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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is Reporting Police Misconduct Career Suicide?

On December 23, 2008, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Bonnar was acquitted of federal deprivation of civil rights charges that were filed against him on allegations that he had used excessive and unnecessary force when he arrested 41 year old Irene Damon. After reading the verdict, the judge in this case offered a stinging rebuke for Bonnar by suggesting that despite the jury’s decision that there was ample evidence that Bonnar’s conduct was not appropriate.

On March 13, 2009, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Don Griffee was acquitted of fourth degree assault charges that were filed against him on allegations that he had punched 21 year old Johnny Bradford while he was handcuffed in the back seat of a cruiser. Despite the verdict, jurors said they felt that Bradford’s testimony was believable, but that Griffee had offered a case of plausible deniability that prevented them from finding him guilty beyond all doubt.

On February 26, 2009, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Schene plead not guilty to fourth degree assault charges that were filed against him on the basis of a video recording of him kicking, punching, and manhandling 15 year old Malika Calhoun in a holding cell. The video was released to the media a day later and it sparked outrage all over the world which prompted the US Department of Justice to consider pressing federal civil rights violation charges against Schene.

These cases are not uncommon in that there were allegations of abuse leveled against police officers.

These cases are not noteworthy just because they all came from the same precinct and police department.

Nor are they uncommon because of the results in which evidence and testimony that would convict a normal person were insufficient to convict a cop. After all, when 73% of white Americans do not believe police officers ever use excessive force, it’s nearly impossible to find an unbiased jury pool out there.

No, these cases are incredibly unique in the world of police misconduct in that, in each of these cases, it was a police officer who brought these allegations to the attention of their department, that the department listened to the officers who complained and investigated the accusations, that the department recommended charges in response to them, and did not silence the allegations and punish the officers that reported them.

Yes, these cases are incredible in that the officers who reported them didn’t face retribution for doing so… at least not that we can tell yet. But, will that culture within that department last after the sheriff is gone? Or will the union work to shift things back to an environment where officers are afraid to tell the truth in fear of retaliation from fellow officers and supervisors?

Indeed, a good portion of the reason why police officers do not report incidents of misconduct isn’t just because of the cultural pressures not to snitch that their fellow officers put upon them. It’s that the “no snitching” culture is actually enforced by practice within police departments across the US and that it’s expected that officers who report misconduct will be punished by their departments and eventually forced out or fired on allegations that normally wouldn’t result in termination.

That fact was recently reinforced when a reader commented to a story we published in February detailing the surprising number of police department heads who have been embroiled in allegations of misconduct in recent months. That reader posted this in response to that story:

"I can explain why most good officers do not step forward. I was an officer that stepped forward to report about one of the Chiefs on this very list and now I will never be a police officer again.

No agency would take me and it has caused many sleepless nights for me but I have come to terms with the fact that I did what was right. Seeing the justice that was done here makes me feel like I did right but that isn’t good for a person who has only police work to fall back on.

Reporting abuse over another cop, let alone a chief, is career suicide."

At first the reader who posted this wished to remain anonymous and not have the details of what he was referring to made public, and for good reason. But now he’s given us permission to tell the rest of his story of how police officers in America are usually treated when they try to bring misconduct allegation to light.

Here’s what he told us about what happened to him in a follow-up email:

"I was employed in Roberts, Wisconsin for a few years as a patrol officer. All was well until the day that the board decided that the part time police chief job needed to be full time.

The village board decided to hire Ricci Prein and all seemed well at first. At least until one evening when I found Chief Prein drinking while working on a squad car in the municipal garage. I found this to be a compromising position so I reported it to the board.

From that day on I was written up for any crazy thing such as the squad car being on the low end of full gauge or the oil dipstick, or not getting trash to the curb by 3 am when it got picked up at 3 pm that day.

I was also written up on several occasions for my military reserve service and when he was told he was wrong for doing so he still refused to retract anything. The harassment finally got so bad that one day I decided it was enough and I resigned from the department.

After my resignation I was unable to find a job for many years because of the things he would tell prospective employers about me. I tried to take it to court but the fact that I had no money and no lawyer in the area would handle it because of conflict of interests, I gave up. I was still lucky enough, if you call it that, to be called to active duty in the current war 2 times, which helped pay bills."

This, sadly, is what usually happens when officers report incidents of misconduct, whether it’s against another police officer or a supervisor. There are few real protections against retaliation for reporting misconduct and there is little impetus to change that since city governments benefit from this culture of retribution since it prevents officers from testifying in civil rights violation cases that could cause embarrassment to local governments and loses in court.

Most of the time, the story ends there. The police officer never finds work again and the culture of corruption continues on unabated and even more secure after examples have been made of officers who dared to cross the blue wall of silence.

But not in this officer’s case:

"After my deployments I returned home and wondered how to address this. I finally decided to run for the village president position (mayor). I won the election and there by became Prein's boss.

Now, I didn’t do anything to him personally, all I did was bring current concerns to the village board as should have been done in the first place when I reported the issues I had seen. I even abstained from any votes pertaining to those allegations. All this being said and done, the board finally made the decision that he was wrong all the time in the past and that he needed to be fired."

Ricci Prein was eventually fired in July of 2008 on five counts of misconduct in office, seven months after the village board laid out their case against him, and years after this officer first made his concerns known to the village board. However, he proved he wasn’t done getting back at that officer yet.

The officer’s name is Eric Fisher and he had recently run for re-election as village president. He might have won if it weren’t for constant public attacks made by ex-chief Prein made via letters to the editor in the local paper that not only attacked Fisher, but also his wife. That election ended yesterday with Fisher losing to his rival by 44 votes.

So, yes, Fisher is right in that, in most cases, reporting police misconduct can be a matter of career suicide. When we ask ourselves why officers won't report the misconduct they see and we say that it's because they are bad officers, we should remind ourselves of what happens to the good ones and how little support they receive from their community. For us to have better expectations from them, we must expect to support and reward them ourselves.

But, fortunately in this case, Fisher found another calling and this story still has a positive ending where most might not. Fisher now works at a high school with special education children. While it doesn’t pay what a police officer gets, it’s something that Fisher can put his determination towards good use once again.

He ended his story by saying this:

“I can never be a cop again, but hey, I love what I am doing now and hopefully when we recover completely from all this I will finish my degree in teaching and become a full time teacher."

While police unions would use cases like this as an argument that they need even more layers of appeals and protections to fight allegations of misconduct made against officers, this isn’t true. The answer to the problem of retaliation against officers who report misconduct isn’t to make it harder to discipline officers found to have committed acts of misconduct.

The answer is simple actually. As Karl Mansoor, an ex-police officer and law enforcement ethics instructor who fought his own battle against retribution for reporting misconduct, tells his readers… the answer is to make the complaint, investigation, and disciplinary processes transparent to the public in order to remove the incentives that keep misconduct and the retribution suffered for reporting it a secret.

The best solution to the problem of police misconduct and the culture of silence prevalent in police departments across the nation is to shine a little light on them.

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