“Why, out of hundreds of police shootings in the last eight years, only a handful of them have led to any charges?”
An excellent question from former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s remarkable Chicago City Council Address in 2015, in which he admitted the existence of a code of silence within the Chicago Police Department.
“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 to deny. It is the tendency in some cases to cover-up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues…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.”
During his speech, Emanuel called for improved training and oversight, emphasizing the importance of rebuilding public trust and accountability.
The speech came on the heels of one of the most notorious Chicago Police Department coverups of all time: the case of Laquan McDonald.
In October 2014, Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African American, was shot 16 times by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke. Initially, officers on the scene reported that McDonald lunged at the officers with a knife. But one civilian witness to the shooting was adamant from the beginning that police had no reason to shoot McDonald. She later stated that the police pressured her to change her story to fit their narrative.
Dashcam footage released over a year later supported her account when it showed McDonald walking away from officers when they shot him.
The case exposed one of the worst officer-led coverups in Chicago history and fueled outrage over the “code of silence” that has permeated the department for decades.
Meanwhile, taxpayers footed the bill for the coverup when the city approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family.
It’s been eight years since the mayor’s call for action in our city. Has anything changed?
The outlook is bleak at best.
According to a 2016 article by the Chicago Tribune, 124 of Chicago’s roughly 12,000 police officers accounted for nearly a third of misconduct suits settled since 2009.
Although over 95 percent of Chicago police officers did not fire their guns from 2004 to 2016, a “small group” of 130 officers was responsible for 29 percent of police shootings.
These officers often displayed troubling behavior patterns prior to these incidents, including higher rates of citizen complaints and use of force.
And yet, it’s rare that any officer ever received punishment for their misconduct. Unfortunately, it seems the “code of silence” is alive and well—and the taxpayers continue to shoulder the financial burden.
Since the turn of the millennium, Chicago taxpayers have shouldered nearly $700 million in lawsuits stemming from allegations of police misconduct, including a staggering $537 million awarded to plaintiffs and an additional $140 million in legal fees.
The “code of silence” problem is deeply rooted in the history of the Chicago Police Department, dating back to the era of Jon Burge. What follows are just a few of the seemingly endless police scandals that have rocked the city and drained its funds, all because of a culture of silence and impunity. A more complete list of scandals can be found in a federal complaint filed by our office.
Former CPD Commander Jon Burge and his “midnight crew” were accused of torturing more than 100 African American men into false confessions from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Many officers were aware of or suspected the misconduct, but the code of silence prevailed, allowing his actions to continue for years without intervention.
The city of Chicago has paid out millions in reparations to Burge’s victims, highlighting the financial and social cost of the ‘code of silence. Burge may have been fired from CPD in 1993, but the roots of corruption would outlast him.
Scandal reared its head once again in 2007 when Anthony Abbate, an off-duty CPD officer, was caught on tape beating a female bartender after she refused to continue serving him alcohol.
Initially, Abbate was charged with a misdemeanor.
A federal jury later found that Abbate’s conduct was fueled by the City’s widespread custom or practice of failing to adequately investigate and/or discipline its officers and/or of a police code of silence.
The people of Chicago paid for this department mishap as well—the jury awarded the bartender $850,000 for the officer’s misconduct and the attempted coverup that followed.
When CPD officers shot at 19-year-old Calvin Cross 45 times in 2011, his family was shocked to find that investigators initially cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
The police claimed Cross was armed and fired at them, but the evidence didn’t support their story, leading many to believe the evidence was planted.
An inoperable gun was found at the scene that had no trace of Cross’s fingerprints—and no gunshot residue was ever found on Cross.
His family remained adamant about getting the case reopened, and the city eventually settled the wrongful death suit with Cross’s family for $2 million.
In 2016, the City paid two Chicago police officers $2 million to settle their claim that they had been blackballed by CPD for helping the FBI to investigate corrupt Chicago police officers. The officers alleged that instead of being praised for their work, they were labeled “rats” by their superiors, given less-desirable jobs and told that fellow police officers wouldn’t back them up on the street.
Chicago has faced so many wrongful conviction lawsuits due to police misconduct that it is now known as the false conviction capital of the country. The settlements stemming from these wrongful convictions aren’t cheap, and they’re beginning to tally up.
For instance, in 2018, the city approved a $7.5 million settlement for Arthur Brown, who spent 29 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit. The case involved allegations of coerced confession, a recurring theme in many wrongful conviction cases linked to police misconduct in Chicago.
Jacques Rivera, who was wrongfully convicted due to witness coercion by former Chicago police detective Reynaldo Guevara, was awarded $16.4 million.
The list goes on.
The repercussions of the ‘code of silence’ extend far beyond the immediate victims of police misconduct, casting a long shadow on the fiscal health of Chicago. The city’s financial burden—a direct consequence of this entrenched culture—is staggering.
Today, the city faces a billion-dollar liability issue over 23 years with ongoing wrongful conviction cases alone.
Chicago’s taxpayers have also been saddled with paying upwards of $700 million in expenses related to police misconduct lawsuits ($537 million in settlements and verdicts paid to plaintiffs, along with $140 million in legal fees).
These costs reflect not just the price of individual acts of misconduct but also the systemic failure to address the underlying issue of a permissive culture towards such behavior.
Each settlement signifies a missed opportunity for preventive action and meaningful reform.
This financial toll highlights the critical need for an overhaul in the CPD’s approach to accountability and transparency, not only as a moral imperative but also as a fiscal responsibility to the residents of Chicago.
While the financial toll of police misconduct in Chicago is quantifiable, the social and ethical costs are profound and far-reaching.
The ‘code of silence’ within the CPD drains taxpayer funds and deeply erodes public trust in law enforcement—a cornerstone of a functioning democratic society.
Each case of misconduct, followed by perceived or real protection of the involved officers, reinforces a narrative of injustice and inequality, particularly in communities that have historically faced disproportionate police violence.
The Laquan McDonald and Jon Burge cases, for instance, did not just result in financial settlements; they sparked city-wide protests, calling for systemic change and greater police accountability.
However, the people’s demands have gone largely unheard.
These incidents raise crucial questions about the culture within law enforcement agencies and their relationship with the communities they serve.
The ethical implications are stark, as a police force operating under a shadow of secrecy and protectionism fails in its fundamental duty to uphold justice and protect citizens’ rights.
Despite these acknowledgments and attempts at reform, the problem persists. This breakdown in trust makes effective policing more challenging, creating a cycle of mistrust and ineffective law enforcement that further alienates the public and endangers officers’ safety.
Critics point to a need for more effective whistleblowing and accountability within the police force.
Confronting and dismantling this code is crucial for rebuilding public trust and fostering a more equitable society. The path forward requires a commitment to transparency, accountability, and meaningful reform to ensure justice and protect the rights of all citizens in Chicago.