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‘Code of silence’ trial could put Mayor Emanuel on the stand

Speaking to the Chicago City Council in December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel admitted that a "code of silence" exists in the city's police department.

Speaking to the Chicago City Council in December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel admitted that a "code of silence" exists in the city's police department. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

When a pair of Chicago cops decided to sue their fellow officers nearly four years ago, it allegedly made the brass so angry that one plaintiff was warned to “wear her vest” so she wouldn’t be shot in the parking lot for crossing the thin blue line.

Their lawsuit spent years winding through the federal courts. Meanwhile, simmering mistrust of the Chicago Police Department boiled over last year. And that forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to admit to the City Council in December there is a “code of silence” at CPD.

Now the two officers’ lawsuit is finally set for trial Tuesday — and the confluence of events has opened the door to a potentially historic moment. U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman has ruled that Emanuel may be called to testify about his “code of silence” remarks at the civil trial.

“Here, the case itself is about the ‘code of silence,’” Feinerman said.

That ruling has already forced City Hall to reverse decades of denials about such a code, acknowledging in Feinerman’s federal courtroom this month that some Chicago police officers follow an unwritten rule to turn a blind eye to other officers’ wrongdoing. City lawyers made the concession in an unsuccessful bid to keep Emanuel off the stand.

Court watchers have predicted the case will be settled before a trial commences. Not only has the judge refused to change his mind about Emanuel’s testimony, but lawyers also want to bring up at trial the botched investigation into the 2004 death of David Koschman. Cmdr. Joseph Salemme, a defendant in the lawsuit, played a role in the Koschman case.

Koschman died after he was punched by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew, Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko.

Despite the predictions, no settlement had been announced as of Monday evening, and the trial remained on Feinerman’s calendar. Meanwhile, other lawyers have already begun filing motions to incorporate Emanuel’s testimony into separate cases at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse — without knowing what the mayor would say.

Emanuel may simply be asked to testify by video even if the case goes forward. Lawyers for the officers suing the city and their fellow officers have refused to comment. So did the mayor, when pressed by reporters last week.

“Not given what’s going on,” Emanuel said. “You know that would be wrong.”

Officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria allege their superiors told them in 2007 to ignore evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Sgt. Ronald Watts. Instead, on personal time, they said they reported it to the FBI.

What the officers thought would end with a simple meeting eventually turned into “Operation Brass Tax.” And while they tried to limit their involvement in the investigation to personal time, it became so time-consuming that the officers were forced to tell CPD’s internal affairs. As a result, they were formally detailed to the FBI.

Crooked Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts is shown at the federal courthouse in 2013. | Sun-Times file photo

Crooked Chicago Police Sgt. Ronald Watts is shown at the federal courthouse in 2013. | Sun-Times file photo

Spalding and Echeverria spent two years working exclusively on the Watts investigation. Watts was sentenced in October 2013 to 22 months in prison for shaking down drug dealers. His co-defendant, Officer Kallatt Mohammed, was sentenced to 18 months for helping.

But lawyers for the two officers say Internal Affairs Chief Juan Rivera blew their cover. Spalding and Echeverria were branded “rat motherf——” and told that their bosses didn’t want them in their units. They were allegedly told their careers were over.

Cmdr. James O’Grady allegedly told another officer, “God help them if they ever need help on the street, it ain’t coming.” Sgt. Maurice Barnes allegedly told Spalding not to expect backup, and he added, “I don’t want to tell your daughter you’re coming home in a box because the team won’t help you on the street.” Salemme allegedly told the pair, “you brought this baggage on yourselves . . . if you go against sworn personnel you know this will happen.”

Things got worse after the officers filed their lawsuit in 2012, their lawyers say. Once, as they prepared to arrest a violent and dangerous felon, they said they were promised backup. But when they arrived for the arrest, they allegedly received a simple text to “be careful.”

One officer allegedly told Spalding a criminal investigation of her in 2013 would “go away” if she simply dropped her lawsuit.

And finally, Sgt. Thomas Mills allegedly warned Spalding she should “wear her vest” because of the animosity her lawsuit had caused, according to a court filing.

Mills allegedly told Spalding that, “O’Grady hated her so much, he could shoot her across the parking lot while she was walking to her car.”