Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria address reporters in the lobby of the federal courthouse after announcing they had settled their “code of
silence” lawsuit against the city for $2 million. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

Ending silence on ‘code of silence’ could be costly for city

SHARE Ending silence on ‘code of silence’ could be costly for city
SHARE Ending silence on ‘code of silence’ could be costly for city

In Chicago, the first rule of the code of silence used to be: You don’t talk about the code of silence.

In dozens of lawsuits over the decades, lawyers for the city of Chicago denied any practice among Chicago Police officers and supervisors to cover up wrongdoing by fellow cops. But as police misconduct scandals came to a head late last year — with the release of video of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald touching off protests across the city — Mayor Rahm Emanuel made an unprecedented admission: The code of silence exists.

Acknowledging the unwritten code served a political purpose for the embattled Emanuel — and was the right thing to do, according to police accountability experts — but it could come at a cost to taxpayers who have already shelled out more than $500 million in police misconduct cases over the last decade.

On Tuesday, as a trial was set to begin in a lawsuit alleging two CPD officers saw their careers derailed after their fellow officers turned on them for outing corrupt cops to the FBI, city lawyers announced a $2 million settlement to end the case.

Officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria filed their lawsuit four years ago, but city attorney Steven Patton said settlement talks had stalled until little more than a week ago. The renewed discussions came after the federal judge overseeing the case ruled that Emanuel could be put on the witness stand to explain his remarks about the code of silence he made to the City Council in December and repeated in subsequent weeks as he has tried to address reforming the CPD.

Also trouble for the city: A ruling that jurors also could see sections of an April report released by a task force appointed by Emanuel that condemned a pervasive culture of silence in the department.

RELATED STORY: City, whistleblowers settle lawsuit; Rahm won’t have to testify

Asked Tuesday whether the payout was made to deal with another political expediency — the prospect of having to answer questions about police corruption while under oath — Emanuel said no.

“It wasn’t about me. It was about this case. It was not about my position on the code of silence because I couldn’t have been clearer. . . . When I spoke to the City Council, I spoke for the first time as any mayor and gave voice to what people were saying in hushed tones. Nobody could miss what I said to the City Council,” Emanuel told reporters at a press conference at Amundsen High School.

Emanuel said he had no regrets about becoming the first mayor in history to acknowledge that a code of silence exists in the Chicago Police Department.

“I wanted to be clear about the issue of the code of silence because, if you’re not upfront about it, you can’t actually fix what needs to be fixed so there is no room, no zone that can be comforted,” he said.

“Which is why in the next couple of weeks, the City Council will begin to work on the complete re-do of our oversight and accountability to make sure there is no quarter for any improper activities or any area where officers feel it’s OK or permissible to basically cover up,” Emanuel said.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, speaking Tuesday at the City Club of Chicago, was asked if a “code of silence” exists among cops and what he would do about it.

Johnson didn’t respond directly, but said: “I think that when people have common goals, sometimes folks that are doing inappropriate things exploit that common goal. … They use it to hide certain things they are doing.”

He added: “Any type of inappropriate behavior or misconduct just simply can’t be tolerated.”

“Right now, I have started working on a policy to make it easier for officers to report misconduct or inappropriate behavior,” Johnson said.

“The second piece of that policy is going to be, if someone is found to be intentionally harassing an officer because they reported misconduct or inappropriate behavior, there’s going to be a severe penalty for that,” he said.

“We want officers to report misconduct or inappropriate behavior, but we don’t want them to be ostracized by their colleagues,” Johnson said.

He would not discuss specifics of the new system for officers to report misconduct, saying his Internal Affairs Bureau is still designing it. But he said he thinks a 30-day suspension would be an appropriate punishment for harassing a whistleblowing officer.

Police accountability experts — and the mayor’s own task force — say that a code of silence enables police misconduct to fester and become pervasive: If officers can commit wrongdoing knowing that their peers’ silence protects them, why should officers fear punishment for crimes?

