When Shannon Spalding was on duty as a Chicago police officer, she worked undercover on a case that sent two fellow cops to prison. Now, she says, she is resuming her battle to expose corruption in the department.
Spalding has hooked up with a nonprofit group to help more police whistleblowers come forward. And she is calling on the department to pick up on her corruption investigation and strip several cops of their police powers until they are exonerated or found guilty.
Spalding and her former CPD partner, Daniel Echeverria, worked secretly with the FBI for years. They looked at a crew of Chicago officers alleged to have been shaking down drug dealers and pinning cases on those who refused to go along. The investigation led to arrests and federal convictions for two of the cops, including their alleged leader, Sgt. Ronald Watts.
But Spalding and Echeverria said blowing the whistle got them labeled “rats” inside the police department and assigned to do-nothing jobs.
“Walking in these shoes, you feel very isolated, alone and very afraid,” Spalding told WBEZ this week. “It’s such an extreme situation that you go through. It’s horrific because just the term whistleblower has a negative stigma associated with it.”
Spalding says she started getting death threats. She and Echeverria both took stress-related medical leaves. Spalding was diagnosed with PTSD.
In 2012, they filed a whistleblower lawsuit. The city settled it in May but Spalding says no cop should have to go through what they went through.
“We want whistleblowers to know that they should be honored, that they’re very courageous and they do have support,” she said.
So Spalding is working with a South Side group called the Invisible Institute. They have set up an encrypted dropbox for officers to upload evidence of corruption anonymously. And they are promising to link whistleblowing cops to mental-health and legal resources.
“Many officers have reached out to us and said, ‘We know about [corruption], we know it exists, we know it happens, but we don’t want to be the next you.’ ” Spalding said.
To protect whistleblowers, rid the police department of dirty cops and rebuild community trust, Spalding said, Supt. Eddie Johnson needs to confront a “code of silence” that hides police wrongdoing.
Spalding said that code is often less about silence than coordinated lying. She pointed to a dashboard-camera video that showed an officer fatally shooting Laquan McDonald. The video contradicted numerous police reports that described the teenager as moving threateningly toward officers before the shooting.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged a code of silence last December during a public outcry over the video. Since then, Spalding said, city officials have backtracked and described the problem as something short of systemic — as a practice of just some officers on just some occasions.
Spalding said Johnson and other top police officials ought to do two things. First, she said, they should keep acknowledging “that a code of silence does exist and that they’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”
The second thing, Spalding said, is take up the investigation that sent Watts and the other cop to prison. She said those officers were just the tip of the iceberg — and that top police officials know it.
“You were briefed every step of the way,” Spalding said about police officials and the FBI probe. “You were fully involved. [You] had full knowledge of these other targets. They are still employed in the Chicago Police Department. Some of them have even been promoted. Why are they not under investigation?”
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed the department is not investigating any officers in connection to their work with Watts or anyone accused of participating in what Spalding calls a “cover-up” of the sergeant’s crimes.
Guglielmi said the department has no comment on Spalding’s characterization of the case as “unfinished business.”
Spalding said she is not walking away. “Until I see that all of these officers that were original targets are brought to justice,” she said, “I’m not going to remain silent ever again.”
Meantime, Spalding said, any other cop who wants to report corruption — and get some moral support — should give her a ring.
Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio. Follow him @ChipMitchell1.