Ending Police Omerta in Chicago
A couple of recent groundbreaking events may signal the beginning of the end of the police code of silence about miscreant cops and the lengths the city and prosecutors will go to cover for them. I’ve often written that those coverups do double damage:
First they tarnish the image of the 95 or more percent of honest cops who do their best to get the bad guys and make this a safer city. Second, and more importantly, everyone in law enforcement knows full well that the cooperation of local communities is key to controlling crime in the neighborhoods. But the citizenry is fully aware of the cops’ code of “omerta,” and therefore practices such an unwritten code itself. (Omerta is a Sicilian criminal word for the code of silence that sadly applies here to almost the same degree.)
It’s been an open secret for generations that the police not only practice omerta, but often join with prosecutors and city agencies to make sure the secrets are kept. Had there been no such code, Jon Burge, who ran a torture mill in his precinct station with the tacit silence of the state’s attorney’s office under Richard M. Daley, would have been brought to justice decades ago
The same code seems to be at work with the compliance of State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in covering for a nephew of Daley’s who seems the likely killer—albeit perhaps accidentally—of David Koschman in 2004 when the Daley nephew was not even questioned. Special prosecutor Dan Webb is apparently unraveling that conspiracy of silence and coverup.
The code had never come under legal scrutiny until former bartender Karina Obrycka brought a case against the police and the city for their efforts to disclaim responsibility and for trying to reduce charges against an off-duty cop, Anthony Abbate, who jumped the bar at Jesse’s Shortstop Inn in 2007 and beat the barmaid unmercifully for no reason at all. The episode was caught on surveillance tape and went viral.
Abbate was eventually convicted of felony battery and fired, but police and prosecutors tripped over each other’s shoelaces, first pretending Abbate was not a policeman, then in a Keystone Kop effort to reduce his charges.
On Nov. 14 the department and the city were found guilty of the coverup and practicing the code of silence. This is apparently the first time the code has been found illegal in federal court—a major milestone. While the city says it will appeal, Mayor Rahm Emanuel ordained that Police Supt. Garry McCarthy will end the code of silence—a major admission and promise.
In an unrelated decision, the U.S. Supreme Court Nov. 26 upheld a lower court decision outlawing Chicago’s absurd law making the recording of policemen making arrests a felony. This opens a path toward documenting or preventing misconduct that would be ignored absent such evidence.
The ultimate benefit here is not simply a cleaner police department, but the potential for citizen reciprocation in openness and cooperation with the police, which will make us all safer.
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer