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Cracking the Code of Silence

Don Rose 29 July 2014 No Comment

As I’ve written time and again, the best-intentioned police officers find it difficult to impossible to gain the cooperation of minority communities in solving crimes because the people there often fear the police as much as the gangs. The neighborhoods also know the police have their own code of silence (the Outfit calls it “omerta”) wherein everyone from the mayor, chief of police and even the best cops protect the five or so percent of brutal or corrupt ones. Otherwise the torturing cop Jon Burge would have gone to the slammer years ago.

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The entire department vociferously denied the existence of the code–one aspect of which was to keep the records of citizen complaints against offending officers away from the prying eyes of those who sought the records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

However, a couple of court rulings began cracking that code–with the city fighting tooth and nail to protect it.

Late last year, in the internationally known case where an off-duty cop beat the daylights out of an innocent woman bartender–caught fully on tape–the jury found the cop guilty, noting formally that the police code of silence was used for months to protect the miscreant.

What was the city’s reaction? Ask the judge to expunge mention of the code of silence because it would lead to more and more litigation. Fortunately, Federal Judge Amy St. Eve let the comments stand.

Now an even bigger step has been taken in a case brought in 2007 by journalist Jamie Kalven, who sought to make citizen complaints against police for available through the FOIA process. Kalven and attorneys Craig Futterman, Jon Loevy Samantha Liskow, Ben Elson and Flint Taylor combined forces to release those files, in large part because it is believed that some of most criminal cops, such as Burge, are among those with the largest number of complaints against them. Almost all complaints are whitewashed anyway.

Two state courts, including most recently an appellate court, agreed with the plaintiff and lawyers with the city kicking and screaming all the way. At first it appeared the city would appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, but in a sudden reversal two short weeks ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and top cop Garry McCarthy agreed to release the documents under FOIA–with certain redactions of personal information about the police and witnesses.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this action–whether Emanuel did it because of purely political reasons or not. I think it will stand with some of the landmark public-interest cases of the past half century, including the Shakman patronage case, the ruling against the police “red squad” and numerous civil rights cases regarding schools and housing.

Apart from helping identify the bad actors in the Chicago Police Department, it may, just may, begin a process where police may become more reticent to misbehave and citizens may gain enough trust in the department to actively help solve and even prevent crime in their communities.

We owe a debt of gratitude to all who fought so long and hard to win this case.

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Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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