Friday, December 18, 2015

Breaking the code of silence

"Conflict management" by Jerry Truong

     "Chicago is the capital of the code of silence," says Craig B. Futterman, law professor at the University of Chicago and national expert on police ethics. "If you break with that code, you get crushed."
     This is not news in Chicago, though Rahm Emanuel seems to have only recently discovered it.
     "It's always been this way," says Futterman. "You don't rat out your fellow officer or else you're going to be hazed from within and, just as importantly, it's enforced from above. It's the culture, the practice of the department. Under Rahm it's been no better. And now he says, 'Yup, we have a problem' and admits it."
     Well, hallelujah.
     Futterman has been at the center of the Laquan McDonald case for a year, since his legal clinic received a tip about a dashcam video of Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into McDonald. With the city in turmoil and the mayor hounded by protesters everywhere he goes, Futterman believes this moment might lead to real reform.
     "I'm hopeful because the vast majority of officers aren't benefiting from this," he says. "It's hurting them. ... This moment may give them an opportunity to not just do the right thing, but what's in their own best interest." 
Craig Futterman

     How so?
     "If you look at the data," he says, "the good news is the vast majority of Chicago Police officers on the force are not out there busting heads; 80 percent of officers have less than four complaints [of misconduct] in their career. Most have none. A small percentage are responsible for the lion's share of complaints, and that small percentage are allowed to run roughshod."
     "Loyalty to fellow officers is something highly valued and taught, and it's a good thing," says Futterman. "They've got to rely on one another in some pretty hairy situations. [The trouble is] when loyalty to one another trumps loyalty to the truth, to their fundamental job."
     When that happens, there is no option besides silence.
     "You know who the bad officers are, but you can't say," says Futterman. "Many would love nothing more than to get rid of that few percent, because they make their jobs a living hell. [Bad cops] wear the same badge, but they dishonor them. [Good cops are] working rough neighborhoods, trying to solve crime, but everybody hates them and distrusts them because of some jerk harassing people. Lack of trust means they can't do their jobs well."
     So they don't.
   "In Chicago, per officer, there are a lot more complaints on average, particularly those of brutality," says Futterman. "We also shoot more folks than virtually every other department in the country. We stand out as among the worst when it comes to identifying, rooting out and disciplining officers who have abused their powers."
     Another reason cops don't talk: because nothing is done. The department has a stake in that. You pull a thread, the whole fabric could unravel.
     "You expose four bad guys, they made a couple hundred arrests," says Futterman. "Some arrests are good, some are bad, it undermines all of them. These guys who had been corrupt, they didn't start doing this yesterday. Who was minding the store? There are some pretty big political costs for whoever's in charge."
     Costs the mayor is tallying right now. Costs that add to our city's hemorrhaging bottom line. A staggering $521 million since 2004, to hush up these cases.
     "A code of silence about the code of silence," says Futterman.
     My guess? Outrage fades, but habit endures. Smoke will be blown, maybe more heads roll, but nothing substantive. Futterman is more optimistic.
     "I think we're at a moment where change is actually possible," says Futterman, "For the first time, a public official has been forced to even acknowledge the systemic nature of the problem. Now we'll see if he makes that more than words. Everyone has the right to be skeptical of his actions up to this point."
     So what has to happen?

     "When I go around the country, I get stories from officers all the time of someone from the inside who made the department better and got rid of bad cops," says Futterman. "I always ask, 'Can anybody share a happy ending for the whistleblower?' No one ever does. That's gotta change. That's where leadership matters. There is an opportunity now to not just do obvious things — you fail to report, you lie, you're fired — but also to protect and honor the folks who come forward, to treat them like the heroes they are."


  1. So how many bad apples are there? Is it 20%? Meaning officers with more than 4 complaints. Is this data available to the public?

  2. This was mentioned some time back. Some cops are afraid to tell the truth and understandably so. Good column.

  3. I'm inclined to think things will change. If not due to official actions because of the omnipresence of cameras. In the old days we would have to take the cops' word in all cases. Cover-ups are much harder to pull off now. And a few convictions of trigger happy cops will help to "encourager les autres." . Of course, public opinion is fickle. The cops are now in a defensive stance, but that will change quickly if they start losing gun duels with armed teens.

    Tom Evans

  4. The game changer is not any human being; it's those video cameras. The more of them out there, the more cops will realize at any time, anywhere, a camera will be pointed their way. This helps them as much as it may catch wrongdoing. What also has to happen is for cops presenting testimony and statements about what happened in a given situation, and proved wrong by the video/audio tape, must face punishment along with the bad cop. Finally, the police administration must actively screen and remove cops with multiple complaints from contact with the public if they can't fire them because of union protections.

  5. The discussion calls to mind an encounter I had with a couple San Diego policemen when some 50 years ago I decided to take a walk in a neighborhood not often visited by sailors stationed in San Diego. I remember taking a somewhat defiant stance when questioned as to my possibly not-so-honorable intentions. But what really infuriated me was that the two cops were so goddamned polite!


  6. Since they won't rat out the truly bad apples, the actual rate of bad apples is 100%.
    My dad always had this question to off duty cops: Were you born an asshole or did you have to take lessons?

  7. That must have earned him a punch.

  8. The City gov't should bring criminal charges against the owners and construction co. that was doing illegal repairs in the building causing a firefighter his life. He leaves a wife and 3 kids behind. The family should file a civil suit against the parties involved as well. What a senseless tragedy.