By Monica Davey
CHICAGO — Inside a cramped and worn courtroom, three white police officers are on trial in connection with the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. But these officers never fired their guns. Their crime, prosecutors say, was concocting a story to cover up for a colleague who did.
As prosecutors tell it, Chicago police officers shooed away eyewitnesses after the shooting on Oct. 20, 2014, and then made up a narrative to justify the shooting. They said in official reports that the teenager had tried to stab three officers, and that he had tried to get up from the ground as 16 shots were being fired into him.
The only hitch? Dashcam video footage of the encounter contradicted their account.
Patricia Brown Holmes, a special prosecutor trying the three officers on charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice, told a judge last week: “Instead of serving and protecting all citizens of Chicago, the defendants tried to protect only one — Jason Van Dyke,” the police officer who was convicted this fall of second-degree murder in the shooting.
On trial along with the officers is the “code of silence” that police officers across the country have been accused of operating under. In Chicago, the issue has been around for decades, bubbling up in recent years in cases involving a drunk-driving officer, an off-duty officer’s beating of a bartender and a lawsuit by two police officers who said they faced retaliation after breaking the code.
“Every police officer has seen the code of silence in action,” said Lorenzo Davis, a former Chicago officer who rose through the ranks to commander over a career of more than two decades. He was later an investigator for an oversight agency of the police department, and was awarded $2.8 million by a jury this year after suing the city, saying he had been fired from the agency because he refused to change his findings concerning police shootings that he deemed unjustified.
By Mr. Davis’s description, the code of silence can be subtle. An officer, even one who was close by, may say that he didn’t see what happened at a crucial moment. And the penalties can be frightening: colleagues may not arrive as quickly to help an officer in danger who is considered a snitch.
“The code of silence works a lot like a family situation,” Mr. Davis said. “You cannot tell on your family members. You just know that. No one has to tell you that. If you have a partner, you’re going to back up your partner.”
The president of the police union in Chicago, Kevin Graham, said through a spokesman that no such code of silence exists, calling the claim nonsense. “How the special prosecutor can construe a ‘code of silence’ theory defies belief,” Mr. Graham said after the charges against the three officers were announced.
And Eddie Johnson, the superintendent of the Chicago Police and a 30-year veteran of the force, said this year — in a sworn deposition related to a separate police shooting lawsuit — that he was unaware of any such code. Through a spokesman, Superintendent Johnson declined to elaborate on the matter this week, citing limits on speaking with reporters that were set by the judge in the trial of the three officers.
But Mayor Rahm Emanuel has acknowledged the existence of a code. In late 2015, in the days after Chicagoans first saw damning video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald — video that the city had fought to keep out of public view — the mayor called for major changes in policing in a speech at City Hall. Facing demands for his resignation, Mr. Emanuel condemned what he said was sometimes called a “code of silence” or “a thin blue line.”
“It 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,” Mr. Emanuel said in the emotional speech.
Mr. Emanuel’s remarks joined a series of disclosures, court findings and report conclusions in recent years that have drawn attention to a code of silence in Chicago, and, some say, have set off a gradual process of dismantling it.
In 2012, a federal jury awarded $850,000 to Karolina Obrycka, a bartender who was beaten by an off-duty Chicago police officer, Anthony Abbate, in an incident that was caught on security video. Ms. Obrycka asserted in her lawsuit that a broad code of silence in Chicago had emboldened Mr. Abbate’s behavior.
The city reached a $2 million settlement in 2016 with two officers — Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria — who said they experienced retaliation after exposing a fellow officer who was accused of shaking down drug dealers and of framing people who would not go along with other crimes.
And in 2017, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the Chicago police that found, in part, that a code of silence was getting in the way of holding officers accountable for misconduct.
For all the attention, though, the attitude that officers back one another up has yet to change, according to Terry Ekl, a lawyer who represented Ms. Obrycka in her suit. “The fact of the matter is that a code of silence exists,” he said. “As long as you and I are alive, it’s going to be there. It would take the leadership at the top stating that we’re not going to tolerate this any longer, and if you do this, you’ll be fired.”
In the case playing out now in a Chicago courtroom, the three officers — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — have denied that they covered up for the officer who shot Laquan McDonald and tried to make the shooting appear justified.
Mr. March, who has resigned from the department, was the detective assigned to investigate the shooting. James McKay, a lawyer for Mr. March, told Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson that Mr. March merely carried out his duties. “He wrote down what the witnesses told him,” Mr. McKay said, adding that Mr. March was not assigned to be a “judge and jury” of what the officers reported had happened.
Mr. Walsh has also resigned from the department. He was the partner of Mr. Van Dyke, the officer who fired all the shots, on the night of the shooting. Mr. Walsh’s lawyer, Todd Pugh, said Mr. Walsh had only worked with Mr. Van Dyke once before, suggesting that his client had little reason to cover up for Mr. Van Dyke. If the video footage of the shooting conflicted with the way Mr. Walsh had described the events in reports, it was a matter of different perceptions of the same information based on one’s viewpoint, Mr. Pugh said.
Mr. Gaffney was one of the officers who first confronted Laquan McDonald on the evening of the shooting, after police got a report of a man breaking into trucks on the city’s Southwest Side. Mr. Gaffney and other officers had followed the teenager, who was carrying a knife and ignoring orders to stop, for several blocks. William Fahy, Mr. Gaffney’s lawyer, told the judge that Mr. Gaffney had showed appropriate restraint on the night of the shooting, but was now being charged because the authorities “disagree with the report that he wrote.” Mr. Fahy described the notion of a conspiracy among the officers to protect Mr. Van Dyke as “complete and utter nonsense.”
For some, the case has raised another question: Why are only three officers on trial?
Nine officers were at the scene when Officer Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, and police officials moved to fire seven officers who they said gave questionable accounts of the shooting. Grand jurors indicted three officers but declined to indict any others.
“You have to wonder, where is the brass in all this — where are the top bosses?” said Ms. Spalding, one of the officers who sued and received a settlement from the city in 2016.
Ms. Spalding described the trial now underway as a “puppet show for the public,” to create the appearance that someone was being held accountable for false accounts after Laquan McDonald’s death. “You’re putting a couple officers on trial,” she said. “But don’t think for one minute that everyone didn’t know.”
Monica Davey, The New York Times, “Police ‘Code of Silence’ Is on Trial After Murder by Chicago Officer”