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The Blue Wall of Silence: Law Enforcement Whistleblowers Face Severe Retaliation

by Casey J. Bastian

Many Americans have heard the term “whistleblower.” Someone who is willing to reveal something covert or corrupt or who informs against another. Ostensibly lauded, such people willing to take a principled stand frequently face tremendous retribution from those being exposed. In one profession in particular, being willing to expose corruption or misconduct can become a living nightmare. It is ironic that those in law enforcement — the citizens tasked with the duty to uphold the laws of our nation — appear to be the most vehemently opposed to being held accountable for their misdeeds.

Recent reports show that bad cops retaliating against good cops is endemic to American policing. It’s known as the “thin blue line.” The culture that has developed in law enforcement that keeps good cops down while bad cops are enabled to do their worst. You do not tell on another officer. Ever. Regardless of how egregious their conduct might be.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

“Whistleblowing is a life sentence,” said Shannon Spalding. She used to be an undercover narcotics officer for the Chicago Police Department. After exposing a corruption scheme, an act that led to dozens of wrongful convictions being overturned, Spalding had her life threatened, and she eventually was forced to resign. The mere act of doing what was right cost Spalding everything. She says, “I’m an officer without a department. I lost my house. I lost my marriage. It affects you in ways you would never imagine.”

To those behind this thin blue line, their most dangerous enemy is the upright cop: the whistleblower. To them, this is “snitching,” which is a mortal sin in any criminal or corrupt organization. An act of betrayal and treason that must be punished. Those willing to violate this code, to pierce this “blue wall of silence,” must be removed through any available means. If this retribution destroys the life of an otherwise solid cop, so be it.

Lieutenant James Hickey provided testimony during the federal trial of former Suffolk County, New York District Attorney Thomas Spota, former police chief Jimmy Burke, and Chris McPartland. Coincidentally, McPartland was a former anti-corruption prosecutor. Hickey was asked during the trial why he would participate in the cover-up of an assault on a prisoner. Hickey answered that if you “cross one you cross all,” making “sworn enemies” out of these men and adding that “you will face dire consequences.”

When the prosecutor asked Hickey what he meant by that, Hickey stated, “They will destroy you personally, professionally, financially, criminally. They will go after your family. They’ll go after my men, go after my men’s family. They know no bounds.” All three men were convicted of federal crimes that included witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Hickey was later asked how he could know all of the things to which he testified. Hickey responded: “I was in their inner circle for ten years. I know how they operate.”

Evidence gathered from over the past decade prove Hickey isn’t exaggerating. Those who choose to enforce this blue wall of silence have stuffed feces and dead rats into the lockers of the others who have broken the code. These enforcers have issued death threats, orchestrated shootings, ignored requests for back-up, placed threats against family members, and planted drugs on those who have snitched. There have been occurrences of the chain of command being compromised and internal affairs weaponized. Supervisors and commanders have condoned these acts and even launched internal investigations solely meant to discredit those willing to expose corruption. There are cases where whistleblowers have been fired, jailed, and at least once, involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility.

The Thin  Blue  Line Decries Transparency

The enforcement of this code is clearly destructive to any sense of trust in these law enforcement institutions. And to find out that it is so pervasive in our country is quite disturbing to many. A tip of the hat to USA Today for endeavoring to establish the full scope of this blue wall of silence. For the first time, an organization is working to catalogue these disturbing acts that have occurred over the last decade. USA Today issued more than 400 records requests to local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. Cooperation from responding agencies was minimal, enthusiasm nonexistent.

Dozens of these agencies fought against the release of the requested documents. Some outright refused. There was no willingness to provide video, documentary, or other forms of evidence; this was even the response in cases that had been previously closed. Often, the response would be that no such records of specific incidents even existed. Some would try to make the project cost-prohibitive, charging thousands of dollars in fees for the requested files. If reporters contacted the agencies directly for comment, as was done for more than 20 police and sheriff’s departments, they simply declined to answer questions or wouldn’t even deign to respond at all.

Despite a general disposition of non-cooperation, thousands of documents were collected and examined over the last year. These documents were retrieved from police and sheriff’s departments, prosecutors, previously confidential federal labor records, oversight groups, and regulators. Ten years of court cases and media reports were also reviewed. Interviews were conducted as well. Officers and victims of police misconduct, among others, from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Oregon, and Texas provided first-hand statements on this issue. As a result of these efforts, there now exists “the most comprehensive public accounting of police retaliation ever compiled, including dozens of examples never before reported.” These records prove that retaliation abounds. The silencing of whistleblowers is observed at all levels — local, state, and federal. Unofficial systems of retaliation allow misconduct to persist while helping those in charge avoid accountability across the nation.

