“Fuck*ng Rats:” Chicago Cops Hang Whistleblowers Out To Dry
The Chicago Tribune reports that a federal judge, Gary Feinerman, will ask Mayor Rahm Emanuel to testify in Spalding v. City of Chicago, a 2012 civil rights lawsuit brought by two whistleblower cops against their employer and eleven other officers. The case is set to go to trial on May 31. Emanuel’s testimony is supposed to help establish whether the CPD has a “code of silence” surrounding police misconduct.
Attorneys for the city were so desperate to stave off the possibility of Emanuel testifying that they offered to just tell the jury such a code exists. But on Friday, Judge Feinerman told the city he would still ask the mayor to testify in person, noting that Emanuel’s testimony would offer “much more texture” than the lawyers could provide.
Officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echevarria allege that the city and their fellow cops deprived them of their First Amendment rights by punishing them for whistleblowing speech, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They also claim the CPD retaliated against them for disclosing information about police misconduct to the FBI, in violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Protection Act (740 ILCS 174/15).
In 2007, Spalding and Echevarria were assigned to an undercover narcotics unit. In the course of their work, they discovered that a band of plainclothes cops, led by Sergeant Ronald Watts, were engaged in the kind of corruption more appropriate to a Central American slum than America’s Second City.
According to allegations made by Watts’ fellow officer and former henchman, Kallett Mohammed, after Mohammed pleaded guilty in federal court in 2012, Watts and his crew ruled over the Ida. B. Wells Project in Chicago’s South Side. The cops stole drugs and drug money and shook down residents – including drug dealers – for protection payments. Those who refused to play ball were framed for various crimes.
Spalding and Echevarria decided to report the cops’ misconduct to an FBI agent. The FBI’s public corruption unit built the allegations into a full-blown investigation, known as Operation Brass Tax, which involved Spalding, Echevarria and the CPD’s Internal Affairs Division in addition to the feds. Although Brass Tax was meant to be kept confidential, certain high-ranking CPD personnel, including Debra Kirby – then Deputy Superintendent, now a partner at Hillard Heintze, a Chicago “security consulting” firm – and IAD Chief Juan Rivera were let in on the secret. Both Kirby and Rivera are defendants in Spalding.
Brass Tax was ultimately successful, up to a point. Watts and Mohammed were nabbed accepting $5200 in cash from an FBI informant in 2011. They were indicted on one count each of theft of government funds (18 U.S.C. § 641) in February 2012; both ultimately pleaded guilty. For their crimes, they received sentences of 18 (Mohammed) and 22 months (Watts.)
But according to the lawsuit, instead of being feted for helping rid the CPD of a few bad apples, Spalding and Echevarria were subjected to a campaign of retaliation for blowing the whistle on their fellow officers.
Knowledge of Spalding and Echevarria’s involvement quickly leaked, and they say a bewildering array of superiors decided to punish them. Spalding and Echevarria claim they were deprived of overtime pay, vacation time and various job-related perks, obstructed as they did their jobs and forced to sit idle at desks for weeks at a time.
More seriously, Spalding and Echevarria claim their fellow officers wished to see them come to harm. They were allegedly told wouldn’t be backed up if they got into trouble on the street. On one occasion, they were allegedly forced to chase down a dangerous felon on their own when the team they were promised for support never showed up.
Spalding and Echevarria argue that all this amounts to a First Amendment violation by the city and seek relief under § 1983. In Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978), the Supreme Court held that municipalities can be held liable for § 1983 violations. To succeed on their Monell claim, Spalding and Echevarria have to show that an “official policy or custom” gave rise to the retaliation.
Hence the importance of establishing whether the CPD has a “code of silence,” and a habit of punishing those who break it. The stakes are high: in 2012, a Chicago bartender, Karolina Obrycka, prevailed on a § 1983 claim of her own after a jury found that the CPD’s code of silence enabled the cover-up of Obrycka’s beating at the hands of Officer Anthony Abbate. The jury awarded her $850,000.
Unfortunately for Mayor Emanuel, he’s backed himself into a corner here: one week after the release of the Laquan McDonald video, he gave a speech to the Chicago City Council where he claimed such a code of silence existed and was to blame for the lies told by CPD officers in the wake of the shooting.