October 25, 2016

Invisible Institute Releases Report on CPD "Code of Silence"

Journalist Jamie Kalven’s recent Intercept article, “Code of Silence,” has raised questions about corruption within the Chicago Police Department (CPD). The article features officers Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria’s claims of having been silenced after discovering a cop-run crime ring.

This piece examined the elusive “code of silence” within the CPD, an unspoken policy encouraging officers to ignore or cover up the illegal actions of fellow cops. When Spalding and Echeverria investigated suspicions that a fellow officer, Sergeant Ronald Watts, had been imposing a “tax” on gangs in exchange for protection from the law, their supervisors expected them to follow this code. According to Spalding and Echeverria’s findings, Watts planted drugs on those who refused to pay and then jailed them, sometimes for years.

After reporting Watts to the department, Spalding and Echeverria were outed as “whistleblowers,” moved from department to department, and purposely placed in dangerous situations until they were forced to resign.

That’s when Spalding turned to Kalven.

“I had spent years writing about police abuse and suing the city for documents,” Kalven said. “[Spalding] entered with this other piece that was just fabulously interesting, and it was like a piece of a puzzle that I had been working on for years.”

Kalven’s article, “Code of Silence,” is a 20,000–word project that details Spalding’s story. According to Kalven, the purpose of the article is not to guide readers towards a specific conclusion about the truth behind Spalding’s claims, but rather to encourage readers to inspect the intentions and actions of the police.

“Where I wanted [the article] to come to rest is with the question of, ‘If [Spalding is] substantially telling the truth, then are [the authorities] all lying?’” Kalven said. “I think it's a question that remains open and that, I hope, will be answered by further investigation.”

Kalven encourages Chicago citizens to pressure the city to increase police accountability through acknowledging the existence of the “code of silence,” releasing those who had been framed by Watts, and persuading cops to report suspicious activity.

“Right now, cops like Spalding and Echeverria are vilified and subjected to retaliation,” Kalven said. “Other officers look on and say, ‘Woah, I'm not going to come forward with information if that's going to be my fate.’”

“Code of Silence” was written through the Invisible Institute, a journalistic production company that focuses on giving citizens tools to accurately judge public institutions. Housed in the Experimental Station, the small yet tightly-knit organization lacks the confinements of larger publications.

“There are journalists from [big publications] who've reached out in an exploratory way to see about working with [the Invisible Institute] because of the frustrations in mainstream journalism,” Kalven said. “They're trying to steer the battleship from day to day and figure out how to sustain the thing, whereas we can think about the best possible way to tell an important story.”

The Invisible Institute produced 40,000 copies of the “Code of Silence” with the help of the South Side Weekly and distributed them in public libraries throughout Chicago.

“If you look at the back page of the article, there is contact information,” Kalven said. “The hope is that it will create a feedback loop where we're putting out information and also eliciting information from people [who know] about these officers or about other related incidents.”

Kalven hopes to incorporate tips from community members into his next pieces and invites other journalists to join him.

“Above all, I want to keep this story going,” Kalven said. “As big as it is, the piece provides a map for this set of issues, [and] there are some areas of that map that are relatively blank and can be filled in—and not just by us, but by other reporters. We hope that people jump on this.”