EDITORIAL: Chicago’s fight against the blue code of silence must go on
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We thought Thursday’s verdict in the case of three Chicago cops charged with conspiracy and obstructing justice might strike a blow against the blue code of silence.
It did not.
Instead, Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson acquitted all three cops on trial — Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney and former officers Joseph Walsh and David March — of filing false police reports about the controversial 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald.
“Two people, with two different vantage points, can witness the same event, but describe it differently,” the judge said. “This does not necessarily mean that one of them is lying.”
So be it.
Plenty of Chicagoans, including this editorial page, will continue to be outraged by the transparent falsehoods in the three cops’ reports. That there was a decision to see no evil — conspiracy or not — is undeniable.
But there also is no doubt the prosecutor’s case had major weaknesses.
The prosecution’s star witness, Dora Fontaine, had changed her story more than once. Another witness was less than accurate. He was never, to begin with — and as video showed — as close to the events he witnessed as he claimed.
The prosecution had no stronger witness, nobody else willing to break the code of silence.
And, for that matter, nobody could put all three defendants in the same room at the same time, making the charge of conspiracy much more difficult to prove.
“The state has failed to meet its burden on all charges,” the judge ruled.
Where, then, does Chicago go from here?
We must continue to acknowledge that the code of silence is very real and keep calling it out. We must fight it.
In a speech in 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged that the code — the refusal of one cop to hold another cop accountable — is no cop-hating fantasy. That speech was a big deal — a mayor finally admitting to the code of silence — but it should not have been. Every Chicago mayor going to 1837, you can be sure, has known the truth of it.
Then in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice, having completed an investigation of the culture and practices of the Chicago Police Department, concluded that the code of silence was making it damn hard for the city to hold rogue cops accountable.
When cops back up cops even when they shouldn’t, good policing suffers, truth dies and innocent people pay the price.
Whole neighborhoods become deeply distrustful of every man and woman in blue.
Thursday’s verdict continues a troubling trend of Cook County judges acquitting cops in bench verdicts. It also presents the paradox of McDonald being portrayed as an immediate physical danger to the police in one courtroom — falsely but successfully — even as he was portrayed as a victim of police violence — the real truth of the matter — in another.
On Friday, Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was was convicted in October of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm in the shooting of McDonald, is scheduled to be sentenced.
For those who shake their heads at Thursday’s ruling, by the way, it should come as no surprise that now-retired Lt. Anthony T. Wojcik, whose name frequently came up in the trial, had filed a false police report in the past.
In the McDonald case, Wojcik had exchanged emails during the investigation that included misrepresentations of witness statements and what was on the police dashcam video. Wojcik and Sgt. Daniel Gallagher, who were March’s supervisors, closed out the investigation and cleared Van Dyke.
Records obtained by the Sun-Times show that in 1988, Wojcik and his then-partner signed a false police report saying they found a found a rifle in a park near a trash can. Unknown to them, FBI agents had seen them meet a man who handed over the rifle. According to a CPD Internal Affairs Division report, Wojcik and his partner admitted filing the false report, and said they did so to hide the identity of a confidential informant.
We can understand police may want to protect the identify of an informant, but lying on official reports is inexcusable. And, perhaps, a bad habit.
Nonetheless, CPD put Wojcik in a position of trust to ensure that the reports filed in the McDonald shooting were trustworthy.
At minimum, disciplinary action must be taken against anyone still working for the police department who was involved in the creation and acceptance of such shoddy, factually flawed reports.
And Gaffney, the only one of the three defendants still on the force, should be fired.
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