Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s now-famous speech acknowledging a long-standing code of silence within the Chicago Police Department took center stage in a federal courtroom Tuesday in a wrongful death case alleging the code protected former homicide Detective Joseph Frugoli, whose off-duty drunken driving crash killed two young men.
“This problem is sometimes referred to as the thin blue line,” Emanuel said in the December 2015 speech to the City Council that was played for jurors during opening statements in U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall’s packed courtroom. “Other times it is referred to as the code of silence. It is the tendency to ignore. It is the tendency to deny. It is the tendency in some cases to cover up the bad actions of a colleague or colleagues.”
The speech, which began the mayor’s political comeback from the fallout over the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, has become a key piece of evidence in the lawsuit filed by the families of Andrew Cazares and Fausto Manzera, who were killed when Frugoli crashed his Lexus SUV into their disabled vehicle on the Dan Ryan Expressway in April 2009.
Lawyers for the victims alleged the Police Department's code of silence led Frugoli to believe that he could "drink and drive with impunity" because fellow officers had protected him in the past.
In fact, Frugoli had managed to escape discipline despite being a longtime alcoholic who was suspected of drunken driving a year earlier when he T-boned a squad car while driving home from a casino, attorney Timothy Cavanagh, who represents Cazares’ family, told the jury in his opening remarks.
Records showed that even though Frugoli appeared to have “glassy eyes,” he was placed immediately inside a sergeant’s squad car and never interviewed at the scene or given a sobriety test, Cavanagh said. The sergeant wound up driving Frugoli home, and two tickets issued to him were later dismissed.
“If a citizen had run a stop sign, struck a squad car and had glassy eyes, the full weight of the law would have come down on them,” Cavanagh told the jury.
In his opening statement, attorney Harry Arger, who represents the city, said the department takes alcohol-related complaints against officers very seriously and that records will show that up to 90 percent of them are sustained and result in some kind of discipline, including suspension and termination.
Arger also discounted Emanuel’s speech, saying that while it “looks good to put the mayor up there” on the courtroom monitor, he was not talking specifically about a code of silence involving alcohol-related incidents as is alleged in this case.
Frugoli, who joined the department in 1990, had been drinking for nearly five hours at a Greektown bar when he got behind the wheel of his Lexus, entered the southbound Dan Ryan at a high rate of speed and slammed into the back of the victims' car near Roosevelt Road, where they had pulled over because of a flat tire, records show.
Frugoli was pulled from the wreckage by a good Samaritan and limped away on a ramp, bleeding from the head as the vehicle he'd struck burst into flames. He was found walking near Clinton Street and Roosevelt by Chicago police officers responding to the call of the crash.
On learning Frugoli was a detective, they called for an ambulance and a supervisor but administered no sobriety tests, according to court records. Paramedics who rode with Frugoli in the ambulance, however, noticed he appeared to be drunk, according to court records. His blood alcohol level was later measured at the hospital at 0.328 percent, more than four times the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
In his opening statement, Arger said the fact that Frugoli’s fellow police officers were the ones who tracked him down and handed him over to state police — which had jurisdiction over the investigation of the expressway crash — was proof that he was given no special protection.
“If there was truly a code of silence, they would’ve said, ‘Hey Joe! Get in the car, we’ll drive you around till you sober up!’” Arger said. “They didn’t do that. They handed him right over to (state police).”
Frugoli was convicted in 2012 of aggravated DUI and leaving the scene of a fatal accident and is serving a sentence of eight years in prison. He's expected to testify later in the trial.
On Tuesday, police practices expert Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles deputy police chief, testified for the plaintiffs that none of the 43 alcohol-related misconduct cases of Chicago police officers he reviewed involved stops by fellow officers. Instead, either a citizen had lodged a complaint or an outside police agency had notified the Chicago Police Department about an officer being pulled over for DUI in their jurisdiction.
“There were none where it was simply an observation by a patrol car in Chicago where they made a stop and it happened to be a Chicago police officer,” Reiter testified.
Reiter called it “not reasonable” for that to never happen in a department with more than 12,000 sworn officers. The only explanation was that officers were covering for one another, he said.
“The code of silence is alive and well in Chicago,” Reiter said.