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Thursday, October 2, 2008

When A Thin Blue Line Hits The Blue Wall of Silence

Numerous sites, including this one, ran the story about how a Denver police officer’s union printed up thousands of shirts meant to commemorate the role of police officers during the Democratic National Convention which depicted a thuggish-looking police officer slapping a truncheon in the palm of his hand while standing menacingly over the city with the caption “We get up early to beat the crowd”.

At one of those sites, The Agitator, a set of comments from one reader who said the shirt upset him when he admitted that he was trying join law enforcement “for the right reasons” started me thinking… is it really possible to be a police officer “for the right reasons”? Is it possible to be a good cop in this day and age?

The Duty of a Good Cop
Before we get to that question, we must first establish what a good officer might be and I think that could easily be described as a person who joins law enforcement solely because of a desire to serve their community with the intention to follow the spirit of the law while enforcing the letter of the law.

Of course, this description covers a lot more than might be apparent at first, as can best be seen by examining an argument made by the writer of Simple Justice when he explains "If we assume that police aren't all criminals, and that most are dedicated to their job and oath, then the measure of wrong is not the cop who did the shoving, but the cop behind him who watched." Or, in other words, the perpetuation of the blue wall of silence is just as much a criminal endeavor as is the acts of police misconduct that it shields.

So, a good officer not only has a duty to avoid participating in acts of misconduct but also has the duty to report any misconduct he or she witnesses and not participate in covering up such activity either actively or passively… which leads to the root of our question; does the current law enforcement environment allow officers to do their duty when tasked to report misconduct performed by other officers?

…in other words, is it even possible for officers to do what is right and remain a police officer in an environment that does not encourage, or perhaps actively discourages, reporting acts of misconduct? For that answer we need only look at a few examples of officers who did what the spirit of the law demanded of them and see what became of them and their efforts as a result.

The Case of Navin Sharma

In 1998, Vancouver Washington police officer Navin Sharma testified against his fellow officers about a complaint filed by a city attorney who witnessed officers deriding an instructor during an “anti-domestic violence course” and who slept during the class, drew offensive cartoons about the instructor, and threw away class materials while walking out.

Sharma, who was responsible for creating a program that ultimately saved the lives of countless officers and civilians, was rewarded for his testimony with 8 years of extraordinary abuse from fellow officers, dispatchers, and even city officials that one ex-Vancouver police summed up by telling reporters that; “In 24 years with the department I never saw them do to another officer what they’ve done to him.

Ultimately officer Sharma was fired for an alleged offense that was widely described as a training issue and fired in such a way that he could never work as a police officer again. He ultimately sued and won a discrimination suit against Vancouver but the abuse, while racial in nature, was all about retaliation, and all in response to testimony against other officers that only resulted in minor disciplinary action against two officers. Still, even though all parties now admit that Sharma was an exemplary officer who was honest to a fault, he still can never work in law enforcement again because of that honesty.

The Case of Karl Mansoor
In 1994 Karl Mansoor transferred from Norfolk Virginia, where he was a patrol officer, to Albemarle County where he had hoped to raise his family. At first he was enthusiastic about his new position within the county’s police force but that excitement was short-lived as he began to witness severe cases of misconduct, criminal activity, and cover-ups that even included sexual harassment of teenage girls within the department and brutality against suspects and innocent people.

When he approached supervisors and others about the incidents he was ignored or threatened, warned that if he dared to associate with others who were concerned about problems within the department that he wouldn’t make it anywhere within the department. His problems came to the forefront when, in 1997, he began recording conversations about misconduct and the mistreatment he was experiencing for trying to bring attention to problems within the department and he was forced to undergo treatment for the stress of working in such a hostile environment.

When he attempted to return to duty, however, he was forced to sign an agreement that forbade him from talking with any "third parties" about anything "critical or negative towards the county executive, the chief of police ... or any other county official or employee." But, in 2002 he won a civil rights suit against the county for unreasonably restricting his first amendment rights, but that only delayed the inevitable.

In 2004 Karl Mansoor was finally forced to resign from the police force due to the constant threat of having to respond to calls without backup and due to the constant animosity from his supervisors and fellow officers. Mansoor still works as a certified police instructor, teaching courses in law enforcement ethics, and is working on a book about ethics in policing as well as his own experiences trying to clean up his own police department... but he still does not work as a law enforcement officer as a result of his efforts to clean up his department.

The Case of Sam Costales
In 2006 Sam Costales reluctantly rejoined the Albuquerque Police Department in New Mexico at the request of the chief of police due to patrol shortages. He only joined after promising that he would report any misconduct he witnessed since he had previously resigned because of all the brutality he had witnessed over the 23 years as a police officer.

Shortly after rejoining he testified against three Bernalillo County officers who he witnessed drag Al Unser Sr. from his truck, throw him against the ground, and then handcuff him on Unser's own property after he had questioned why police had placed a roadblock on his land. Moments later he also witnessed police arrest 72 year old Bobby Unser who lived nearby. Costales' testimony not only contradicted the deputies but also claimed that their conduct was unprofessional and unreasonable.

