The Police Code of Silence: What Will Mayor Emanuel Do?

By Flint Taylor, Civil Rights Attorney at People’s Law Office
Also Appears on Huffington Post

 When an all-white federal jury found that Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate was acting pursuant to a widespread and persistent police code of silence when he brutally beat a diminutive female bartender, it sent a message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his police superintendent, and the city’s corporation counsel that fundamental and systemic reform, from the top down, is required in order to change the police culture that has made the police code of silence a Chicago institution.

The overwhelming record of extreme brutality, unfailingly followed by police silence, lies, and coverup, has been spread upon the public record in a parade of civil rights cases that have been litigated in the Chicago federal courts during the past 45 years. The rampant brutality that marked the 1968 Democratic Convention was followed by false denials in testimony from untold numbers of Chicago police officers and supervisors.

The next year Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed during a pre-dawn police raid, and the entire command structure of the CPD, working in unison with the Cook County State’s Attorney, perpetrated a massive cover-up that spanned a decade and further illuminated the code of silence. Only three years later, Jon Burge started a torture ring at Area 2 detective headquarters, and the documented cases of Burge related police torture, now some 117 in number, followed him as he rose to commander during the next two decades.

His meteoric rise, as well as the systemic torture itself, was made possible by a code of silence so widespread that it not only has kept scores of detectives silent to this day, but has also extended to several successive police superintendents and former Mayor Richard M. Daley himself.

The Abbate case is but the most recent extreme example of a police code of silence so embedded within the department that it permeates nearly every complaint of police brutality and misconduct.

A precious few officers have risked their lives and careers by breaking the code. Former Area 2 Detective Frank Laverty is the most shining example. In the early 1980s, Laverty came forward to save the life of an innocent black teenager who was on trial for a murder he did not commit. Laverty had uncovered the real perpetrator of the crime, but Laverty’s commander and several fellow detectives had buried the evidence in a secret “street file” that was routinely kept by detectives. Laverty’s heroic act freed the teenager and exposed the CPD’s illegal “street file” practice, but earned him physical threats from Burge and several of Laverty’s fellow detectives, and a demotion to the job of watching police recruits give urine samples.

This blood chilling example of the code of silence at work was not lost on the police rank and file. In 1989, when a fellow Area 2 detective came forward to detail for the first time the systematic and racist nature of Burge’s torture ring, he did so in anonymous letters to People’s Law Office lawyers, saying that he wanted the letters to remain private because he “did not wish to be shunned like Officer Laverty has been since he cooperated with you.”

This Burge colleague has never been identified. Several African-American Area 2 detectives who had general knowledge about the torture ring remained silent until their retirement two decades later.

In 2008, one white Area 2 detective, when threatened with indictment, reluctantly told the Federal Grand Jury about witnessing Burge torture a black suspect, but the code of silence again reared its ugly head when he attempted to retreat from his prior testimony during Burge’s 2010 perjury trial. No other officer has ever come forward. Instead close to 50 officers have denied any knowledge of the torture ring, and, more recently, a majority of them has chosen to invoke the Fifth Amendment.

The mayor and his corporation counsel have shown, to date, little interest in taking the decisive steps required to change the police culture that perpetrates the code. Instead they continue to defend torture, wrongful conviction and other police misconduct cases by employing the implicated officers’ use of the code to deny responsibility. Similarly the police disciplinary agency, (IPRA) ignores the code of silence, almost always taking the word of the accused officer and his confederates over the victim, in order to absolve the accused from discipline.

The evidence of a widespread, top to bottom, police code of silence has now been confirmed by the verdict of a federal jury. The city, however, rather than heeding the verdict, immediately issued astatement that it “strongly disagreed with the verdict” and vowed to appeal, while the mayor has already passed the buck to his police superintendent.

Once again, it appears to be “business as usual” when it comes to police brutality, the code of silence, and official cover-up in Chicago.