Two Chicago police officers say they have faced retaliation and suffered from PTSD since they blew the whistle on a gang of their fellow cops who were demanding bribes from drug dealers in the housing projects of Chicago. We speak with one of the whistleblowers, Shannon Spalding, and with reporter Jamie Kalven, who documented their ordeal in a major investigation for The Intercept called “Code of Silence.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with an explosive story of two Chicago police officers who blew the whistle on a gang of their colleagues after they discovered they were demanding bribes from drug dealers in the housing projects of Chicago, arresting their rivals and blocking any internal investigations into their actions. The two whistleblowers, Shannon Spalding and her partner Danny Echeverria, spent five years working with the Chicago Police Department and the FBI in their case, only to be sidelined, outed as informants, threatened and eventually forced out of the police department. In contrast, the named senior officials and cops who helped cover for their fellow officers were able to retire from the force with their pensions intact and faced no punishment for their role in the cover-up. Spalding says she has even received death threats. She and her partner both took stress-related medical leave, and she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
AMY GOODMAN: Their ordeal is chronicled in a four-part investigation published by The Intercept called “The Code of Silence.” Part 1 is headlined “In the Chicago Police Department, If the Bosses Say It Didn’t Happen, It Didn’t Happen.” It’s written by the award-winning Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven, who’s made a career of exposing police misconduct in Chicago. He spent three years interviewing Spalding for the report. He’s also known for uncovering the autopsy report that showed Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago police in [ 2014 ], and was the first to report on the existence of the video of the shooting, which was released 400 days after McDonald was killed. Thursday marked the second anniversary of the killing. Kalven is now working with Spalding on a project called the Invisible Institute, which has set up an encrypted drop box for Chicago police officers to anonymously upload evidence of corruption. They also offer to link whistleblowing cops to mental health and legal resources.
For more, we go to Chicago, where Jamie Kalven joins us to discuss the investigation. And we’re joined by the whistleblower at the center of his story, Shannon Spalding.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jamie, let’s begin with you. Lay out this story.
JAMIE KALVEN: So, this is really a Serpico saga for our time, of two undercover—two narcotics officers who undercover a massive criminal enterprise, as your setup said, in high-rise public housing in Chicago during its last decade of existence. It’s all been demolished now, so the scene of the crime has essentially disappeared. They make conscientious efforts to bring this criminal activity to the attention of their superiors. They’re blown off, ultimately go to the FBI and provide information. It’s not conclusive information, but grounds for investigation. They then are detailed to work undercover with the FBI and pursue this investigation for a number of years, are at the point of breaking the case wide open when they are outed within the department, and have since suffered constant retaliation.
I think part of what is really important about this story is what it illustrates about the nature of the code of silence. You know, I think the common understanding of the code of silence is it’s a kind of peer-to-peer phenomena of the rank and file: “We’re in the foxhole together. You’ve got my back. I’ve got mine. Nobody likes a tattletale.” There certainly is that dimension within police culture, but what’s so striking about this story is that the retaliation against these officers is ordered by high-ranking supervisory officials within the department. So it’s really a story, in great detail, of how the code of silence operates at the center of the Chicago Police Department.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jamie, about this issue of retaliation being ordered at high levels. How was that documented in the lawsuit? And also, the city settled for $2 million before there was a trial. Could you talk about the tactic of the city of settling the suit?
JAMIE KALVEN: Right. So, there was a—in the midst of this ordeal, the two officers, Shannon and Danny, brought a whistleblower lawsuit—really, an employment suit—hoping, above all, to be protected from further retaliation. It only compounded and intensified the retaliation at that point. There are a number of allegations in the lawsuit, and The Intercept piece links to all the underlying legal documents. But, you know, supervisors—the commander of narcotics, the chief of organized crime—made it clear that they did not want these officers working in units that they controlled. They went so far, in one instance, of really delivering a threat—and, paradoxically, the threat was conveyed by the chief of Internal Affairs, who’s charged with investigating this sort of thing—a threat against their personal safety. You know, I believe the quote was “If they call for backup, it’s not coming.”
