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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's ‘Code Of Silence’ Speech Still Burdens City Attorneys

During the national outcry after the release of a video showing a white police officer fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel went before the City Council on Dec. 9, 2015, and acknowledged a problem with the city’s cops.

“This problem is sometimes referred to as the thin blue line,” Emanuel said. “Other times it is referred to as the code of silence. It is the tendency to ignore. It is the tendency deny. It is the tendency in some cases to cover-up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”

The speech, one of the most famous of Emanuel’s career, began his climb from a political crisis. But his acknowledgement that the police department has a code of silence keeps causing problems for city attorneys in lawsuits alleging a variety of police misconduct.

One ended last year with a $2 million settlement for police officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria, who claimed that CPD superiors retaliated against them for working on an FBI investigation of a corrupt police unit. The city agreed to the payout after the officers tried to put Emanuel under oath about the code of silence.

In another case, a mother named Sharon Spearman pointed to Emanuel’s speech in a federal lawsuit accusing the police of knocking down her family’s apartment door, handcuffing her and searching the home — all without a warrant — and returning later with $1,000 in hush money to cover up that conduct. The city settled her suit last year for $40,000.

Now Emanuel’s speech is taking center stage in a South Side woman’s federal lawsuit alleging excessive force inside the Gresham police station in 2011. Rita King was under arrest but not cooperating with fingerprinting, according to court records. Officers called in the watch commander, Lt. Glenn Evans.

The incident took place three years before Evans faced felony charges stemming from an allegation he put his service pistol inside a suspect’s mouth. A judge acquitted Evans of all those charges.

In the Gresham station, King told WBEZ, “several police officers were holding me as (Evans) was using force against my nose with his hand, telling me he was going to push my nose through my brain.”

Chicago police Lt. Glenn Evans, photographed in 2014, said the force he used on Rita King inside the Gresham police station in 2011 was reasonable. (Chip Mitchell/WBEZ)

Evans, according to court records, said he grasped her head to avoid being spit on. He said the force he used was reasonable.

There is no trial date yet but attorneys have shifted their focus to city liability. To get a large judgment, King might have to prove the city had a policy or custom of condoning police misconduct — and that it factored into this incident.

King’s attorney, Patrick Morrissey, is pointing to the lieutenant’s complaint history.

By the time the incident took place, Evans had been a subject of at least 107 complaints, according to a WBEZ review of CPD records. Ten of those cases led to discipline but not more serious than a 15-day suspension.

Morrissey is also arguing that the “code of silence,” as the mayor put it, was at play when Evans used force on his client. The lieutenant, according to Morrissey, knew he would not have to answer for his conduct — at least not in any serious way. And Morrissey says the officers could count on one another to conceal what Evans did.

“No officer that was in this lockup documented the existence of Evans in the lockup,” Morrissey told WBEZ.

Evans, in a deposition last year, acknowledged he did not fill out the police form for documenting a use of force.

Morrissey said that “all factors point to the fact that there was a code of silence.”

But city lawyers are fighting to exclude the mayor’s speech about the code of silence from the evidence. A Jan. 20 court filing from the city characterized what Emanuel told the City Council as “inadmissible hearsay.”

Another city filing that day attacked King’s claim that the city “publicly recognized a code of silence” when the mayor talked about it in his speech to the aldermen. King’s claim, according to the city, is a “created fact that is unsupported by the record.”

Here is what Emanuel said in the speech: “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.”

Contacted by WBEZ, Deputy Corporation Counsel Naomi Avendaño tried to clarify things: “The city does publicly recognize that there is a code of silence within the Chicago Police Department. What we dispute is that the code of silence runs to every officer in every instance. And the mayor never said that. He said that there is a code of silence but it isn’t widespread.”

Avendaño would not say whether the code of silence applied to Evans. “What I’m saying is that is obviously something that the plaintiff has to prove at trial,” she said.

For that, the city is saying that the plaintiff should not get to use Emanuel’s speech about the code of silence as evidence.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

This report was clarified on Feb. 6, 2017. An earlier version of this story implied that each of the 107 complaints against Lt. Glenn Evans led to an investigation. The city closed nine of the cases because the complainant did not sign an affidavit, according to the CPD records. In those cases, the records do not indicate that an investigation took place.

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