By Jamie Kalven

Part 1

Two young officers began to hear rumors of a drug gang operating within the Chicago Police Department. They were skeptical at first.

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On May 31, the city of Chicago agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by two police officers who allege they suffered retaliation for reporting and investigating criminal activity by fellow officers. The settlement, for $2 million, was announced moments before the trial was to begin.

As the trial date approached, city lawyers had made a motion to exclude the words “code of silence” from the proceedings. Not only was the motion denied, but the judge ruled that Mayor Rahm Emanuel could be called to testify about what he meant when he used the term in a speech he delivered to the City Council last December, at the height of the political firestorm provoked by the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

In that speech, Emanuel broke with the city’s long history of denying the existence of the code of silence. He spoke of “problems at the very heart of the policing profession,” and said: “This problem is sometimes referred to as the Thin Blue Line. Other times it’s referred to as the code of silence. It is the tendency to ignore, deny, or in some cases cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”

The prevailing narrative in the press was that the city settled in order to avoid the possibility that Mayor Emanuel would be compelled to testify. But the mayor’s testimony, had it come to pass, would have been unlikely to provide much illumination. By contrast, that of the plaintiffs, Shannon Spalding and Danny Echeverria, promised to be revelatory. In the words of Judge Gary Feinerman, they have a story to tell that “purports to show extraordinarily serious retaliatory misconduct by officers at nearly all levels of the CPD hierarchy.”

Shannon Spalding at the site of the former Ida B. Wells Homes on March 3, 2016. Photo: Patricia Evans

Shannon Spalding at the site of the former Ida B. Wells Homes on March 3, 2016. Photo: Patricia Evans

When I first met Shannon Spalding in 2013, she was in despair. She had risked everything to bring to light corruption within the Chicago Police Department, she said, yet no one believed her.

In brief, Spalding recounted that she and her partner, Danny Echeverria, spent over five years working undercover on a joint FBI-CPD internal affairs investigation that uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department. A gang tactical team led by a sergeant named Ronald Watts operated a protection racket in public housing developments on Chicago’s South Side. In exchange for “a tax,” Watts and his team shielded drug dealers from interference by law enforcement and targeted their competition. Their operation went far beyond shaking down the occasional drug dealer. They were major players in the drug trade on the South Side.

The investigation had multiple targets. Beyond Watts, it was focused on members of his team and senior officials suspected of conspiring with him. It was also rumored both on the street and in the department that Watts was involved in the murders of two drug dealers who defied him.

When Spalding and Echeverria were on the verge of breaking the case open, the investigation was sabotaged by a high-ranking official who outed them as “rats.” Other CPD brass ordered officers under their command to retaliate against Spalding and Echeverria for violating the code of silence. Reprisals were especially harsh against Spalding, leaving her financially devastated, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and stripped of the job she loves.

When we first spoke three years ago, Spalding’s despair arose not from self-doubt — her conviction about the substance of her story was unshakeable — but from her awareness of the forces arrayed against her. She was oppressed by the knowledge that CPD brass had the power to impose upon the world their own version of reality and in the process portray her as delusional.

“I call it Operation Smoke and Mirrors,” she said at the time. “If four bosses in the department say it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen.”

While the term “code of silence” evokes something essential — the coerced silence of police officers who observe but do not report abuses by their fellow officers — it is, in some respects, a misnomer, a euphemism. The practices to which it refers are less a matter of silence than of tightly orchestrated lying and various means used to maintain narrative control.

Today, in the wake of the political upheaval in Chicago precipitated by the Laquan McDonald case, the CPD has lost control of the narrative. This creates space for Shannon Spalding’s voice finally to be heard.

This article tells her story. It is based on extensive interviews with Spalding conducted over the last three years. It also draws on interviews with Echeverria and several others who figure in the case, and on the record generated in the course of pretrial discovery. Aided by notes she kept on a daily basis over the years, Spalding gives a richly detailed account of the code of silence not as a vague “culture” among the rank and file but as a set of institutional mechanisms central to the operation of the CPD.

To be clear at the outset: The police officials named as defendants in the whistleblower lawsuit — Chief Juan Rivera, Cmdr. James O’Grady, Chief Nick Roti, Sgt. Maurice Barnes, Lt. Robert Cesario, Sgt. Thomas Mills, and Cmdr. Joseph Salemme — deny the plaintiffs’ allegations. In addition to citing their denials in the public record, efforts have been made to contact each of the defendants, as well as the other law enforcement officials who figure in the story. Each either did not respond, could not be located, or declined to comment. The Chicago Police Department and the city’s Department of Law both said they do not comment on active investigations or litigation. The defendants’ depositions, affidavits, and sworn statements, in which they contest Spalding and Echeverria’s version of events, are available here.

The counternarrative that emerges from the defendants’ legal arguments is that Spalding and Echeverria played at best a marginal role in the Watts investigation, serving as little more than handlers for a confidential informant, and that they — particularly Spalding — were problem officers others did not want to work with. In a February 2015 press release about the case, the city stated that “Superintendent [Garry] McCarthy and the CPD have zero tolerance for retaliation against whistleblowers,” but “the city believes the claims of these particular plaintiffs are without merit.”

According to Spalding, the united front of the defendants against charges of retaliation under the code of silence is the ultimate expression of the code. If she is telling the truth, a group of high-ranking police officials are lying in concert and under oath.

From the start, Spalding’s career was braided with that of Ronald Watts. When she joined the department in 1996, he was among the first officers she met. As a rookie, she was assigned to ride with him as part of her training. Over the years, they remained on friendly terms. And throughout their careers, they worked the same streets — the 2nd District on the South Side — during an era of turbulent change.

