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Rahm Emanuel Condemns Police Code of Silence Which His Administration Enabled

In the chambers of City Council, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel delivered a speech today in which he attempted to confront police crimes and routine coverups of those crimes by officials. He framed this pervasive problem as a “defining moment” and urged Chicago to rise to the “challenge.”

Emanuel clearly saw the speech as a beginning, but the reality is a struggle against police corruption, including misconduct fueled by institutional racism, has been ongoing for years. Only now, when he faces growing discontent from Chicagoans, who demand his resignation because his administration covered up the shooting of Laquan McDonald, is he trying to do something meaningful.

There is a code of silence among police in Chicago. While this is not unique to the city’s police department and is present in other police departments in the United States, it has been enabled and protected by Mayor Emanuel—something he chose not to address in his speech.

Over a half billion dollars in settlements for police misconduct have been issued by the city in the past decade. Emanuel approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family for the murder of their son in March of this year.

Settlements have been issued to protect police officers from lawsuits. They also sometimes come with additionally understood stipulations. For the McDonald family, the $5 million settlement was finalized with the understanding that the family would no longer push for the release of video of McDonald being shot sixteen times by Officer Jason Van Dyke.

In 2012, Mayor Emanuel’s administration fought to have a federal jury’s verdict, which found the Chicago Police Department protects “rogue officers,” overturned. As the Chicago Tribune reported, in February 2007, Officer Anthony Abbate was captured on video beating Karolina Obrycka, a bartender at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn. Abbate was convicted of aggravated battery in June 2009 for attacking Obrycka when she refused to keep serving him alcohol because he was drunk.

A federal jury ruled the city should pay $850,000 and determined fellow officers covered up Abbate’s felony. The city agreed to pay her the settlement if she asked the court to “vacate the judgment.” The city’s top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton, was afraid the verdict would trigger a wave of lawsuits against the code of silence among police.

Emanuel’s administration defended the Chicago Police Department in 2012 when it faced a lawsuit over Officer Gildardo Sierra. In two separate incidents in a six-month period, Sierra shot and killed two men and injured another man. Sierra had multiple beers before his shift, however, police did not give Sierra a Breathalyzer test until more than five hours after he shot and killed Flint Farmer on June 7, 2011 according to the Tribune.

Not administering Breathalyzer tests is part of the code of silence. The Tribune published an investigation on December 5, 2007 on the rush to clear officers involved in shootings. There were at least 12 cases where officers shot individuals in the back, like Officer George Hernandez did when he killed Ronald Johnson.

Also, the Tribune noted, “Wrongful death lawsuits often prompt the only full accounting of shootings and the internal investigations that follow.” At the time, former mayor Richard Daley instituted the Independent Police Review Authority to supposedly improve oversight, but the code of silence persisted among officers who have no fear of being prosecuted when they commit crimes because, since 2007, only a handful of shootings have been deemed “unjustified,” even though officers have been responsible for hundreds of shootings.

The city has defended Van Dyke against another civil lawsuit brought against him for copying the work of officers at the scene, where Emmanuel Lopez was shot and killed in 2005, so that his story matched their story.

While only a small element of the rampant corruption for which Emanuel is responsible, the recently fired Chicago police chief, Garry McCarthy, reportedly sought to change the police union contract so more officers could be disciplined and fired when they were investigated for misconduct. Corporation Counsel Patton thwarted proposed changes to the police union contract, which may have made it easier for Chicagoans to challenge the code of silence among officers.

Unlike Emanuel, a grassroots organization in Chicago, We Charge Genocide (WCG), has led the way in challenging this code of silence. WCG issued a shadow report, which they submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2014. It called attention to how the Chicago Police Department disregarded past Committee requests in May 2006 and January 2010 to institute systems which prevent, document, review, investigate, and provide “redress and compensation for police violence against youth in Chicago”—particularly youth of color.

