Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

3 Chicago Officers Accused In A Police Cover-Up To Learn Their Fate


Later today, a judge rules if three Chicago police officers are guilty. They're accused of covering up for a colleague, Jason Van Dyke. He's the officer convicted of killing a black teenager - a killing caught on video. The trial of his colleagues highlights the police code of silence. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's been just over three years that angry protesters poured into Chicago streets, shouting.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Sixteen shots and a cover-up. What? Sixteen shots and a cover-up. What?

CORLEY: Sixteen shots and a cover-up became a familiar mantra after a judge ordered the release of a police dash cam video. That video showed police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Protesters accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel and police of concealing the video and called for the mayor's resignation. In an emotional speech, Emanuel apologized and talked about what he said was a problem at the heart of policing - a code of silence.


RAHM EMANUEL: It is this 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.

CORLEY: The video caught the alleged bad actions. It contradicted the police claim that McDonald tried to attack officers with a knife. William Calloway is an activist who fought for release of the video.

WILLIAM CALLOWAY: The code of silence exists. We're doing our best to try to destroy that in the Chicago Police Department.

CORLEY: And activists hope this case will help do that. Joseph Walsh, David Marsh and Thomas Gaffney stand accused of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct. They all deny lying and engaging in a cover-up to protect then-fellow-officer Van Dyke. A jury found him guilty of second degree murder and aggravated battery. He's scheduled to be sentenced tomorrow.

SANJA KUTNJAK IVKOVICH: Well, I think people have the misconception that there's just one code of silence. That code of silence covers everything.

CORLEY: Sanja Kutnjak Ivkovich is a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University. For two decades, she's studied police agencies around the world and says there is a culture of silence among them all. There's often a club-ish I've-got-your-back mentality because of the dangers of policing. The professor says her surveys show patrol officers are more likely to keep silent about low-level misconduct, like cursing at a suspect. They are more likely to come forward, she says, when there's more serious misconduct, like the use of deadly force. But there are thousands of police agencies, and each is different. For instance, there are what Kutnjak Ivkovich calls high-integrity police departments.

KUTNJAK IVKOVICH: And in these agencies, something as serious as using deadly force will not be tolerated, will not be covered by the code of silence.

CORLEY: They might have explicit rules about lying and enforce them by firing or suspending officers who ignore them. They may also reward officers who report misconduct. Then there are the others - low-integrity departments, she calls them, where almost any form of misconduct would be tolerated. The head of the police union in Chicago, Kevin Graham, isn't buying it. He says the whole idea of police secrecy is overblown.

KEVIN GRAHAM: I am not going to be so naive as to say that every officer is a saint and is perfect. What I am saying is that to have a code of silence, to try and say that people are covering up for other people - it's ridiculous.

CORLEY: There have been plenty of cases throughout the decades across the country, though, that raised concerns about the culture of police silence. It really came to the public's attention in the 1970s when whistleblower Frank Serpico outed corruption in the New York City Police Department. Now video is being used to expose possible corruption and abuse, like in this trial related to the Laquan McDonald shooting.


DOMENICA STEPHENSON: I see all three defendants. You can be seated. Present in court, can all...

CORLEY: Judge Domenica Stephenson will issue today's verdict. She'll take into account the testimony of Chicago police officer Dora Fontaine. She's a key witness who says a detective altered her statement about the Laquan McDonald shooting. On the witness stand, she talked about why she was transferred from street to desk duty.


DORA FONTAINE: Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor. If I was at a call and I needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn't deserve to be helped.

CORLEY: Fontaine's appearance, though, may bolster the notion by some that there is no entrenched police code of silence. Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer, is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

PETER MOSKOS: Time and time again, you see cops testifying against other cops.

CORLEY: Even so, Moskos calls this particular conspiracy case against the three officers rare.

MOSKOS: The silver lining of it is I do think it represents a change in police culture in Chicago, in particular.

CORLEY: A change, he says, where a cover-up might have been even standard in the past but is not anymore. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.