifts in a windowless room. Fellow officers told them police commanders had warned them not to respond if Spalding or Echeverria called for backup.
Legal observers have argued that Emanuel’s admissions could cost the city tens of millions of dollars at a time when Chicago taxpayers have already spent $500 million to settle police abuse cases over the last decade.
They have accused the mayor of trying to solve a “political problem” without weighing the legal and financial implications for the city.
Also on Tuesday, Emanuel touted his new deal to save the smallest of Chicago’s four city employee pension funds as a “model” for other unions to follow.
The mayor refused to identify a funding source to save the Municipal Employees Pension Fund now that he’s using a 56 percent increase in Chicago’s telephone tax to save the Laborers Pension fund alone.
But he acknowledged that another tax increase would be necessary.
Other City Hall sources have said a second telephone tax hike in two years is a possibility. There’s room to grow without approval from Springfield, since Chicago is legally allowed to raise its phone tax rate to the highest in the state but hasn’t done that yet.
Emanuel also held open the possibility of traveling to Springfield in the frenzied final days of the spring session to lobby for a change in the state school aid formula to help the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public School system.
But if not, the mayor said there’s always FaceTime.