So, you know, this was not just a matter of being ostracized or shunned within the department, although it certainly was that. These—as Shannon says at one point in the article, I quote her saying, you know, “We were officers without a department.” So they’re left out on the streets in this really dangerous investigation, investigating a team of officers who are thought to have been implicated in two murders. It hasn’t been proven yet, but it’s scarcely been investigated, apart from Shannon and Danny’s work. And they’re kind of left wholly exposed. So—and this was coming from the top. This wasn’t some kind of, you know, aberrant behavior. This is really the machinery of how the Chicago Police Department controls the narrative. Amy quoted the line about, you know, if the bosses say it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. That’s really what’s at the center of this story.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to Shannon Spalding, former Chicago police officer. On May 31st, Chicago agrees to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by Shannon Spalding and her colleague, Daniel Echeverria, who alleged they suffered retaliation for reporting and investigating criminal activity by fellow officers. Shannon Spalding, tell us: What was it that you were investigating? When did it happen? And when did the cover-up, do you feel, and the retaliation against you start?
SHANNON SPALDING: My partner Danny and I started investigating allegations that kept surfacing. There was a sergeant, Ronald Watts, and members of his TAC team, who worked directly underneath him, that were imposing what they called on the street a “Watts tax.” Basically, he was extorting the drug dealers. He was receiving money from drug dealers that ran different drug lines within the Ida B. Wells housing projects and the surrounding area. And in exchange for that money, they were guaranteed protection from prosecution and arrest. In addition to that, the allegations were that this crew of rogue officers, under the command of Ronald Watts, were also planting narcotics on innocent individuals and falsifying police reports, falsely arresting them, putting them in prison for false allegations. There’s also the allegations of, you know, physical violence, of being beaten, if they didn’t want to comply and pay this tax, as well as warrantless seizures, kicking in doors and going through people’s apartments, stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down. And the allegations kept being repeated over and over again from every individual that we would do intelligence debriefings with, along with our confidential informants.
And I think you said, “When did the retaliation begin on this investigation?” We began to investigate it and brought it to the FBI in 2006. We were not officially assigned with our department to work with the FBI at that time. We were doing this on our own time. In 2007, we were assigned by the Chicago Police Department to work with the FBI solely on what was dubbed Operation Brass Tax, “brass” meaning the top officials in the police department—”brass” refers to a boss—”tax,” because that’s what they were implementing on the drug dealers and the gangbangers. It was about—I believe it was 2010, August of 2010, when I realized that our identity had been compromised and that we were now out in the open. This was supposed to remain a strictly confidential investigation. And it was imperative that our identities not be revealed, because the targets of this investigation were officers and bosses, and we didn’t know how far up the chain it would go, which meant that they had access to all of our personal information—where we lived, our children, anything that they wanted, which made us very vulnerable. So, to expose our identity is basically throwing us to the wolves. These targets could now know who we are, what we’re investigating. And you have to remember, these are police officers. They know what they did. And now they know we know. And that—with that comes the implication of federal prison time, losing your job, losing your livelihood. That makes us targets and makes it very dangerous for us to work.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to turn to Janet Hanna, a 20-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department. She says she witnessed the harassment of you, Shannon, and your partner, Danny Echeverria. On one occasion, Hanna said she overheard a sergeant warning you about her own safety. This is Hanna telling NBC Chicago’s Phil Rogers what she overheard.
JANET HANNA: That she better where her bulletproof vest. She may go home in a casket, and he doesn’t want have to call her daughter and tell her that she’s—you know, she’s gone.
PHIL ROGERS: And that was because she would be in danger from bad guys and they wouldn’t protect her from the bad guys, or she’d be in danger from her fellow officers?
JANET HANNA: Both.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about that? What kind of retaliation did you feel when you were still working there?
SHANNON SPALDING: Oh, the retaliation was horrific. I actually felt so anxious walking into work every day, because once I filed the whistleblower lawsuit, I am now working for the defendants of my lawsuit. So can you just imagine what that was like? I felt like I was walking into the lion’s den with a steak around my neck every single day.
