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City admits ‘code of silence,’ but Rahm may still have to testify

Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he announced that he is appointing Eddie Johnson, the current Chief of Patrol, as the interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department at CPD Headquarters in March. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In an about-face, City Hall lawyers acknowledged in federal court Friday that Chicago police observe a “code of silence,” the first time city attorneys have conceded that officers cover up misconduct by fellow cops.

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. But in recent months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has acknowledged the code in public statements as he has tried to tamp down public furor over high-profile police shootings and embrace reform of his troubled police force.

Emanuel may have to repeat — and explain — those remarks on the witness stand in a whistleblower lawsuit, in which two Chicago Police officers claim fellow officers punished them for breaking the code when they tipped off federal investigators about corruption in the Narcotics Unit nearly a decade ago.

Despite the mayor’s public acknowledgement of the “thin blue line” of silence that cops dare not cross, lawyers for the city as recently as Wednesday tried to bar lawyers for the two officers from even using the words “code of silence” in front of a jury.

In a bid Friday to keep Emanuel off the stand, city lawyers reversed course and took what legal observers called a historic move: formally admitting the code exists — but that the 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 case, and the mayor 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 Lynn Taren, a lawyer for police whistleblowers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria.

City attorneys argued the statement was a “full-throated” acknowledgement that the code of silence plagues the CPD, and that jurors don’t need to hear about the problem from Emanuel. But the move went nowhere, as attorneys for the two Chicago cops said the statement by city attorneys was too narrow and still want the mayor to take the witness stand. The case is set for trial starting May 31.

Taren said he also wants to ask Emanuel about a damning report on the Chicago Police Department issued by a mayoral task force last month — and to ask whether the mayor agrees with the findings.

Mayoral spokesman Adam Collins on Friday said the mayor stands by his statements, but doesn’t need to explain them to a jury.

“In December the Mayor finally put voice to something we all know to be true,” Collins wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times. “He stands by what he said then, and what he’s said since, but we don’t believe he can offer anything further of substance in this case.”

Emanuel made mention of the code of silence in a December speech to the City Council in which he pledged to reform the department, and in numerous subsequent public statements.

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

Emanuel’s mea culpa was a response to outrage that erupted after the city released video of CPD officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2012, a case in which Chicago Police Department investigators and the civilian Independent Police Review Authority both endorsed a version of events offered by officers that clearly appeared to be contradicted by the videotape.

Echeverria and Spalding sued the city and police department in 2012, claiming that high-ranking officers branded them as “rats” after they 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 — even after they claim one of their bosses outed them to Watts.

Both Watts and Mohammed pleaded guilty to charges, but when Spalding and Echeverria returned to their regular jobs with the department, they claim they were punished by their superiors for breaking the code of silence. The pair were assigned to night shifts and details in which 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.

Civil rights lawyer Flint Taylor has spent decades trying to prove the code of silence exists in numerous lawsuits against the CPD, over denials from high-ranking cops and city officials. Even though the city’s attempt to make a formal admission the code exists wasn’t accepted by the judge, Emanuel’s public statements will remain a “major weapon” for lawsuits against the city, said Taylor, who predicted Spalding and Echeverria are about to get a very generous settlement offer.

“I know I had Mayor Daley on the verge of having to testify or give depositions two or three times, and then we’d get a settlement offer we couldn’t turn down,” Taylor said Friday, referring to lawsuits he filed against the city when Richard M. Daley was in office. “I’m sure they really don’t want Rahm to hit the stand.”

One legal observer agreed, forecasting that Emanuel’s admissions could cost the city tens of millions of dollars at a time when Chicago taxpayers have already spent more than $500 million to settle those cases over the last decade.

“The plaintiffs’ bar is going to have a field day. It’s going to be very difficult for the city to ever defend these cases,” the source said.

Another source said Emanuel should have thought long and hard about the liability he was creating for Chicago taxpayers before publicly acknowledging the code of silence.

“It was stupid. He tried to solve a political problem without looking down the road about what the implications are for the city,” the source said.

“There is no way lawyers ever vetted that speech before he gave it. If they had, they would have told him, ‘Don’t say that. You’ll be called to testify if you do. And you’ll be costing the city money.’”

University of Chicago law school professor Craig Futterman, a police accountability expert who also has sued the city said that recognizing the existence of the code of silence could save the city money in the long run — if the city takes concrete steps to stamp out the code.

“They’ve already paid out millions because they have a system that lets the few bad officers run around willy-nilly,” Futterman said. “Admitting there’s a code of silence gives you a defense against lawsuits in the future, if you can say ‘there was a code of silence, and we did something about it.’”

Contributing: Mark Brown

Proposed stipulation by city on CPD