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Cop code of silence: Chicago mayor caught in middle of legal battle

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel responds to a question during a news conference about new police procedures on  Dec. 30, 2015, in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel responds to a question during a news conference about new police procedures on Dec. 30, 2015, in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)
By Jason Meisner Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – In an unprecedented move, city attorneys on Friday offered to admit to a federal jury that a code of silence exists in the Chicago Police Department if it meant Mayor Rahm Emanuel would not have to testify about it at the upcoming trial involving two whistleblower cops.

But U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman rebuffed the idea, saying he was standing by his ruling earlier this week that Emanuel must take the witness stand to answer questions about the code of silence.

Feinerman said that even though he was “reluctant” to take up the mayor’s valuable time and cause a media circus by having him testify, he believed Emanuel could offer “much more texture” to the existence of the code of silence if he testified about it rather than have the city’s lawyers offer a written stipulation.

Feinerman said he agreed with attorneys for the whistleblower cops that the mayor’s testimony “would provide further evidence of an unwritten policy and practice.” Emanuel could “speak to the pervasiveness of the problem,” the judge said.

The ruling was a blow to the city, which has fought tooth-and-nail to keep Emanuel from having to take the witness stand. In a speech to the City Council, the mayor acknowledged the police code of silence amid the deepening scandal over the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer.

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department had no immediate comment Friday.

The trial, set to begin May 30, involves a civil rights lawsuit brought by Chicago police Officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria over allegations they were blackballed by the department for cooperating with the FBI in an investigation into a corrupt tactical team led by Sgt. Ronald Watts.

The two alleged that when supervisors learned of their role in the undercover investigation, they called them “rats” and passed along that sensitive information to others in the Police Department. They were removed from their unit assignment and shuttled around the department to lesser jobs far from their homes and at bad hours, according to the lawsuit, which names the city and a dozen high-ranking officers as defendants.

When they complained to supervisors about the alleged retaliation, one told them, “Look, everyone is against you, so you don’t want to piss me off,” they alleged.

The trial will center on whether the department has a de facto policy that uses the code of silence to allow bad officers to act with impunity. During his December speech to the City Council, Emanuel condemned “the tendency to ignore, deny or in some cases cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”

Referring to frequent police complaints that witnesses too often refuse to come forward, Emanuel said, “We cannot ask citizens in crime-ravaged neighborhoods to break the code of silence if we continue to allow a code of silence to exist within our own Police Department.”

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