And I recall that incident. That incident is just burned into my memory. It was my direct supervisor at the time within Fugitive Apprehension that was telling me that because we had investigated other officers, because we had basically broken the code of silence and we had gone against other sworn members, that the officers within that unit—the supervisors were relaying to me that the officers on the team and in this unit “will not back you up. You’re on your own. You’re in—you’re in a lot of danger.” And he went so far as to saying—as to say, “You’re going to end up in a box, and I’m going to be the one knocking on the door and telling your daughter you’re coming home in a box.” And those were the type of threats that would happen just on a regular basis. It was almost—the retaliation was relentless, and it was daily.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to also ask Jamie Kalven—you’ve been investigating both police abuse and now this entire police corruption scandal. For those of us who have been following crime stories and police departments now for decades, this is almost like déjà vu all over again, if it wasn’t Serpico in the 1960s here in New York City, and then in the '90s there was a similar type of scandal with a corrupt group of officers named—headed by a guy named Michael Dowd, and, again, a whistle—a police officer within the department, Joe Trimboli, trying to ferret them out. But the Dowd criminal group was only revealed when Long Island police arrested him on charges. And it seems to me that there's always been sort of a link between corruption in police departments and abuse within police departments, that there seem to be upsurges in abuse at the same time that there are upsurges in corruption. I’m wondering your understanding of what’s been going on in Chicago.
JAMIE KALVEN: Yeah, well, I think that’s—that’s well put. And a huge part of that is the war on drugs and the way in which we’ve conducted it. I mean, I think we’ve found consistently, in, you know, multiple, multiple scandals, that it happens in sort of specialized units working in supposedly combating the war on drugs. And—but again and again, that proves to be a sort of setting and medium for corruption and all the attendant abuse.
So, what Shannon was describing was this sort of protection racket that—you know, hugely corrupt. The officers are really an integral part of the drug trade. At the same time, as part of that, they are daily, multiple times, violating the constitutional rights of citizens—false arrest, excessive force, the fabrication of evidence, on and on. So this all goes together.
And I think we will continue to have recurring scandals of this nature until we can address the—you know, we use this term, “the code of silence,” to describe a kind of culture within the department, a, really, mode of governance within the department. And until officers like Shannon and Danny are held up as models of good police officers and good police work, until the incentive-disincentive sort of scheme shifts, right now, for officers to break ranks and come forward and report really grievous abuse by fellow officers requires them to be heroic almost to the point of self-sacrifice.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in—
JAMIE KALVEN: That can’t work.
AMY GOODMAN: In February of 2015, the former Chicago Police Department superintendent, Garry McCarthy, releases a statement to NBC Chicago saying, quote, “Superintendent McCarthy and the CPD [Chicago Police Department] have zero tolerance for retaliation against whistleblowers. … However, the City believes the claims of these particular plaintiffs are without merit. The City will continue to vigorously litigate this case.” That was in February 2015. Shannon, the day you were going to trial, right, in May of 2016, they settled with you and Danny, your fellow police officer, for $2 million?
SHANNON SPALDING: That is correct. They waited until the last minute, and then they decided to settle. And I personally believe that’s because they did not want me getting on the stand and telling everything that I know about how the operation within the police department really works. And they didn’t want that on public record. So, they would rather settle than have me expose all of their dirty laundry in a courtroom.
AMY GOODMAN: How much money were you talking about, by the way, when it came to what these officers were doing?
SHANNON SPALDING: Oh, you know, we’ll never have a final count. But, you know, the range varied. We got information that some of the drug lines would pay a couple thousand dollars a week. We had several sources say that one of the biggest dope lines that was run in the city of Chicago was named “Obama,” and they would pay as much as $50,000. So, it depended on the drug dealer. The amount of money they were bringing in, the amount of protection that they would need, how many locations they were running would vary. It was—it was really a criminal enterprise. It was a complete business, a criminal business.
AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone been prosecuted?
SHANNON SPALDING: Ronald Watts, Sergeant Ronald Watts, and Kallatt Mohammed pled guilty, and they served their sentences in federal prison. I believe it was 18 and 22 months, Ronald—Sergeant Ronald Watts doing 22 months, and I believe Kallatt Mohammed did 18 months.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jamie Kalven, you were interviewing these officers off and on for several years before you actually were able to—The Intercept story came out. Could you talk about the difficulties in getting this story out?
