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Human Rights Hero: Craig Futterman Cracks the Code of Silence

In late November, as Chicago was demonstrating over dash-cam footage of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting a retreating 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and then continuing to pump bullets into him as he lay on the ground, Clinical Professor Craig Futterman felt the rumbles of a shift he’d imagined most of his career: the beginning of significant progress in the struggle to address issues of race, justice, and policing.

Futterman and his students, who are from the University of Chicago Law School’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Clinic, spent nearly a year in litigation before convincing a judge to make the video public. The video was a striking contradiction to the official police department story that had Van Dyke acting in self-defense, and the release was a major coup for Futterman.

But the McDonald case wasn’t Futterman’s first go-round exposing injustice. He has a long list of courtroom victories in his 16 years as director of the clinic. And Futterman knows that public indignation can be fleeting and broad-scale change requires many wins before a tipping point is reached.

The good news is the McDonald case did not happen in isolation. Others around the country have been advocating for police accountability for years. When the Laquan McDonald video was released, the country was deeply engaged in conversations about race and policing following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray—all black men who had been killed during encounters with white officers. Futterman’s success, it might be argued, represents a cracking of the police code of silence that has shrouded police departments across the country.

“I had several fears right before the video was released,” Futterman said, “I think my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t care.”

But as much of the nation now knows, people cared. The video from Chicago sparked protests, a wide-ranging federal civil rights investigation, and a pledge by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to reform the Chicago Police Department, create a police accountability task force, and restructure Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority. The police chief lost his job, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, and the county’s top prosecutor—who didn’t charge Van Dyke until the day the video was released—was voted out of office.

People are finally talking about the core of Futterman’s message, which he has espoused for all his years in teaching and practice: there is a “code of silence” among police officers and a need for transparency and accountability to stem the pattern of police abuse.

Within days of the video’s release, there were signs that people had grasped the bigger picture. Futterman recalled that although Michigan Avenue business owners’ sales on Black Friday were being hurt, “some of them—many of them wealthy, many of them privileged—said they supported the protesters. They directed their comments at the power structure, at our leaders. It wasn’t, ‘Get these protesters away from our stores, you have to arrest them all.’ It was, ‘You have to do something about the problem, about the reason these protesters are out here.’ Those store owners got it.”

The rest of the story, of course, has yet to unfold. But Futterman is hopeful. He believes the opportunity to change is right in front of us.

“For the very first time in my life, and the first time in this city’s history, our leaders—our mayor himself—acknowledged very poignantly that a code of silence exists, and that it is not merely a relic of the past,” Futterman said. “This is the very first time I’ve seen our leaders speak in the present tense and say that, yes, we have real systemic, pervasive problems when it comes to race, racism, police abuse, and the code of silence in Chicago. And that, to me, is a transformative moment.”

Claire L. Parins


Claire L. Parins is the director of academic publications at the University of Chicago Law School. This story is a condensed version of a longer story by Becky Beaupre Gillespie, “Lifting the Curtain: Futterman Reflects on the Aftermath of the Laquan McDonald Crisis—and What It Tells Us about How Change Gets Made.”