But historically, city lawyers have tried to bar discussion of the “code of silence” in police misconduct cases. In 2012, the city agreed not to challenge the $850,000 payout awarded to bartender Karolina Obrycka — who was pummeled by CPD Officer Anthony Abbate — but only after Obrycka agreed to back the city’s bid to overturn the verdict, in which the jury found that Abbate’s misconduct was enabled by the code of silence.

Last April, as Emanuel faced off against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in a runoff election, the city negotiated to pay $5 million to Laquan McDonald’s family. The teen’s surviving relatives had yet to file a lawsuit, but their lawyers had copies of a dashcam video showing McDonald hit with 16 shots fired by CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke. The council approved the payout a week after Emanuel bested Garcia, a move some suspected had been timed to keep the video under wraps ahead of the election.

Civil rights lawyers long have noticed the Law Department is more willing to settle cases when Chicago’s chief executives are in danger of being subpoenaed as witnesses. Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was nearly called to testify or give depositions in numerous police misconduct cases, but he never wound up making statements under oath, as cases settled.

Three years ago, Emanuel agreed to spend $12.3 million to compensate two exonerated inmates who claim they were tortured into false confessions by convicted former Area 2 Cmdr. Jon Burge, keeping Daley off the hot seat.

It marked the third time that cases settled by Emanuel had spared Daley from answering questions under oath about allegations that — as state’s attorney and as mayor — he failed to investigate police torture allegations against Burge and participated in a conspiracy to cover it up.

The whistleblower case allegations and the Burge torture cases, Emanuel said, pre-dated his administration.

“But, we’re gonna be up-front about it and then, we’re gonna make the reforms necessary to actually deal with it and root it out — root and all,” the mayor said.

In January, cash-strapped Chicago doled out $5.5 million in reparations to 57 victims of the Jon Burge police torture era after a painstaking claims process did nothing to heal the wounds of more recent police shootings.

Still, last month, city lawyers had tried to keep lawyers for Spalding and Echeverria from being able to use the words “code of silence” in front of the jury, and they also tried to bar any reference to the federal investigation of the CPD that began after the McDonald case became a crisis. At a hearing two weeks ago, in a bid to keep Emanuel off the stand, city lawyers offered to concede that the code of silence existed in a written stipulation, the first written acknowledgment of the code of silence.

On Tuesday, Patton said that the city had applied the same calculus to deciding whether to settle the case that it applies to all litigation: How likely is a loss at trial, and how much could the judgment cost? The city litigated the case for four years, but opted to settle last week, Patton said, because Spalding and Echeverria reached out to the city after the ruling on Emanuel’s testimony.

Despite winning a favorable ruling from the judge, who also said jurors also could see sections of a damning report by Emanuel’s Police Accountability Task Force, Spalding and Echeverria apparently were willing to cut a deal for substantially less than the $8.2 million they had been looking for, Patton said.

Jeffrey Taren, lawyer for the officers, declined to discuss the negotiations.

“They can spin it any way they want,” Taren said. “I’m not privy to the decision-making process for the city. That’s up to Steve and the mayor. This case was going to go forward, and successfully, with or without the mayor’s statements. What [the city’s] calculus was, I don’t know.”

Civil rights lawyer David Shapiro said on Tuesday that Emanuel’s decision to talk publicly about the code, and to formally acknowledge its existence, is likely going to make it harder to defend police misconduct cases.

“I don’t think it helps the city as a litigation strategy, but I think that it had gotten to the point where the existence of a code of silence was undeniable,” Shapiro said. “Ultimately, the only solution to the money the city is bleeding as a result of the code of silence is to actually address the code of silence, and to stop the policy of ‘deny and pay.’ An acknowledgement that the code exists is indispensible to solving it. . . . Pretending the problem isn’t there hasn’t worked as a strategy either.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Patton seemed to agree.

“Acknowledging that there is a code of silence is a necessary critical first step to that longer-term reduction in litigation, a reduction in exposure, and a reduction in settlement or jury verdict payments,” he said.

Contributing: Frank Main

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