A WCG delegation traveled to Geneva to give a presentation based on their report and convinced the Committee to express “deep concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.” The Committee noted the “alleged difficulties to hold police officers and their employers accountable for abuses.” It criticized the “lack of statistical data available on allegations of police brutality and the lack of information on the result of the investigations undertaken in respect of those allegations.”

Today, Emanuel said nothing about the concerns the United Nations Committee Against Torture had about the Chicago Police Department. There were no words uttered about how “supervision and leadership in the police department and the oversight agencies” had failed. There were no words spoken about life for young black people in Chicago.

The next time Emanuel had to deal with police brutality was when the City Council passed a reparations ordinance for survivors of torture by Chicago police commander Jon Burge between 1972 and 1991. The ordinance created a $5.5 million fund for survivors and established non-financial benefits, such as psychological counseling for survivors and their families.

Even as there were advocates pushing for the release of the video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald sixteen times, Emanuel treated the issue of police torture as depraved immoral behavior of a bygone era in the city.

Emanuel spoke about Chicago being where “community policing” began and upheld it as a solution and, well before scandal around the coverup of McDonald’s death, the city was promoting “community policing.”

WCG put out a report [PDF] on “community policing” in October which addresses how this will not solve the pervasive problems created by police.

“Community policing” empowers a “select group” of members of the community, who become involved and can act as a “superficial” shield for aggressive enforcement by police. It provides cover for policing “quality of life” crimes. It is useful in dealing with the gentrification of people of color from neighborhoods.

WCG put together a working group, which attended Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meetings intended to promote “community policing.” What the group found was that meetings encourage increased police surveillance of communities:

At CAPS meetings, police effectively deputize a small group of residents to engage in surveillance. These residents are disproportionately white property owners, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods. Their complaints reflect their implicit biases about who to consider “suspicious.” CAPS meetings legitimize and amplify these biases. Police encourage attendees to organize block groups and form phone trees, all with the goal of reporting “strange” license plates, “suspicious” behavior, and descriptions of cars and people passing through the neighborhood. This monitoring often includes focused surveillance on specific “problem buildings,” and group discussion of how to increase surveillance and reporting with the goal of evicting tenants seen as undesirable. Police also encourage residents to call the police for nearly any problem they experience, including minor issues such as profanity — providing cover for aggressive policing strategies, and fracturing social bonds.

During his speech, Emanuel also spoke a lot about a “trust problem,” when referring to how people of color are afraid of how police might harass or brutalize them. It is barely reasonable to treat this as an issue of trust. It is offensive to present the issue as one of mutual distrust as well. Rather, communities see themselves as being terrorized by police, and it is police who are responsible for this lack of “trust.”

As Center for Constitutional Rights Director Vincent Warren has eloquently stated, “To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust—it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem.”

“The call for ‘conversation’ as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding,” Warren added. “Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.”

Emanuel spoke a lot of words about how he would never be treated like young people of color are treated by police, however, he never called this reality by name. He never used the word racism, even though plenty of data on policing exists to show the disparity between who is and is not criminalized often for simply living.

Finally, Emanuel made multiple statements about how he hoped this moment would “bring out the best” in people and how he hoped the city could give Chicagoans a place to “vent their feelings and fears about the police without it devolving into acrimony.”

These remarks were directed at groups like WCG, Black Youth Project 100, Black Lives Matter Chicago, and other activists in the city who struggled to create conditions where journalists feel inspired to dig deeper and investigate police corruption. He was directly calling out people who have put him in a position where he has to make daily statements now about why he will not resign. And these kinds of statements are bullheaded and an attempt to undermine the efforts of righteous people most committed to justice.

Indeed, as Emanuel put it, “Permitting and protecting even the smallest acts of abuse by a tiny fraction of our officers leads to a culture where extreme acts of abuse are more likely,” but Emanuel and his administration are directly responsible for this culture, which bolsters the code of silence. If he seriously wants to do something about this, invite the Justice Department to expand their investigation into city and county offices. Right now, it is limited to the Chicago Police Department when it is clear the code of silence is present in Emanuel’s administration as well.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."