Chicago needs top cop to confront the code of silence, not downplay it

Interim chief Charlie Beck’s recent comments ignore the police department’s history of high-level coverups, a reality the new superintendent will have to reckon with.

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Photo by Olivia Obineme

Former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charles Beck (right) was named interim superintendent of the Chicago Police Department by Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Nov. 8, 2019.

Interim Chicago Police Superintendent Charlie Beck said some helpful things in his speech to the City Club on Monday. He announced plans to significantly step up funding for street outreach workers who can interrupt cycles of gun violence. Those groups have clashed with police in the past, since they develop confidential relationships with individuals who are being targeted by law enforcement. He said he would expand a pilot program for district coordination officers that has gotten positive attention as a model for community policing. 

He also condemned stop-and-frisk practices — strongly defended by his two predecessors — as counterproductive to building trust between police and communities.

But one comment Beck made was disappointing, and as the city searches for a new superintendent who may be another outsider, it’s worth reviewing why. While acknowledging the existence of a code of silence in the Chicago Police Department, Beck insisted the “vast majority of police officers don’t participate in it.”

First of all, just on the basis of simple logic, if only a few officers participate in it, it’s not much of a code. 

Beyond that, there’s lots of evidence of a pervasive, department-wide code, in which officers who may not be directly involved in misconduct look the other way. And there’s plenty of evidence that this practice reaches into the top levels of the department.

Take the two biggest police scandals in recent history — the Burge torture ring and the murder of Laquan McDonald. Both were exposed by whistleblowers inside the department who to this day have remained anonymous. We should be celebrating them as heroes. But we don’t know who they are. 

That would seem to indicate that these two individuals understand that it might not be good for their careers, and possibly for their health, to publicly call out even the most egregious abuse.

In the case of former Cmdr. Jon Burge, he and his detectives were credibly accused of torturing confessions out of more than 100 men over a two-decade period. As John Conroy described in his initial, groundbreaking Chicago Reader article on Burge — headlined “House of Screams” — torture victims yelled in pain as they were being beaten, suffocated, and shocked. But no one in the department reported Burge; no one ever stopped him. 

In 1989, an anonymous source inside Area 2, where Burge headed the violent crimes unit, began sending attorneys from the People’s Law Office information about a broad pattern of torture. One person in the department broke the code of silence. No one else did.

The code apparently extended to the state’s attorney’s office, then headed by Richard M. Daley. Daley got a letter from the police superintendent forwarding information from Cook County Jail’s chief doctor about injuries sustained by a Burge victim and calling for an investigation. Daley ignored it, later testifying that he didn’t remember getting the letter.

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In Laquan McDonald’s case, top brass from CPD, including Superintendent Garry McCarthy and his successor, then-Deputy Chief Eddie Johnson, viewed the video of the shooting. The group concluded the shooting was justified. Four years later a jury disagreed, finding Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder.

It was an anonymous law enforcement source who first contacted attorney Craig Futterman and journalist Jamie Kalven to say the official narrative around McDonald’s death was contradicted by a video. Without that call, we might never have known the truth of what happened — and CPD might not have been investigated by the Justice Department and forced to enter into a consent decree mandating systematic reform. Recall that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s law department reached a settlement with McDonald’s family — before they even filed a lawsuit — that required keeping the video secret.

When he was appointed superintendent by Emanuel, Johnson famously stated that he had never personally witnessed police misconduct.

Subsequent reporting by the Intercept revealed that Johnson had personally overseen a coverup in the killing of Rekia Boyd that was strikingly similar to the McDonald case. As incident commander on the scene, Johnson asked prosecutors to charge Boyd’s friend, Antonio Cross, with felony assault, backing up Detective Dante Servin’s story that he had fired after Cross pointed a gun at him — even though no gun was found at the scene. In his incident report, Johnson wrote that Servin “fired his weapon at the offender after the offender pointed a firearm at Officer Servin.”

According to the Intercept, as 6th District commander, Johnson “repeatedly approved police shootings or ignored allegations of excessive force over his years as a supervisor, consistently finding that they did not qualify as misconduct.” Johnson also appointed Lieutenant Glenn Evans — who had the largest number of excessive force complaints on CPD in the two decades up to 2008, and who had been disciplined in a domestic violence complaint — to head the district’s tactical team.

There’s also the remarkable saga of Sgt. Ronald Watts, reported by Kalven in the Intercept. Watts and his crew ran an extortion racket within CPD for years with no real interference. When two officers, Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, began a serious investigation, they encountered resistance, intimidation, and retaliation from high-ranking department officials, including their supervisors and department heads — even including the head of the department’s division of internal affairs.

Once again, the code of silence extended far beyond individual cops covering up for their partners, to the top ranks of the department. Shannon and Echeverria filed a whistleblower suit and won a $2 million settlement in 2016. 

Department officials accused in the lawsuit consistently denied the whistleblowers’ account or couldn’t recall incidents – all except one retired officer, who said that her department head told administrative staff that Shannon and Echeverria were Internal Affairs “rats” and were not to be given backup. It’s the exception that proves the rule.

Against all this evidence, it would be great to see some signs of a new culture of accountability in the police department. I haven’t seen any yet.

But the first step, certainly, is to stop minimizing the problem. Indeed, minimizing the problem risks contributing to the code of silence.