After his testimony the Albuquerque chief of police initiated an investigation against Costales after sending a letter to the police union that stated “Like you, I was shocked and dismayed when I learned that Sam was on the stand sucker-punching our deputies. Make no mistake, while his testimony was a work of fiction, it was pretty much game over after he finished…Sam Costales is incapable of breaking the brotherhood that bonds these great agencies.”

Thereafter Costales was the subject of persecution and retaliation that left him fearful that officers would not give him backup if he responded to a dangerous call... and ultimately led to him seeking treatment for the extreme stress he had to endure as a result of testifying truthfully when called to do so. In the end, his own department and supervisors turned against him for testifying against officers in another department.

The Case of Frank Serpico
Of course, all of this is nothing new... In 1967 Frank Serpico sought to bring attention to widespread corruption within the NYPD, but it wasn't until 1970 when the New York Times finally broke the story about corruption in the NYPD that the mayor formed the Knapp Commission to investigate the claims made by officers and civilians alike.

In 1971, while working a drug bust, Frank Serpico was shot in the face while his fellow officers refused to provide backup. As officer Serpico laid on the floor of an apartment building slowly bleeding to death his fellow officers refused to call in a request for emergency services but another tennent in the building sat with Serpico and called for an ambulance.

For his attempts to bring to light the rampant abuses and corruption within the NYPD, officer Serpico had to endure a lifetime of chronic pain from bullet fragments left in his skull and the harassment from his fellow officers who taunted him in his hospital room. He still testified to the commission later that year and worked tirelessly thereafter helping officers who faced similar problems when they tried to do the right thing as well, people who he termed "lamp-lighters".

Even in Seattle
Sometimes, even when officers are not actively punished for testifying against their fellow officers, they are usually not protected from retaliation by their fellow officers when they try to do their duty and testify honestly when demanded to do so by law. Sometimes, too, officers do cave into the pressure to remain silent and not rat out their fellow officers.

In 2004 a four year FBI investigation into corruption within the Seattle Police Department ended abruptly after the investigation was compromised by those police officers themselves. The incomplete findings were turned over to the SPD and as a result one officer resigned, one was dismissed, and two others faced other disciplinary actions. One of the officers, a sergeant, ultimately faced discipline for allegedly referring to a subordinate who cooperated with the FBI as "a rat", an accusation which he later denied by stating: "I have denied saying anything to hurt the tender feelings of this young officer."

In a second hearing performed by the chief of police, the officer who made the accusation changed his story without explanation and as a result the sergeant wasn’t fired for violating rules against intimidating a whistleblower. There was never an investigation into whether or not there was any coercion involved with the officer's change of testimony.

Are There Good Cops?
What does all of this tell us? If anything it suggests that the blue wall of silence is still in force and still working to ensure that the thin blue line that enforces society’s laws does not extend into the police department itself. That officers are still actively discouraged from doing as duty demands, to enforce the laws evenly and fairly, even when the laws are broken by one of their own…

Ultimately, such stories show us that the blue wall of silence exists to ensure that if there is such a thing as a good cop, that such a cop will be punished until that cop conforms to the unspoken rule of silence or is exiled from the ranks of law enforcement. It shows us that while there are good cops out there, that their good deeds will not go unpunished and that those few good cops, no matter how dedicated they may be, just cannot remain cops for long... that it's a lot more difficult for a good cop to remain true to his or her ideals.

But, there is another lesson here as well, one not so bleak, in that these stories prove that there are good cops out there, cops who are devoted to doing what is right and are willing to enforce the law beyond the blue wall, even when that blue wall threatens to crush them.

…meanwhile, those shirts printed by the Denver police union have been so popular with police officers in the region, that they sold out of the 2000 they had printed and had to order more. So, now not only do cops remain silent when other cops abuse their authority, but they celebrate it brazenly without fear of repercussion, all thanks to the perpetuation of their blue wall of silence.

While there are good cops out there who can follow the legacy of sacrifice left before them, we need to wait and see if there are there enough out there to stem the tide against such apparently wide-spread corruption. Hopefully, someday, such officers will be rewarded and prized for their honesty and dedication instead of punished for it.

For more information about Navin Sharma see:
"Good Cop, Mad Cop" -Willamette Weekly
"Navin Sharma: A Good Cop Who Can't Be A Cop" -Injustice In Seattle

For more information about Karl Mansoor see:
"Former Officer Alleges Corruption in Albemarle County Police Department" -WCAV 19 News
"Virginia County Wrong To Muzzle Officer's Speech" -Freedom Forum
"Blue Must Be True" -

For more information about Sam Costales see:
"Cop of the Year-2007" -The Agitator
"Bully Cops May Cost Taxpayers" -The Citizen Media Group

For more information about Frank Serpico see:
"The Official Frank Serpico Website"

For more information about the FBI Investigation Into SPD Corruption see:
"Seattle police plan to fire officer in misconduct case" -The Seattle Times
"Police Chief Fires Officer, Disciplines 2 Sergeants" - The Seattle Times

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