Documents show that no act of wrongdoing is so egregious that a whistleblower can know they will be safe for bringing attention to the misconduct, abuse, or corruption. For example, in South Carolina, deputies beat a prisoner so severely that he later died in custody; a Florida sex-crimes detective reported his captain for impregnating a 16-year-old and then paying for her abortion; in Oregon, a sergeant filed a complaint concerning another officer who was bragging about the killing of an unarmed teenager. All three have one thing in common: Each whistleblower was forced from their department and called traitors by other officers after speaking out.

A Systemic Culture
 of  Eating Their Own

While many believe that law enforcement agencies across America have earned the narrative that it is communities of color and marginalized groups that experience the majority of police brutality, such misconduct is by no means isolated to them. Police brutality in the form of punishing its own for whistleblowing is not limited by any race, gender, or seniority. This behavior seems to have been a part of policing as long as concepts of modern policing have been in place.

According to the ongoing USA Today investigation, no agency nor any officer is exempt. Whether the department is a large metropolitan force or a two-man rural outpost, whether a majority of the force is white or mostly minorities in charge, whether with or without unions, retaliation is everywhere. In fact, police unions may actually diminish accountability. Worse, some of the departments that have previously imposed some of the strictest accountability measures have wholly failed to abide by them. And the opposite is nearly universally true. Many officers who support an accused colleague through silence, or even lying, are often given overtime, promotions, and admiration from the other officers in their department. Top law enforcement officials, such as police chiefs or sheriffs, are rarely forced to face any consequences for retaliating against whistleblowers — keeping their jobs or allowed to resign or retire, retaining their pensions and other benefits in the process. Only one identified example involves a superior officer being fired: In Albuquerque, the director of a training academy was fired when she was taped threatening expulsion of students who had filed complaints with human resources.

Experts suggest it is imperative these patterns of corruption that exist due to the “thin blue line” be examined and understood. Such knowledge is key to repairing other issues plaguing law enforcement. “It goes to the core of what’s wrong with American policing,” said Jeffrey Schwartz. During his 40-year career, Schwartz has been a consultant who studied hundreds of police departments and prisons. Schwartz has also written federal consent decrees and numerous reforms. Body cameras and civilian oversight boards prove virtually worthless as means of reform if law enforcement leaders and other officials continue to silence those with enough integrity to become whistleblowers.

Justin Hansford is the executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and a law professor at Howard University. Hansford says, “Cultural norms can’t be litigated, but retaliatory policies can.” Instead of a phenomenon with real mechanisms that can be identified and altered, cover-ups of police misconduct have been historically framed as part of an immutable “police culture.” Hansford seems to be correct.

For almost 100 years, this systemic culture of silence has been identified as the primary reason why pervasive misconduct is so readily concealed. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover commissioned a group of experts to determine why police departments around the country were not able to reign in the tremendous violence connected to Prohibition-era illegal alcohol sales. August Vollmer is believed to be the father of modern policing, and he concluded that, “It’s unwritten law in police departments that police officers must never testify against their brother officers.” Loyalty over accountability; never mind that there should be loyalty to our systems of justice.

Commissions Identify Problems but Solutions Prove More Elusive

Frank Serpico was a New York Police Department (“NYPD”) patrolman in the 1960s. Serpico was branded a rat after exposing prolific bribery and kickback schemes throughout the NYPD. Shortly after coming forward, Serpico was shot in the face during a drug raid. Many believe the incident was orchestrated by other officers. As a result of Serpico’s allegations, New York Mayor John Lindsay created the Knapp Commission in 1972. The Knapp Commission did reveal corruption, but it also found that most officers refused to talk about it. The image of the NYPD was far more important than the reality to those in charge. As the Commission found, police leaders “inhibited any officer who wished to disclose corruption and justified any who preferred to remain silent.” One veteran police captain was willing to testify during the hearings. He said, “It is said there is a code of silence among police that is greater than the omertà of the underworld.” The NYPD would eventually adopt many of the Knapp Commission’s recommendations. It didn’t matter — the blue wall of silence survived.