JAMIE KALVEN: Yeah, so, this is a—I mean, this is a complicated story for a journalist to figure out how to bring to the public. You know, when an Edward Snowden comes to us with a treasure trove of documents, we know what to do with that sort of whistleblower. When somebody like Shannon and her partner Danny come with a compelling story that they have—that’s cost them, and they’ve taken great risks to tell, but it—by the nature of the story, it can’t be fully corroborated. You can’t, you know, double source. Other people who were in the room for various conversations won’t talk to you. And it’s fundamentally a story about the code of silence, which we should really call by its true name, which is “official lying,” concerted, sustained lying by high officials. You know, the question of how to tell that story in a way that is consistent with journalistic ethics and standards of rigor and care, you know, I struggled with that and found, ultimately, with The Intercept, a great partner in bringing this story out.
And where the story sort of ends—and I urge people to go to The Intercept site and read it. It really—you know, partly because of Shannon’s great storytelling ability, it reads like a novel. But it ends at a point where I want to leave the reader with a question, which is: If Shannon and Danny are telling the truth—and you’ve read this long story, you can make your own judgments about credibility—if they are telling the truth, then a whole array of high officials are lying, and lying in concert. So, the story really ultimately hinges on arriving at that question. And that question remains open for the city of Chicago. You know, the settlement of the case did not resolve the—of Shannon’s case did not resolve the issues raised by the case. And what we hope to do through the reporting and ongoing reporting about this is to keep those issues very centrally in the public eye.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, late last year, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel apologized for Laquan McDonald’s death. In his speech to the Chicago City Council, Emanuel broke with the city’s long history of denying the existence of the code of silence.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: As we move forward, I am looking for a new leader of the Chicago Police Department to address the problems at the very heart of the policing profession. The problem is sometimes referred to as “the thin blue line.” The problem is other times referred to as “the code of silence.” It is this tendency to ignore. It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency, in some cases, to cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues. No officer should be allowed to behave as if they are above the law, just because they are responsible for upholding the law. Permitting and protecting even the smallest acts of abuse by a tiny fraction of our officers leads to a culture where extreme acts of abuse are more likely—just like what happened to Laquan McDonald.
AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Thursday marked the second anniversary of the death of Laquan McDonald, fatally shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. Jamie Kalven, you were the first to report the existence of the video of the shooting, which was released 400 days after McDonald was killed, released after Mayor Rahm Emanuel was re-elected. As we wrap up, can you talk about the significance of here he’s acknowledging the code of silence, and what this case has meant for the city? Basically, Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times, that’s almost one bullet for every year of his life. He died at the age of 17.
JAMIE KALVEN: No, it’s an extraordinary—it’s an extraordinary moment for the city. And I’ve now compared the public narrative of Laquan McDonald to the story of Emmett Till, another—another child of Chicago, that so illuminated the underlying violence of the Jim Crow era. The revelations about Laquan McDonald, not simply the atrocity of his death, but the institutional response after, which is really a classic illustration of the code of silence as control of the narrative—you know, the suppression of evidence, the intimidation of witnesses, fabrication of reports—that now has become a sort of framing narrative in Chicago and caused a political earthquake, changed the landscape of the city.
So we have, amid all of the sort of bad news and all the disclosures of wrongdoing and corruption within the department—I think it’s important to emphasize that as a consequence of the McDonald tragedy, there is an historic opening in Chicago for really meaningful police reform. The language quoted from the—that was one of the mayor’s better moments, acknowledging the existence of the code of silence. And so, there really is, going forward, I believe, a kind of irresistible momentum towards reform. But it’s a big challenge. It’s going to be a long slog. And only by addressing the culture within the department that we refer to as the code of silence will change really be meaningful and endure. We can make all sorts of changes in institutions, tweak procedures, but culture will always trump procedure.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamie Kalven, we want to thank you for being with us. We will link to your series, “Code of Silence,” at democracynow.org. And, Shannon Spalding, thank you for your bravery and for speaking out here today on Democracy Now!, former Chicago police officer, whistleblower featured in the series. She says she suffered retaliation for reporting and investigating criminal activity by fellow Chicago officers.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Shaun King joins us to talk about many issues. Stay with us.