The phrase "code of silence" sounds dry, like that powder cops use to dust for fingerprints. But now, politically, it's not dry any longer.
It's sticky, and once you get it on your fingers, you can't wash it off, at least in public.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a police code of silence problem. He didn't want to touch it Tuesday.
He showed up at the Erie Neighborhood House for some good news, an announcement of a plan to help immigrants become entrepreneurs. Immigrants have been doing that without much assistance from government for more than a century in Chicago — City Hall has historically squeezed the immigrant business owner rather than help him — but Emanuel was there reaching for good news, with bad news breathing on him.
The day earlier, Chicago learned that Richard Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard Daley's, had been indicted on an involuntary manslaughter charge in the death of David Koschman on Division Street eight years ago. That it took eight years is an embarrassment to the Police Department and to the Cook County state's attorney's office, and each was held for decades in the palm of the Rahmfather's predecessor.
There was more bad news in the Tribune on Tuesday, when reporter David Heinzmann broke the story that Emanuel's administration is asking a federal judge to set aside a portion of the civil verdict in a major case. The case involving former cop Anthony Abbate, who savagely beat that tiny Polish immigrant bartender, Karolina Obrycka, in 2007.
Emanuel wants to erase what the jury found: that a code of silence conspiracy among police protected Abbate during the investigation.
City Hall is offering to pay the bartender the $850,000 that is coming to her and pay it fast, along with her attorney's fees. City Hall isn't bothered by the payoff or the fees. What bothers the mayor is that code of silence stuff. He hopes to give it the Chicago white-out treatment, before it costs his government more money in settling future brutality cases.
So when the Rahmfather appeared before reporters Tuesday, he faced two problems: the Vanecko case and the Abbate story.
Vanecko isn't Emanuel's fault. And he wasn't mayor when Abbate beat Obrycka. But Emanuel is the mayor now. He desperately wanted the power and the title. And now he wears the jacket.
Asked about Vanecko and the proposed Abbate deal, the Rahmfather became defensive, guarded and brief, calling on select reporters like a peeved schoolteacher choosing pupils to illustrate his points.
On Vanecko, the mayor offered his sympathies to the dead young man's mother, Nanci Koschman. But he said he couldn't comment on the case, pending special prosecutor Dan Webb's continuing investigation of how police and prosecutors mishandled the case.
"It would be inappropriate," he said. "It would be wrong. There's an ongoing investigation … so I can't do that (comment) and I won't. I think I can say, though, as a parent, my sympathies are obviously with Nanci Koschman or any parent that ever loses a child. But as it relates to the legal side of that and the investigative side, I wouldn't want to comment."
Then came the Abbate question, about the mayor's hope to use legal maneuvering to obliterate — at least on legal documents — the jury's finding that the police code of silence protected a brutal cop.
Emanuel talked of that bar security video that went viral, of Abbate swinging punches at the tiny female bartender, the larger man raging, windmilling her on the floor.
"One, anybody who watched that video is disgusted by what they saw," Emanuel said, trying to seize the outrage and make it his own. "Now this agreement closes, in my view, the chapter on something before I was mayor . ... And it also allows us to protect the city against future lawsuits."
But it doesn't close the chapter. All the Rahmfather's proposed deal accomplishes is to rip the chapter from the book. And anyone who knows the story will be able to see the stumps of the torn pages against the spine.
The mayor didn't use the term "code of silence," but that's what he was talking about. He pledged "zero tolerance," but he was really asking for "zero consequences." At bottom, he wants for City Hall what Abbate wanted for himself, a measure of protection through the imposition of silence.
Silence is silence, whether it's cops keeping their mouths shut to protect one of their own or a mayor shutting the mouths of federal jurors after they've ruled, so that they can't be heard by future victims.
Many of you keep insisting that I thwack him, but I don't think the Rahmfather is a bad man. He's a smart man in a bad spot. But he lusted for the job, he twisted arms for it and made deals for it, and now he's got it.
The Vanecko case isn't his, but he bears the weight of it now. The Abbate case isn't his either, and though the Rahmfather's legal white-out makes sense from a financial standpoint, it makes no sense from a moral one.
Because we've seen what silence has done, to that beaten bartender, to that weeping mother. Chicago doesn't need any more silence.
How the Vanecko case lingered so long in the dark must be publicly explained. And the fact that the Abbate case involved a cover-up must not be forgotten or become subject to revisionist legal history and accounting ledgers.
The Chicago Way is a shadow road. It circles through dark places. And what it needs most, now, is pure sunshine.