A second commission convened in 1994. The Mollen Commission found many similar issues still existed within the NYPD. The list of findings is obscene: stealing drugs and reselling them on the streets and even shooting some of those robbed; pouring boiling water and ammonia on prisoners; demanding bribes from those living on the sexual exploitation of their own bodies; and beating suspects with police batons. Dozens of officers told the Commission they were afraid to speak out because they had witnessed what happens even to outspoken detectives and internal affairs officers. Officers know: “You will be alone on the streets.” The Mollen Commissioners concluded that, “If the [NYPD] ever hopes to make lasting improvements in corruption control it must do something it has failed to do in recent history: acknowledge that the code of silence exists and take steps to overcome it.”

During this same period, Los Angeles created the Christopher Commission in the wake of the Rodney King beating. That Commission found that less than two percent of excessive force allegations against the Los Angeles Police Department between 1986 and 1990 were sustained. Investigators’ findings paralleled those of the Mollen Commission. “Perhaps the single greatest barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints is the officers’ unwritten code of silence,” wrote investigators. Five years later, two law firms studied the implementation of the Christopher Commission’s recommendations and determined that, “Absent a concerted effort to combat the ‘code of silence,’ the concerns raised by the Christopher Commission will persist.”

Legal Remedies Rarely Available for Aggrieved Officers

A federal jury ruled against the city of Chicago in a 2012 brutality case after it concluded “there was a widespread practice of ignoring misconduct and upholding a code of silence.” The former head of the city’s police union — one of the largest in the nation —took a revealing stance when he said, “There’s a code of silence everywhere ... so why should this profession be any different?”

Moses Black’s career as a Gonzalez, Louisiana, police officer began to unravel in 2015. Black witnessed his sergeant kick a handcuffed man twice. After the man went into convulsions and was sent to the hospital, Black reported the incident to his superiors. Police Chief Sherman Jackson found there was no excessive force because it was a “gradual kick.” Soon after, Black would be suspended for being tardy once and cursing his superior. Black was then fired for asking a neighbor about a ticket she received from another officer. Jackson said, “He investigated his fellow officer without any approval from his superiors.” The are no records indicating that Black had any disciplinary history prior to reporting his sergeant. “I’m miserable. Since all this happened, my life has been shit,” Black said. The sergeant remains employed. Black’s retaliation lawsuit was dismissed by the judge.

Sergeant Ella Elias sued the Seattle Police Department (“SPD”) in 2015. Elias alleged that another officer bullied her after she exposed favoritism for “plumb overtime assignments.” The jury awarded Elias $2.8 million in damages, and the judge remarked that, “Quite frankly, I am surprised she’s still working for the [SPD] given the incredibly hostile environment she was subjected to.”

Lorenzo Davis was awarded $1.1 million from the city of Chicago. Davis was fired from the city’s police oversight board because he refused to change his findings that a handful of officer-involved shootings were not justified shootings. While millions have been paid to police whistleblowers across America, far too many have never been compensated for the retaliation, abuse, and loss of employment inflicted upon them. It seems worse when those responsible are supervisors, internal affairs investigators, or union and oversight members.

Institutional Mechanisms Used to Destroy Careers and Discredit Whistleblowers

Mike Erwine was a deputy for the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office (“CCSO”) in Nevada. Erwine was hoping to eventually make it as a detective in a city like Las Vegas. After Erwine reported incidents of prisoner neglect, he was terminated within ten months. In the first couple of weeks Erwine was working, he saw his sergeant, Shawn Summers, take urine and throw it on prisoners. A couple of months later, Erwine witnessed Summers grab a handcuffed man by the throat and push the man inside. Summers would later admit “that’s probably the way it went down.” That did not stop Summers from branding Erwine a liar and threatening physical violence against Erwine over the incident. Andrew Beaulieu was bleeding for over two hours in the middle of a drunk cell while other staff ignored his requests for water.

Erwine bandaged Beaulieu up and gave him water. At that point, Erwine decided it was time to write up these incidents and give them to his superior officer then-Sheriff Benjamin Trotter. Trotter was not only unconcerned that Summers told Erwine, “If I hear it coming out anywhere, I’ll beat your f***ing ass,” but Trotter went after Erwine. Trotter claimed Erwine had launched an “unauthorized personnel investigation” against his co-workers and had gone outside the chain of command. Trotter said, “It is as if Erwine is siding with the inmate against his own agency or, possibly, encouraging civil action against his own agency.” Trotter would also claim that Erwine threatened a prisoner. The prisoner denied that Erwine did anything to him and said, “It seems to me like it’s setup.” The prisoner also said that another deputy told him Erwine “got fired because he was a rat.”

