Does the police ‘code of silence’ extend to judges and journalists?
When a jury found Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder for the killing of teenager Laquan McDonald last October, it was big news. But last week, when an equally important case about McDonald’s death ended, the reaction was more muted. Three Chicago police officers were on trial for covering up for Van Dyke after the shooting. In many ways, this second criminal trial was at least as important as the first, because it implicated the “code of silence” that infects police departments across the country. That code goes a long way toward giving officers the sense that they can act with impunity. They can reasonably expect their colleagues to lie for them. Officers who have broken the code in the past have faced retaliation, sometimes violent and life-threatening.
The three Chicago police officers were tried for conspiracy, official misconduct, and obstruction of justice, accused of shooing away eyewitnesses and then making up a narrative to justify the shooting. In official reports, the officers said McDonald had tried to stab them, and that he had tried to get up from the ground as 16 shots were being fired into him. But dashboard camera video of the encounter told a very different story. [Monica Davey / New York Times] It’s possible that the officers didn’t expect the footage to be released; the police department fought hard to avoid turning it over and only did so after a judge’s order. If not for that judge, the code of silence most likely would have shielded Van Dyke from consequences.
Patricia Brown Holmes, a special prosecutor trying the case, told a judge last week: “Instead of serving and protecting all citizens of Chicago, the defendants tried to protect only one—Jason Van Dyke.” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged the existence of a code in late 2015. What many call the “code of silence” or “thin blue line,” he said, “is the tendency to ignore, it is a tendency to deny, it is a tendency in some cases to cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.” Recently, various other instances of the code of silence in Chicago and elsewhere have come to light, including in a “scathing report” issued by the Department of Justice in 2017. [Monica Davey / New York Times]
The code of silence is pernicious in large part because police are so rarely disbelieved by judges, prosecutors, politicians, and the media. It seems to be a matter of decorum: Suggesting that an officer might lie is often perceived as improper, or insulting. This writer, in her first year of practice as a public defender, endured an angry tirade from a prosecutor when she suggested that her client’s version of events might be true, contrary to what the officer wrote in his report. So when the judge in the Laquan McDonald case found the three officers not guilty in the cover-up, many saw this as evidence of a wider code. “That blue code of silence isn’t just with the Chicago Police Department,” said activist William Calloway, who is running for city alderman. “It expands to the judicial system.”
University of Chicago clinical law professor Craig Futterman said that to him, the judge’s ruling “sounded like a full-throated defense of not only the cover-up, but actually of the murder of Laquan McDonald. It sounded like I was listening to the defense attorney.” There was an actual opportunity to make a dent in the code of silence, that could help make officers think twice in the future, but it was wasted. Later in the same program, a former Chicago police sergeant seemed to prove this point when he mistakenly called the verdict “a defense” of “what those officers did.” [Evan Garcia / “Chicago Tonight”]
And when covering the verdict, the difference in perspective was palpable even among mainstream media outlets. “A suspended Chicago police officer and two former officers were found not guilty on Thursday of falsifying reports and conspiring to cover up the 2014 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Judge Domenica Stephenson deliberated for several weeks before announcing the verdict in the bench trial, which was considered a challenge to an alleged code of silence among police that protects officers from charges of wrongdoing. Judge Stephenson said it was reasonable for the officers to believe that Mr. McDonald was attacking Mr. Van Dyke. ‘We cannot now view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight,’ the judge said in rendering her verdict. She also noted that she found the testimony of a key witness, an officer who said her statements had been falsified in police reports, to be ‘not credible.’” [Erin Ailworth / Wall Street Journal]
Compare that straightforward account to the tone of the Chicago Tribune. “In a staunch and unequivocal defense of how Chicago police handled Laquan McDonald’s murder, a Cook County judge acquitted three officers Thursday of charges alleging they conspired to justify the shooting by falsifying reports and claiming the teen was the aggressor,” the reporters wrote. “At every point in her hourlong ruling, Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson endorsed the actions of the police on the night McDonald was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke [and] said it would be wrong to second-guess the actions of the police—including Van Dyke, who is scheduled to be sentenced Friday” for second-degree murder. The reporters also mentioned that the judge was a former prosecutor, and noted that the Chicago police officer who said her statements about the shooting were falsified said that she had faced retribution from colleagues. [Megan Crepeau, Christy Gutowski, Jason Meisner, and Stacy St. Clair / Chicago Tribune]
These differences matter. In a new book, “Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City,” Clarence Taylor, professor emeritus of history at Baruch College, examines efforts to hold the NYPD accountable since the late 1930s. Before cell phones, video cameras, or even television, Black-run newspapers did their own investigations when men, women, and children were beaten or killed by the police. One of the first Black journalists to appear regularly on the news, Louis Lomax, commented in the early 1960s that, if not for police brutality, the Black press would have “considerable blank space.” Taylor notes that Black newspapers would not only report on instances of police abuse, but also counter the official police narrative that those who were victimized were somehow to blame. The papers would vouch for them as people and members of the community. Some outlets, such as Adam Clayton Powell’s the People’s Voice, even organized protests. Taylor connects this narrative shifting to the development of civilian oversight boards, underscoring that the stories that get told after an instance of police violence are in many ways as important as the incident itself. [Beth Harpaz / New Books Network]