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2017 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Code of Silence

About the Project

The story of the investigation begins more than twenty years ago in the high-rise public housing projects on Chicago’s South Side. In 1994, writer Jamie Kalven began an immersion in one of those developments that would continue until the final buildings were demolished in 2007.

Kalven was a resident council advisor and created a program designed to provide alternatives for young men in gangs and ex-offenders. As a reporter he documented patterns of police abuse that gave rise to several federal civil rights suits, one of which culminated in the 2014 decision of the Illinois Court of Appeals in Kalven v. Chicago holding that police misconduct files are public information.

When Kalven was approached in 2013 by police officer Shannon Spalding, he was uniquely equipped to assess and pursue the complex story she told of massive corruption and institutional denial within the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Spalding’s perspective complemented Kalven’s direct experience on the ground and promised that it might finally be possible for him to fully evoke the realities of policing in public housing communities.

For more than a decade, Sgt. Ronald Watts and his team were an integral part of the drug trade in public housing developments on Chicago’s South Side. They routinely framed those who did not cooperate with their criminal ends by planting drugs on them and are rumored to have had a hand in the murders of two drug dealers who defied them.

Over the course of Watts’s career, he and his team were investigated by multiple agencies but those investigations yielded little. For several years, Shannon Spalding and her partner Danny Echeverria, participated in a joint FBI-Internal Affairs investigation, which they claim was ultimately derailed by senior CPD officials. They allege that Deputy Superintendent Ernest Brown, long rumored to be an ally and protector of Watts, made it known within the department that they were engaged in an internal investigation, prompting other CPD officers to retaliate against them as “Internal Affairs rats.”

Widely seen as a peer-to-peer phenomenon among rank and file police officers, the code of silence is in fact standard operating procedure at the highest levels of the CPD. It is less a matter of silence than of narrative control: a set of tools that high-ranking police officials employ to enforce the official narrative.

There were two major challenges to realizing these possibilities. The first was the sheer complexity of the subject. Kalven spent three years investigating the story and more than 150 hours interviewing Spaulding and others.

The second challenge was to fulfill standards of journalistic rigor in telling a story that relies heavily on a single source, a whistleblower whose account is challenged at virtually every point by official denials, without, in effect, aiding and abetting the code of silence by constantly recurring to the official denials. Kalven was committed to telling the story in a way that Spalding and Echeverria’s voices were allowed to breathe, enabling readers to reach their own conclusions, while keeping the official denials visible.