Erwine is the only deputy who lost his job. Erwine also lost his chance with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (“LVMPD”). The LVMPD will not hire Erwine over an administrative note placed in his work file by the CCSO. The LVMPD wrote Erwine and indicated that he is “not eligible to apply with the LVMPD for any position indefinitely, and your name will be removed from all eligibility list(s) and processes.” Erwine believes that the CCSO acted to discredit him in the event he might testify in misconduct lawsuits.

R.J. Ploof was deputy chief of the Seat Pleasant Police Department in Maryland when he released videos of abusive officers engaging in misconduct. The videos show officers tasing people, pointing guns at them and threatening to “blow [their] f***ing head off,” and other abuses. The city council was outraged. Not at the conduct in the videos but that Ploof released them to the public. Council President Kelly Porter said that city officials would be investigating the “unlawful publication of law enforcement records.” At the request of the police chief and the city council, Ploof is now being investigated by detectives. Ploof was initially suspended for releasing the videos. This was the same punishment that the officers in the videos received for abusing citizens. After Ploof reported retaliation to the city council, he received a cease-and-desist letter from the city’s attorney. Ploof said, “I’m a prime example of why other good cops will not come forward.” When no one has your back, how could you come forward? The unions are no better.

Internal Affairs and Police Unions Perpetuate the Blue Wall of Silence

At least ten states have adopted a “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.” These were originally meant to protect police defendants and ensure they are treated fairly. They have morphed into something that affords privileges that are often abused. After reviewing more than 80 union contracts, reporters found that at least 30 contain provisions that can be used “to shield officers accused of misconduct or make it more difficult for another officer to expose it.” Officers in Minnesota have the right to know the identity of their accusers and other witnesses prior to any hearings.

Officers in Florida receive all the evidence against them, even witness statements, before internal affairs can interview them. In Louisiana, investigators have to wait 14 days before interviewing either officers or witnesses. In Chicago, officers can view video footage and then change their statements. Most departmental policy manuals lack protections for reporting officers. As an unidentified detective from Jackson, Mississippi, wrote to city administrators, “After reading the grievance policy, I feel that there is no way you can guarantee that there will not be any retaliation from whom the grievant is filing against.”

Sergeant Javier Esqueda is a 27-year veteran of the Joliet Police Department in Illinois. Esqueda knows firsthand what retaliation feels like. The union itself retaliated against him and removed him from the union in November 2021. Esqueda released a video of officers slapping Eric Slurry, restricting his airway, and then shoving police batons down Slurry’s throat. Slurry would later die after these abuses. Incredibly, Esqueda now faces up to 20 years in prison for releasing the videos. Department officials initiated a criminal investigation and charged him with four counts of official misconduct—for simply bringing evidence of the truth about the Slurry incident to the public. Somehow that is misconduct. Members of the Joliet Officer’s Association voted 35-1 to expel Esqueda from the union. Joliet Police Sergeant Patrick Cardwell is president of the union and wrote in the letter of expulsion that: “The executive Board finds cause that you engaged in conduct that is detrimental to the orderly operation of the Association, and your conduct is deemed so reprehensible that removal from membership is appropriate.” In the twisted world of policing, exposing abuse and corruption among fellow officers is more “reprehensible” than the horrific abuses and official misconduct of the actual perpetrators in blue.

Standing Up for Accountability
In Law Enforcement

Esqueda is not being discouraged from pursuing protection for whistleblowers. Esqueda was one of only 30 officers, out of 700,000, who was willing to sign a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to pass protections for police whistleblowers. Esqueda is the first recipient of the national award from “The Lamplighter Project.” The project is an organization for support and advocacy for police whistleblowers. The organization’s name is from a term coined by Serpico in the 1970s.

USA Today investigators find that whistleblowers are “turning to their local human resources division for the city governments, state labor boards, the feds, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), the attorneys general, state police, and anywhere that they thought they could get out from their own department because they were kind of terrified of what was gonna happen to them internally.” As one unidentified 30-year member of a Massachusetts police agency wrote, “I want to thank you for bringing this to light.” The officer wrote that his distinguished career “was all tarnished ... after I reported [an] officer lying on the stand and going to the FBI.”

The officer finished by adding that investigative reporters were able to “write what I have experienced for the last [six] years. After reading this I took a deep breath and for the first time since this began, I feel liberated from the stigma of being a rat, untruthful, discredited.”

If we are to believe that there are truly good cops out there, then we need to protect those who are willing to pierce the blue wall of silence. 

Sources: techdirt.com, archive.ph, usatoday.com

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