While both are native South Siders, they grew up in different worlds, on opposite sides of one of the starkest racial boundaries in the city: the bridge over the railroad tracks (and later the Dan Ryan Expressway) that separates the neighborhood of Bridgeport, long the stronghold of the Daley political dynasty, from the heart of the black South Side.

Blond and Irish, Spalding was raised among the many police officers and firefighters who make their homes in Bridgeport. Watts grew up on the other side of the bridge in public housing. When he joined the department and came to the 2nd District in 1994, after a stint in the Army, he already knew the streets and the players.


Roughly 2 square miles, the 2nd District encompasses the heart of the old Black Belt, the African-American city within the city under segregation, which absorbed wave after wave of migrants from the South, then with the end of legal segregation, like a great swollen river, overflowed its banks and spilled into other South Side neighborhoods. Once the most densely populated part of the city, it was by the 1990s riddled with abandoned buildings and vacant lots. And it contained an extraordinary amount of public housing.

While some of that housing was built before World War II as segregated housing for blacks — notably the Ida B. Wells Homes, a sprawling row-house development — most was constructed after the United States Supreme Court struck down racially restrictive covenants. Yet it conformed to traditional patterns of segregation. Confronted with opposition from white aldermen who didn’t want public housing in their wards, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the 1950s and 1960s had built developments in traditionally black areas of the South and West Sides.

The most extraordinary manifestation of this segregation was the so-called South State Street corridor, more than 2 continuous miles of public housing high-rises — the Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens — and several smaller mid-rise developments a few blocks farther north. By the 1990s, the corridor was said to be the single largest concentration of poverty in the nation.

That was the world Shannon Spalding entered when she came to the 2nd District as a rookie and was assigned to ride with Ronald Watts.

“It was culture shock for me,” she recalled recently. “I was in a world I didn’t understand. I was lost. So I needed to learn. He schooled me.”


As they drove through the streets and alleys of the district, Watts shared his knowledge of gangs and drugs with her. Because the drug trade takes such distinctive forms in high-rise public housing, said Spalding, “housing police are a breed apart.” Watts, in her view, was one of the best.

The world they moved through was dominated by two gangs, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. Between them they controlled the drug trade in public housing. Each operated out of particular high-rises, often at the same development, which were identified accordingly as “GD” and “BD” buildings.

Night and day, an endless parade of customers was served by the young men in the open-air lobbies of the high-rises. At various locations around the perimeters of the buildings, solitary figures stood watch for 12-hour shifts “doing security.” Most were older men and women. Almost all were drug users who supported their habits by doing this work. Like street criers, they sang out the names of the drugs sold in the particular building — “Dog Face!” “Titanic!” “USDA!” — and acted as lookouts. If a police car approached, they called out a warning — “Blue and white northbound on Federal” — and the message was relayed from voice to voice into the interior shadows of the drug bazaar.

An unintended byproduct of the design of the high-rise developments — they had been conceived, in the architectural idiom of the day, as “towers in the park” — was that you could see the police coming from a long way off. As a countermeasure, gang tactical officers, “the jump out boys,” often drove up on the buildings at high speeds, careening across the grounds and sidewalks, in an effort to grab the young men before they had a chance to flee up the stairs and disappear into an apartment or vacant unit. There were frequent arrests. Then, as the police drove away, the drug market would reopen for business.

Tellingly, both drug dealers and police refer to the cat-and-mouse maneuvers of the drug trade as “the game.” For one side, the object is to intercept, for the other, to evade. In the era before public housing on the South Side was demolished, the setting for this contest was derelict high-rises, housing impoverished families, through which wealth constantly circulated. In order to meet the never-ending demand, new “packages” of drugs were regularly delivered and stashed in secret locations, such as vacant units, utility closets, mailboxes, or garbage chutes. Money was harvested and hauled away. (The younger brother of a major drug dealer once described to me a vacant unit filled with grocery bags of cash — like tobacco curing in a shed.)

As they drove through the developments, Spalding recalled, Watts would point things out to her.

“Look,” he said one day. “See how they’re rolling the dumpsters out into the fire lane? They’re going to start shooting soon.” The dumpsters would function as barriers against drive-bys. Similarly, he warned her to be careful running into the lobbies at Stateway Gardens, because the young men had strategically placed railroad ties — delivered to the development for landscaping projects — to trip up the police.


Spalding eagerly absorbed Watts’s instruction — “I learned something every day” — and enjoyed his company. “He was a likeable person, easy to be around,” she said. “He sometimes joked with me — ‘OK, Susie Homemaker, you can leave your apron at home today’ — but he was always friendly and respectful.”

There was one incident during this period, however, that gave her pause. They were on the grounds of Stateway Gardens. Watts identified a stolen car, and they took off in pursuit. The driver ditched the car and ran toward one of the buildings. Spalding began to run after him. Watts called her back. “He really went off on me. It didn’t seem to fit with the situation.”

When they searched the car, they found a “trap” — a hidden compartment — full of money. She had no role in inventorying the money. Shaken, she tried to understand what had just happened. Watts explained that he was trying to protect her, that he didn’t want her running into the high-rise alone. She was unpersuaded. There was no doubt in her mind she could have caught the suspect before he reached the building. The incident stayed with her and troubled her. “It didn’t seem right.”

On balance, though, she came away with high regard for Watts as “a good cop who got solid information and good results.” And she was impressed by the respect he seemed to command on the street. Major gang leaders, who wouldn’t engage with other officers, would talk to him.

Read the rest of the story here: