Chicago officers find the police superintendent asleep in a running vehicle. The chief flashes his badge and drives away. Officials learn later he had been drinking.

A Minnesota officer is found passed out behind the wheel, then flunks the breathalyzer test. After a badge is found in the driver’s wallet, officers help him get a ride from the scene.

Closer to home, deputies did not administer sobriety tests to a Jackson County prosecutor who was slurring her words and had bloodshot eyes, according to an accident report. 

All three of these cases are examples of how law enforcement personnel sometimes abuse power and violate their oaths in adherence to an unofficial but well-understood set of rules known as the “blue code,” the “code of silence,” or the more benign label, “professional courtesy.” 

Whatever the moniker, preferential treatment undermines the integrity of the justice system and the public’s trust, criminal-justice professionals say.

“This is totally unacceptable,” said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus and criminal justice expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who helps communities develop citizen panels that review the conduct of police officers.

Nonetheless, criminal-justice experts acknowledge that the “blue code” has been so ingrained in the culture of law enforcement that it will be difficult to eradicate. 

Yet Americans increasingly are demanding that authorities use the tools available to them to record their interactions with the public. Could the rise in the acceptance and usage of body-worn cameras have a chilling effect on those who might otherwise look the other way? 

Culture of ‘code of silence’ is seemingly ubiquitous

The International Association of Chief of Police Code of Ethics says the law should be enforced “without fear or favor.” But it appears that didn’t necessarily happen for a variety of reasons in the cases in Chicago, Minnesota and Jackson County.

Eddie Johnson, who was fired from his post as Chicago’s police superintendent in early December despite previously announced plans to retire at the end of the year, pulled away from where he’d been asleep in his running vehicle after rolling the driver’s window down partway and flashing his police identification, according to public documents cited by the Chicago Tribune.

Johnson never left his vehicle, and officers never requested that he do so. Instead, they asked if he was able to drive home, and Johnson pulled away after responding yes.

An independent investigation by city officials found Johnson had spent the evening having drinks at a restaurant before trying to drive home, according to the Tribune.

In the Minnesota case, Columbus Heights Officer William Monberg couldn’t walk a straight line when police from the nearby city of Blaine roused the sleeping man from his car, which had open beer containers in the passenger seat. Monberg’s breathalyzer test registered 0.202, more than two times the legal limit.

Dash-cam footage obtained by Minneapolis-based KARE 11 through a public records request, shows arresting officers examining Monberg’s wallet and finding his badge. They then turn off their body-camera microphones and step out of view of their patrol car cameras. A camera in the back of another squad car shows Monberg being released from handcuffs and exiting the police car before being given a ride home.

The Blaine police chief later said the way the case was handled was unacceptable and not up to the department’s standards. A month later, Monberg was charged and pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated. 

Concerns surface in Eastern Iowa with local case

Clinton County sheriff’s deputies did not administer sobriety tests to Assistant Jackson County Attorney Amanda Lassance in April after they responded to a 911 call from her then boyfriend. Lassance told deputies that she began drinking beer after she stopped driving her vehicle and parked it on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 61, just south of the Jackson County line. Officers were aware of her position, in which she routinely prosecutes drunken-driving cases.

On June 25, the Iowa Office of Ombudsman launched an investigation into how the Jackson and Clinton county sheriff’s departments conducted their work after finding Lassance parked on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 61 in the early morning hours of April 6.

Clinton County Deputy Andrew Petersen wrote in his report he changed his mind about giving Lassance a sobriety test when she held up an open beer can and said she had been drinking in the stopped car because he thought it would make an OWI case hard to prove. He later gave her a ride to the Jackson County Courthouse, where she spent the night in her taxpayer-funded office.

Dash-cam video shows Petersen twice warned Lassance as she exited his squad car not to go into the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. He told her “they don’t want you to get into any more trouble than you are already in.”

Jackson County Deputy Chad Roeder, who was one of the first officers on the scene, acknowledged he gave Petersen those directions. The next morning, Jackson County Chief Deputy Steve Schroeder gave Lassance a ride back to her car, which still was parked on the highway.

She pleaded guilty in Clinton County to having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle. Before Lassance returned to work, Jackson County Attorney Sara Davenport said Lassance would face disciplinary action and have conditions placed on her employment because of the incident. Davenport would not say what those actions or conditions would be.

Experts frown on way Lassance case was handled

Law enforcement experts who reviewed the case noted problems with how officers managed the call.

“I’ve always had serious questions about law enforcement officers transporting someone home,” Walker said. “I don’t think that’s a public service they should be doing. They can stand there and have the person call a friend, or a taxi, or something.”

In an interview last spring, Schroeder said he didn’t think he did anything wrong in giving Lassance a ride to her car, adding that deputies do that in some cases. 

Consultant William Moulder took issue with deputies who didn’t administer a breathalyzer test after Lassance said she drank alcohol after she stopped driving. 

“Usually it’s good to go ahead and take the (breathalyzer) test,” Moulder said. “Regardless of the result, you at least know that one can of beer didn’t get their alcohol level up to 0.19 or 0.20.”

While the results might not be definitive, they would be indicative, said Moulder, who was the Des Moines police chief for 18 years before retiring and starting his police consulting business in 2002.

“Just from the surface of it, it appears to be preferential treatment and not right,” he said of the Jackson County case. “It’s not consistent with oath of office and being a professional law officer, but you’ve got people dealing with people.”

Lassance returned to her job part-time June 18 after being on medical leave – about one week before the Iowa Office of Ombudsman launched an investigation into how the Jackson and Clinton county sheriff’s departments conducted their work.

Rural areas more vulnerable to ‘blue code’ temptations?

Walker said the intentional failure of police to enforce laws or hide information from the public is particularly prevalent in cases involving drunken driving and domestic abuse. 

He also said that in rural markets, such as Jackson County, where there is less public scrutiny, the practice often goes unchecked.

Robert Rigg, a Drake University law professor and the Polk County Public Defender’s Office co-director of Volunteers in Probation, noted some reasons why small markets are particularly prone to struggle with the issue.

“The fact is that officers are familiar with everybody in the law enforcement community, and by that, I mean both police and prosecutors, so sometimes they are going to give deference,” Rigg said. “The police will give deference to a prosecutor who has to prosecute their cases. And sometimes it works the other way around.”

But whatever the circumstances are, Walker said police have no excuse for enforcing the law unevenly. 

“The main thing is, it’s utterly unprofessional,” Walker said. “It’s corruption of law enforcement, and the impact on public trust of law enforcement and the court system is pretty serious.”

The sudden proliferation of police body cameras

The rapid rise in usage of body-worn cameras in police departments around the country did not stem from outrage over the “blue code.” Rather, several high-profile cases drew attention to the perceived need for more visual evidence when police use deadly force.

“It’s tied to the fallout in Ferguson and all the protests and a focus on police accountability,” Walker said, referring to the case when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in 2014 by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

But there are examples of times when officers did not show preferential treatment, possibly because of the cameras.

Dash-cam video shared by radio station New Jersey 101.5 shows a 2018 situation in which officers arrested their superior, a 23-year veteran of the police department, for drunken driving. Body camera footage captures an officer saying that they need to do everything “by the book” because the stop will be subject to scrutiny.

Dash-cam video shows them administering a roadside sobriety test to the uncooperative man and following arrest protocol, including handcuffing him and putting him in the back seat of the squad. The officers also declined to let a friend drive the man’s truck home, saying that the truck needed to be towed. 

But despite officers carefully following protocol, information about the case was kept from the public for more than a year. It did not appear on the police blotter and only came to light through a series of public-records requests. Keeping such information from the public also is viewed as special treatment, sources said.

In the Lassance case, the written report and dash-cam video of Clinton County Deputy Andrew Petersen were released after the Sentinel-Press already had obtained the report from an unnamed source and published the information. 

Roeder captured 5:34 of footage on his body camera even though dispatch records show he was on the scene for more than 37 minutes. 

Last month, Sycamore Media, the parent company of the Sentinel-Press, filed a lawsuit against the City of Maquoketa Police Department seeking the release of body camera footage taken by city police who also responded to the call. The suit was filed in the Iowa District Court for Jackson County after Police Chief Brad Koranda in June refused to release the electronic footage the Sentinel-Press requested under Iowa Code Chapter 22, the state’s open-records law.

Some are doubling down on transparency, body cameras

Meanwhile, a few miles north of Jackson County, officials responded to a difficult situation in a much different way.

In January, a 29-year-old man died in his Dubuque County jail cell a few hours after being arrested. 

Dubuque County complied with media requests for video footage, and the officers who booked the man into jail were exonerated. The cause of death was deemed “methamphetamine intoxication,” and the officers followed protocol, according to Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy.

In mid-December, Kennedy followed that up by announcing the county was taking the body camera concept a step further. Officials plan to use the cameras in the jail. It’s uncharted territory.

“We’re unaware of any other jails that have done this,” Kennedy said. “We want transparency.”

From the public’s right to know to the public’s perception of accountability, the usage of body-worn cameras was a no-brainer in Kennedy’s mind. He doesn’t understand why they aren’t being used everywhere. 

“I guess I didn’t realize that it was controversial,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know why anyone would find it controversial. It’s our understanding that the vast majority of people want us to have them. We feel like it’s a very good tool to have; we don’t really see a downside.

“People tend to act better when they know that they’re being videotaped, and that goes for both sides,” he said. 

One of the reasons that few body-worn cameras have made their way into county jails is because of privacy concerns for inmates and those under arrest. But Kennedy and others think they have a good plan in place.

“There are areas in the jail that we’re not allowed to video-record on a continuous basis, areas where inmates would be showering or using bathroom facilities,” Kennedy said. “We can’t record our holding cells because there are toilets in there.

“The body cameras will not be recording most of the time,” he continued. “We will not activate the cameras in any of the places mentioned unless there’s an incident, like a fight in the shower. We just want to make sure that they’ll have the tools that they need to do a job effectively.” 

In another recent development, a new California law stripped away the confidentiality of police investigative files when they are investigating officers, Walker said. It includes such situations as a death or serious bodily injury to someone at the hands of the police, if an officer was accused of sexual misconduct, or if an officer has a record of lying or untruthfulness.

“It’s cracking the code of silence,” Walker said of such measures. “So, I’m guardedly optimistic that there are some positive developments around the country.”

Body cams could change the dynamic in some ways

Body cameras don’t guarantee perfection throughout law enforcement, but they could prove to be a deterrent if officers’ sense of independence is threatened.

“The key to understanding police discretion is — and this is a main point in my ‘Police in Society’ class — is that officers for the most part work alone, or maybe in pairs,” Walker said. “But what they do is not known to others.”

There are stories of officers being punished informally by other members of their department. 

“And there are a lot of ways that can happen,” Walker said. “The most serious one is where one officer says to another, ‘You rat on me, I won’t be there when you get a dangerous call.’ Or ‘I may just drive slowly to respond.’”

But could those types of threats carry less weight if everyone’s actions are more closely monitored?

“The question you have to ask yourself, and this is the police and prosecution, ‘Is what I am doing, eventually, if looked at by an outsider or the press, going to be perceived as something that is illegal or somehow unethical?’” Rigg said. 

“Could there be a perception you are cutting someone a break that you would normally cut someone else?” he asked. “Are you giving preferential treatment to someone (in which) eventually down the road, someone looks over your shoulder and says, ‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ then don’t do it.”

Sentinel-Press staffers Kelly Gerlach, Nick Joos, Tim Manning, Nancy Mayfield and Trevis Mayfield contributed to this report.

Reporting Chronology

This timeline shows the process The Observer has followed while reporting the ongoing story that began with an emergency call to police involving Assistant Jackson County Attorney Amanda Lassance.

April 6 – Clinton County sheriff’s deputies cited Assistant Jackson County Attorney Amanda Lassance and her companion Nick Shannon for having open containers of alcohol in Lassance’s car after responding to a 911 call made by Shannon at 12:56 a.m. According to police dispatch logs, Shannon told police Lassance’s car was stopped along U.S. Highway 61 and that Lassance had attacked him. Deputies from both Jackson and Clinton counties and officers from Maquoketa and Bellevue responded to the complaint. Days later, an Observer reporter noticed Lassance’s name on a dispatch call log. 

April 8 – Lassance continued to prosecute cases for Jackson County.

April 12 – In an accident unrelated to the 911 call, Lassance was involved in a head-on car crash around noon and airlifted to a hospital in Iowa City. According to police reports, a car traveling in the opposite direction of Lassance’s 2013 Mazda crossed the centerline and hit her car. Jackson County Attorney Sara Davenport told The Observer Lassance was facing a long recovery.

April 17 – The Observer published its first report about the 911 call as well as a separate report about the unrelated accident. In the report about the 911 call: Jackson County Sheriff Russ Kettmann said that because the April 6 incident was in Clinton County’s jurisdiction he would not comment even though his deputy, Chad Roeder, responded to the call; Clinton County Sheriff’s Deputy Andy Petersen, who also responded to the call, said, “I was told to let everyone know” only the general location of the incident and that it is under investigation; Davenport, Lassance’s supervisor, said Lassance told her about the incident after arriving at work the morning of April 8.

April 15 – Lassance and Shannon both pleaded guilty to Clinton County citations of having open containers of alcohol in a vehicle.

April 18 – The Observer filed information requests under Iowa Code Chapter 22, Iowa’s public records law, with the sheriff’s departments of both Jackson and Clinton counties. The requests sought “all public documentation” related to the 911 call involving Lassance.

April 22 – Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf officially denied portions to The Observer’s open records request, including in-car video, reports from the scene and witness statements. In his denial letter, which he copied to Lincoln, he argued that the records should not be released because they are “peace officers’ investigative reports.”

April 24 – The Observer reported that Petersen refused to disclose whether deputies had conducted sobriety tests at the scene. 

May 4 – The Observer reported that while Clinton County denied portions of its records request, Kettmann, Jackson County’s sheriff, allowed The Observer to view Roeder’s body camera footage from the scene. The footage, which lasted a little more than five minutes, showed Roeder talking to Shannon, who made the 911 call. Lassance never appeared on the footage. 

During the reporting process for the story, Kettmann and Roeder both confirmed to The Observer that they possessed no additional video beyond what they shared and that Roeder did not turn off his camera until, as Kettmann put it, “he was done.” 

May 11 – The Observer reported that the Iowa Freedom of Information Council had joined its effort to persuade Wolf and Lincoln to release the requested public records. In the same issue, The Observer published the letter IFIC Executive Director Randy Evans sent to Lincoln and Wolf.

May 18The Observer reported that it had obtained from a confidential source a copy of Petersen’s report from the scene, one of the documents Clinton County officials had denied. Petersen had written in the report that he had observed that Lassance’s “eyes were blood shot and watery and her speech was slurred.” Petersen’s report said Lassance told him at the scene that she had been drinking alcohol while sitting in the car, and because of that he decided not to conduct a sobriety test. “I know I wouldn’t be able to charge Amanda (Lassance) with OWI, as she admitted to consuming additional alcohol after operating the vehicle,” Petersen wrote. Petersen also wrote in his report that he gave Lassance a ride to a location near the Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Maquoketa. In the same story, Davenport confirmed to The Observer that Lassance was still employed by the county. (At that time, however, she was still on medical leave while recovering fromthe April 12 car crash.) In the same issue, The Observer published a separate story in which it interviewed Robert Rigg, a Drake University law professor, who said deputies had more than enough evidence to justify giving both Lassance and Shannon sobriety tests at the scene.

May 17The Observer filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board against Lincoln and Wolf, seeking the public documents that the officials continued to deny.

May 20 – Wolf and Lincoln called The Observer and said they were reconsidering their denial of the requested records. “I wanted to let you know it is actively being worked on,” Wolf said.

May 24 – Wolf and Lincoln released most of the requested documents, including Petersen’s report (which The Observer had previously obtained) and in-car video from Petersen’s police vehicle. Wolf still denied in-car video from Deputy Mark Mahmens Jr.’s squad car, citing confidentiality relating to a domestic violence call and an interview. The video and call logs show Roeder was present at the scene for 37 minutes, at least 30 minutes longer than the duration of his body camera video. As of press time for that issue, Kettmann had not returned a telephone call seeking explanation.

May 29 – The Observer published an article regarding the release by Clinton County of footage from cameras in Petersen’s squad. That footage shows Petersen telling Lassance twice that he was told to tell her not to go into the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office as he dropped her off near the county law center in the early morning hours of April 6. The video, as well as call logs, show that aside from Petersen and Mahmens Jr. reporting from Clinton County, one Jackson County sheriff’s unit (Roeder) responded, as well as two units from the Maquoketa city police force and one from the Bellevue police force.  

May 29 – Jackson County Auditor Alisa Smith responded to the The Observer’s May 20 information request for a list of all entries into the Jackson County Courthouse from 1 a.m. to 10 a.m. April 6. That public record showed Lassance used her entry badge to enter the west employee door (South Niagara Street) at 2:13 a.m., then the district court room at 4:17 a.m., then the law library door at 4:23 a.m., then the front door at 4:53 a.m. Employee badges are not required to exit courthouse offices, therefore there are not records showing when people exit. The auditor denied security camera footage because it is considered a confidential record under Iowa law. 

May 29 – In an interview at her office with The Observer, Davenport said Lassance will keep her job but may not prosecute drunk-driving cases in the future. Davenport also said that Lassance, who is still on medical leave, will face disciplinary actions and conditions that will be confidential as they are a personnel matter. Davenport said she has not read Petersen’s report even though it has been released to the public. When asked if she intended to obtain a copy of the report, she said she did not, citing a heavy workload that she attributed to Lassance’s absence.

June 7 – Kettmann told The Observer that Roeder’s April 6 body camera footage had been deleted from the department’s hard drive on May 1 even though it was the subject of an open records request under Iowa law. He said the department purges “old footage or something the county attorney doesn’t need” every three months.

June 10 — The Observer filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board against the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department after learning body camera footage recorded by Roeder April 6 had been destroyed.

June 10 — The Observer filed an open-records request under Iowa Code Chapter 22 with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department seeking all its policies regarding the use of body cameras, in-car dashboard cameras and audio recordings as well as how they are maintained and when they are destroyed. The request also asks for documentation showing the dates records have been deleted in the past 12 months.

June 13 – Davenport released the footage to The Observer that Kettmann said had been destroyed. According to a written statement from Jackson County Information Technology Director Bjorn Beck, Beck was able to recover the footage. The Observer formally dropped its complaint with the IPIB after receiving the video. 

June 18 — Lassance returned to part-time work at the Jackson County Courthouse, her first time back after sustaining life-threatening injuries in a car accident April 12. The types of cases she prosecutes remains the same, according to Davenport.

June 25 – The Iowa Office of Ombudsman confirmed that it had launched an investigation into the Clinton and Jackson county sheriffs’ departments regarding their handling of the April 6 traffic stop. Bert Dalmer, an investigator with the agency, said questions raised by stories in The Observer led to the Ombudsman’s office opening the investigation.

Nov. 7 – Sycamore Media, the parent company of The Observer and the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press, filed a lawsuit against the City of Maquoketa Police Department seeking the release of body camera footage police officers recorded during the April 6 call. The suit was filed in the Iowa District Court for Jackson County after Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda in June refused to release the electronic footage the Sentinel-Press requested under Iowa Code Chapter 22, the state’s open records law.