‘Codes of Silence’ Threaten the Public, No Matter Who Adheres to Them

(Jim Young/Reuters)

Whether they come from politicians, police officers, or private citizens, efforts to sweep society’s problems under the rug hurt us all.

In the wake of mass protests in Democrat-controlled cities from Portland to Chicago, and now even small towns such as Kenosha, Wis., I am often asked if the violence and rioting we are experiencing is a result of “systemic racism” in law enforcement or, alternatively, a society increasingly less respectful of the badge.

My job experience has given me unique insight into this question. I have worked as a criminal-defense attorney and a prosecutor at the state and federal levels. I served a record six consecutive terms as the sheriff of Lake County, the second largest county in Illinois. I am also a former Democrat — my conscience as a pro-lifer led me to switch parties — who is now the Republican nominee for the United States Senate, running against Democratic incumbent Richard Durbin and independent Willie Wilson, a Chicago businessman and self-made millionaire.

When I began prosecuting criminal jury trials decades ago, the judge would give “credibility instructions” to the jurors, asking them one by one whether “they would evaluate the testimony of the police officer like that of any other witness and not give it any more or less credibility than that of any other witness.” My job as a prosecutor led me to dismiss the premise of the question, arguing that an officer would jeopardize his or her job by not telling the truth, while the defendant generally had significant reason to be untruthful. The reality, of course, is more complicated.

Police, like everyone else, run the gamut. The majority are good officers, serving with honor and often under incredibly stressful, difficult circumstances, but some are also bad. There are hardworking officers and lazy officers, honest officers and dishonest officers. And in today’s strong union culture, it is considerably more difficult for supervisors to deal with employees who do not reflect well on their profession. A police pension can be lucrative, and officers will understandably go to great lengths to protect it. There has, as a result, always been a “code of silence” in law enforcement — an unwritten rule that one officer should never incriminate another. This code of silence existed, and continues to exist, in countless police departments across the country. I came face-to-face with it as a prosecutor.

But there are other codes of silence equally dangerous to the public. One applies to street-gang members and the residents of the neighborhoods they terrorize. The residents are not looking to protect the gangs by refusing to identify and testify against suspects; they’re looking not to be killed in retaliation. This is a particular problem in Chicago, the largest city in my home state. Yet Democratic mayor Lori Lightfoot has rejected efforts to strengthen witness-protection programs, saying crime would best be solved by “bringing economic stability to neighborhoods.” And as we wait for that economic stability to lift up neighborhoods with failing government schools and high unemployment, the cycle of violence continues, residents live in constant fear, and children are murdered. Natalie Wallace, a seven-year-old Chicago girl, was shot in the forehead while riding her bike at her grandmother’s Independence Day party two months ago. Chicago police commander Fred Waller summed up the feelings of police and citizens alike afterward, telling reporters, “I’m tired of it, dammit.”

This summer, we’ve seen the horrible effects of a third type of silence: the refusal of elected Democrats to speak out against the violence, looting, and lawlessness that have played out week after week. What began as peaceful protest following the death of George Floyd has become an excuse for organized mobs to incite mayhem, attack police officers, engage in mass looting, and destroy large and small businesses that took decades to build. Officers who have been given explicit orders to “stand down” by the Democrats who run their cities cannot make arrests. And even if they do, prosecutors refuse to prosecute, letting criminals go on low-cost or recognizance bonds within days or, in some cases, hours.

During the Democratic National Convention, the violent riots and looting and civil unrest were not mentioned once, even though First Lady Michelle Obama was born and raised on Chicago’s South Side and President Obama got his political start there. The “Vote” necklace that Mrs. Obama wore the night of her speech received more media attention than the fact that hundreds of her former neighbors, including children, had been shot and, in many cases, killed in one of Chicago’s most violent summers on record.

Similarly, Senator Durbin has not uttered a word about the dramatic situation in Chicago, either in a statement or through a spokesperson. Illinois residents are leaving the state in droves, not only because of Chicago’s endemic violence, which is now spilling over into the suburbs, but also because of failed Democratic policies. Illinois’s small businesses, would-be entrepreneurs, and working-class voters have been crushed by the highest property taxes in the country. The state’s children are unprepared for good careers because of atrocious public schools, which Democrats’ powerful allies in the teachers’ unions won’t allow to be fixed.

Early in my tenure as Lake County sheriff, I received a phone call from one of my chiefs. One of our deputies was driving drunk, and a concerned citizen had followed his vehicle. When the citizen saw the deputy’s car hit multiple mailboxes, she called 911. He was pulled over by another deputy. The chief proceeded to tell me, “Sheriff, this is the way we usually handle it. We have the deputy admit to having a problem then get them to agree to some treatment.” I asked about charging the deputy with DUI, and the chief replied, “We don’t arrest our own.” I instructed the chief that this case would be handled like any other case of drunken driving. We arrested him.

Codes of silence, be they in our neighborhoods, our police departments, or our politics, endanger everyone. The fact that they exist at all should motivate every citizen to support and protect those who, when they see something, say something, whether they are private citizens, officers, or elected officials. No less than the future of the criminal-justice system, the order of society, and peace in our communities is at stake. Pretending the problem does not exist only emboldens those who wish to do harm.