BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
“In the late 1960s,” the Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement points out, “the blue wall [of silence] came crashing down when a New York City police officer named Frank Serpico blew the whistle on fellow officers who were engaging in illegal activities, including taking bribes from drug dealers and members of organized crime.” His attempts to alert his superiors fell on deaf ears. Serpico eventually went to the press. A commission was formed, an investigation held, a few minor reforms initiated, but basically business went on as usual.
No one whistle-blower, scathing report or series of well-intentioned initiatives is going to eliminate criminal behavior and racist actions by police departments across the country. In all too many cases, as revealed in the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, the problem is structural. For change to occur, it’s going to take a transformation of police culture; how police go about their business. One thing that will do more good than harm is tearing down the Blue Wall of Silence.
Over the years, police departments across the country have complained that when crimes are committed in communities of color, people in those communities all too often remain silent. However, perhaps the most egregious examples of remaining silent in the face of criminal activity takes place within police departments themselves. The phrases, “the Blue Wall of Silence,” and “the Blue Veil of Silence,” describe the police officer practice of closing ranks behind each other, clamming up in the face of injustice, and protecting their own, making the holding of bad cops responsible for their actions practically impossible.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for community members to remain silent, including the fear of being identified and retaliated against by criminals, a reluctance to give up one of their own to the police, and the reality that police probably cannot protect those who do step forward.
Last summer, Yesha Callahan, editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Toot, wrote that, in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Eric Garner on the streets of Staten Island, PoliceOne.com, “a popular online community for law-enforcement members … who have to be verified by the site to show that they are actually police officers,” exploded with comments vilifying Garner while at the same time supporting the police officers involved in his death.
“What’s so telling about most of the comments,” Callahan pointed out, “is that it shows a lack of compassion and a solidarity when it comes to some in law enforcement.”
It may be unfortunate but fair to state that criminal behavior by police officers is not a few-and-far-between event. Over the years, investigations of criminal behavior by police officers have been conducted in numerous cities, including New Orleans, Albuquerque, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago.
In a January 22, 2013, post at UIC News, Brian Flood reported that “Police corruption in Chicago survives due to a lack of oversight and indifference from internal and external leadership.” Flood, citing a report published by a UIC researcher titled, “Crime, Corruption and Cover-ups in the Chicago Police Department,” pointed out that “police corruption is enabled by a ‘blue code of silence’ entrenched in a department culture where officers avoid reporting crimes and misconduct by their colleagues.”
The Peril Faced by Whistle-Blowing Cops
Whistle-blowing by police officers is all too rare and, in those rare cases when police officers do display the courage and integrity necessary to report misconduct by their fellow officers, they are often faced with being ostracized by fellow officers, intimidation, firing, and/or threats to their safety on the job.
In a February 2011 piece in Reason magazine titled “Why Cops Aren’t Whistleblowers” Radley Balko wrote about the case of Barron Bowling, who was awarded $830,000 “for the beating he suffered at the hands of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Kansas City, Kansas.” According to Balko, “U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson went out of her way to acknowledge another victim in the disgraceful affair: Kansas City police detective Max Seifert.”
The case revolved around a horrific unprovoked beating Bowling suffered at the hands DEA agent Timothy McCue, who beat Bowling “to the point of inflicting brain damage.” McCue claimed Bowling resisted arrest. According to Balko, witnesses gave statements that “McCue threatened to kill Bowling, whom he called ‘white trash’ and a ‘system-dodging inbred hillbilly.’”
Balko: “McCue, the DEA, and officers of the Kansas City Police Department then conspired to cover up the beating. Bowling was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and assaulting McCue with his car during the collision. He was later acquitted on those charges but convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia—a marijuana pipe police found in his car. Witness statements incriminating McCue for both the accident and the beating were lost or destroyed, as were photos of the damage McCue inflicted on Bowling’s face.”
And that is where Officer Seifert stepped in, Balko reported: He “took the witness statements that implicated McCue. He documented Bowling’s injuries and testified for Bowling in his lawsuit. He actively fought the cover-up.”
Because of his willingness to stand up, Seifert was forced into early retirement, “lost part of his pension and his retirement health insurance. … [and] was ‘shunned, subjected to gossip and defamation by his police colleagues, and treated as a pariah,’ [Judge] Robinson said. ‘The way Seifert was treated was shameful.’”
Shameful? Yes. Perhaps just as shameful, Balko reported, is that the cops involved in the cover-up have moved on to other jobs: “Ronald Miller, then Kansas City’s police chief, is now the police chief in Topeka. Steven Culp, then Kansas City’s deputy police chief, is now, incredibly, executive director of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers’ Standards and Training. Officer Robert Lane went on to become a councilman for the town of Edwardsville, where he was later convicted of participating in a ticket-fixing scheme. And McCue is still with the DEA.”
Unusual? No. The Seifert story is only one of many similar stories, where the insidious Blue Wall of Silence obstructs individual officers trying to do the right thing.
Balko noted that in former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper’s 2005 book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, he “explains the implicit threats that make the Blue Wall so successful: ‘You have to rely on your fellow officers to back you. A cop with a reputation as a snitch is one vulnerable police officer, likely to find his peers slow to respond to requests for backup—if they show up at all. A snitch is subject to social snubbing. Or malicious mischief, or sabotage.…The peer pressure is childish and churlish, but it’s real. Few cops can stand up to it.’”
There’s an old adage in sports: “What happens in the locker room, stays in the locker room.” When a controversial situation develops, police departments across the country take that aphorism to a Kafka-esque level. In an “Us vs. Them” culture, cops close ranks and cover for each other. There is a desperate need for more independent oversight of our police departments, greater transparency, broader support for whistle-blowers, and public access to police records.