CHICAGO — When Rahm Emanuel fired Police Supt. Garry McCarthy and Independent Police Review Authority boss Scott Ando — two nationally respected lawmen — the mayor clearly meant to send a message that he’s taking reform seriously.
But before Chicagoans get too mesmerized by the mayor's crisis management plan, they shouldn’t forget about some of the men and women still on the city payroll — officers who lied, filed false reports and covered for each other by getting their “story straight.”
In just about every police department in the country except Chicago, getting caught filing false police reports or making false statements during an investigation — a violation of "Rule 14" in the Chicago Police Department code of conduct — is a “career killer.”
Here, though, a convoluted police disciplinary system — the Independent Police Review Authority recommends punishments, and then the police superintendent files charges with the Police Board, which makes the final decisions while the police superintendent has no say in the matter — continues to protect officers who break Rule 14 from getting fired.
Indeed, it’s extremely rare for officers who get caught lying to lose their jobs even if IPRA and the police superintendent recommend termination as punishment.
If Emanuel is serious about breaking the "thin blue line" code of silence that a federal court called a “persistent widespread custom” within the Police Department, it’s the mayor’s job to fire the liars — every single officer and supervisor found in violation of Rule 14 — every single time.
Reports released by the city related to the police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald appear to offer a glaring example of how officers conspire to cover for each other.
The reports come in the wake of murder charges being filed against Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who hit Laquan with all 16 bullets in his gun's clip.
The investigative records made public late Friday included statements made by officers at the scene that clearly contradict the way events transpired on police dashcam video:
* Van Dyke’s partner, officer Joseph Walsh, stated that Laquan advanced toward him and his partner while swinging a knife combatively.
* Four officers at the scene reported that Laquan advanced toward officers before the shooting.
* Officer Dora Fontaine told detectives Laquan “raised his right arm toward Officer Van Dyke, as if attacking Van Dyke,” according to the reports.
The dashcam video showed no evidence of any of that.
Indeed, Laquan appeared to be moving away from Van Dyke when the officer now charged with murder fatally shot the teenager.
Yet the report states, “The recovered in-car camera video from beats 845R and 813R was viewed and found to be consistent with the accounts of all of the witnesses.”
How could that be? Why would officers give statements that appear to contradict the truth about what happened?
With a federal investigation at hand, that’s a question each of those officers will surely have to answer.
Dean Angelo, president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union that represents those officers, did not return calls seeking comment about the conflicting statements.
But police officers familiar with the code of silence within the Police Department will tell you there’s a key phrase, a secret code if you will, that lets officers know when it’s time to protect their own.
The line — “get your story straight” — signals “an expectation to fall in line with the narrative of an event, even if it differs from what you actually saw,” one officer who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation told me in 2013.
If officers who backed Van Dyke’s version of events are found to have gotten their story straight, so to speak, they don’t deserve to keep their jobs.
That’s how the police discipline system is supposed to work and when it doesn’t, Chicagoans — especially people living in violent, poverty-stricken parts of town — have good reason not to trust a Police Department that harbors liars.
It took a respectful poke to get Emanuel off his taking points when the topic of Rule 14 came up at a Monday news conference.
But to the mayor’s credit, he said he recognized that Rule 14 lies at the center of Chicagoan’s trust issues with the Police Department.
Emanuel said his “very concern” is that the three entities charged with punishing police for misconduct aren’t getting the job done and that’s why he’s instructed a police accountability task force to find ways to fix the broken system.
“One of the things I’ve charged this task force … is to look at the fact that you have three entities and if people are not telling the truth but believe there is a permissive culture that enables that rather than hold them accountable, we have a problem because people won’t trust it,” the mayor said.
When asked why officers who gave statements that didn’t match what happened in the Laquan shooting video haven’t been disciplined even now that Van Dyke faces first-degree murder charges, Emanuel said that he’s waiting for the appropriate moment to do the right thing.
“You’re asking on a day in which … we have a new [police] superintendent. We have a new head of IPRA, and there is an investigation going right now by the U.S. attorney on the event and all the parties involved as it relates to Laquan McDonald,” Emanuel said.
“When I’m given the chance and the materials, I will take action and make things right if they are wrong and hold people accountable.”
If Emanuel thinks the Justice Department probe, formally announced Monday by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, buys him more time, the mayor should know protesters gathered outside his office, chanting for him to resign, think there’s no time to waste.
Every day, police officers with sustained Rule 14 violations on their record — some who helped cover for co-workers by getting the story straight — are still out patrolling Chicago streets.
The way things stand, there’s no way for the regular folks to tell the difference between the honest officers and the ones who lie to protect themselves and fellow cops.
So far, officers on the scene when Laquan was killed who echoed Van Dyke’s version of events — a set of statements prosecutors allege were outright lies — have escaped punishment, and nobody knows what has become of them.
There’s no way for Chicagoans to know if the officers who allegedly told the same lies that Van Dyke did in an attempt to save his career have been allowed to remain on the street making arrests, filing reports and vouching for their fellow officers.
When newly minted police Supt. John Escalante was asked where officers on the scene when Laquan was killed — the ones who gave statements contrary to what everybody saw on the dashcam video — are now assigned, he didn’t get a chance to respond.
Emanuel tugged on the interim superintendent’s jacket, pulling Escalante away from the microphone and into his office.
It’s one thing to say it’s not time to fire the liars Mr. Mayor, but the least you can do is tell Chicagoans where they’re hiding in plain sight.
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