A year after journalist Jamie Kalven brought to light the details of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s killing, he is now pulling back the curtain on how whistleblowers in the Chicago Police Department face backlash.
A four-part series in The Intercept points to the department’s alleged “code of silence” for the reason that internal corruption in the department goes unchecked.
The report follows the story of police officers Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria, partners who spent years working undercover on a joint internal affairs investigation between the FBI and CPD that uncovered a criminal enterprise within the police department.
Before they could expose the conspiracy, Spalding and Echeverria said they were targeted by a high-ranking official, labeled as “rats” and faced retaliation. Eventually they filed suit against the department. The city of Chicago settled the lawsuit for $2 million before it went to trial.
Morning Shift spoke with Kalven about what he learned while immersed in the lives of these two cops.
Q: You’ve been immersed for many years in the actions of the CPD. When did you first hear about the ‘code of silence’?
A: I think we all have heard that term and associate it with—as you say—this notion of rank-and-file officers. “We’re in the foxhole together,” “I’ve got your back you’ve got mine,” “Nobody likes a tattle-tale…” I think it’s commonly part of our understanding of police culture.
What was really a revelation for me in doing this particular story was to see the degree to which the code of silence really is standard operating procedure within the police department at the highest levels—as opposed to a sort of peer-to-peer phenomena.
It’s one of those powerful terms: code of silence. It describes something real—the coerced silence of police officers who fear retaliation if they report wrongdoing by their fellow officers. I think equally, the silence of people in the neighborhoods most affected by the abusive and problematic patterns of policing feel like it won’t do any good to complain.
I think what that notion of silence obscures is that this is really a matter of controlling the narrative. It’s a matter of the institution sustaining and enforcing a narrative. One of the amazing quotes in this is from the principal whistleblower, Officer Shannon Spalding: “If four bosses in the department say it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.”
So really, what this story tries to evoke is how the machinery operates within the department to maintain narratives that—think the Laquan McDonald case—they know are false.
Q: How deeply ingrained do you think this culture is if—even through several leadership changes—it remains intact?
A: I really appreciate the question. I think that is the most serious public implication of the article in terms of where we are in the city, grappling with what will be required to create fundamental and enduring change in these institutions. I am among those who have advocated for years that we seriously overhaul investigative agencies like IPRA and internal affairs. There are institutional changes that need to be made.
I think what this article suggests and certainly what my immersion in these issues has led me to [conclude] is that if we don’t fundamentally change the culture within the department—which again, I emphasize does not just mean the rank-and-file [officers] on the streets, it means up and down the command structure, not just the superintendents, [but] down to the sergeants. If that doesn’t change, then culture will always trump procedure.
That’s really the challenge for leadership right now. And I think a lot of the changes in leadership over these last years have something of the quality of just shuffling the same deck. The first thing—and this is what I try to do and we all try to do as journalists—is just to have an honest diagnosis of these conditions to tell the story.
Q: What does that require? Because from the outside as a journalist, you can look at this story and the documentation around it and have that honest conversation. But from the inside of the department, how does that conversation happen?
A: I think it will take really significant leadership. And we need to define leadership within the department all the way down to the level of sergeants, because those are the people who are in immediate contact with the officers in the field. We have to change the incentive-disincentive structures within the department.
Right now—and this story testifies to it—an officer has to be heroic in order to break ranks under the conditions of the code of silence. And the costs are terrible. Shannon’s story and to some degree Danny’s are really evidence of that. An institution where you have to be heroic almost to the point of martyrdom in order to do your job and to honor the badge is a seriously dysfunctional institution.
One of the first things I would do if I were in a position of authority within the department or within the city would be to hold up people like Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria as models of good police officers. Right now they’ve been under attack, they’ve been marginalized within the department.
Also, creating a different understanding within the department. “We will support you if you come forward.” We’re not talking about trivial, ministerial things, but with fundamental civil rights and constitutional violations. “It’s your job to come forward. We will support you if you do. We regard that as good police work. You will be rewarded rather than vilified”—which is the present situation.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘Play’ button above to listen to the entire segment.