The day after Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler announced first-degree manslaughter charges would be filed against Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby for gunning down distressed motorist Terence Crutcher, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and other civil rights organizations held a press conference. They announced that they were calling on the Los Angeles Police Department, the LA County Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies, locally and nationally, to immediately establish a Breaking the Blue Code of Silence Hotline. This would give cops who police our communities legally, professionally and constitutionally an outlet to blow the whistle on other cops who blatantly break the law. This is a common sense measure for several infuriating reasons.
In South Carolina we watched as a black officer aided and abetted in moving evidence in the killing of Walter Scott.
In St. Louis we watched as a cop was caught planting a gun on a suspect he had shot.
In Charlotte we watched as an officer may have moved or even planted a weapon in the slaying of Keith Scott.
In Tulsa we watched as Shelby gunned down Crutcher and then said she felt threatened without any visible evidence to back up her claim.
We watched all this because videotaped images allowed millions a glimpse of law enforcement either blatantly breaking the law or covering up criminal acts.
In some ways, the more galling thing that we watched was officers covering up for fellow officers who were blatantly breaking the law. Not one of them stepped forward before, during or after the videos exposed the lies and their failure to blow the whistle on the crimes committed. This is so routine for them that it would have been a shock if one officer had actually broken ranks and screamed foul.
Here’s how deep and terrifying the blue code of silence is in police culture. In a study commissioned by the International Association of Police Chiefs, the National Institute of Ethics surveyed hundreds of cops in 21 states. They found that nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said that a code of silence exists. More than half said it didn’t bother them, and almost half admitted that the code was strongest when excessive force was used.
Half admitted they had witnessed misconduct by another officer but kept their mouths shut about it. Why? Because in many cases other officers told them to keep their mouths shut. In even more cases, they were told to be quiet by department higher-ups.
If they didn’t stay quiet, they were scared that they would be ostracized. They were also afraid the officer who committed the misconduct would be disciplined or fired. Worse, they thought they would be fired or “blackballed.” Some thought their commanding officers would just blow off their complaints.
A significant number of them said they wanted to speak out about the abusive acts of fellow officers but were pressured by “uninvolved officers” to keep quiet.
The reasons why they clammed up can’t be cavalierly sloughed off. Many readers and moviegoers well remember the real life account of what happened to NYPD Officer Frank Serpico who blew the whistle on police corruption, became an instant pariah and eventually was set up for the kill. Officers today don’t have to envision themselves getting the extreme Serpico treatment to know that their stock among other officers would plunge if tagged as a stoolie by other officers.
However, there has never been any need for them to quake at these prospects. Courts have sided with officers in the few times that they have broken ranks and called out other officers for misconduct that ranged from beatings to the shooting of suspects and civilians. In one case, an appeals court in California reminded police officers and officials in a ruling on the issue that it’s the legal and professional duty of an officer to report misconduct by another officer. It’s a protected constitutional right and that any form of retaliation against the officer for speaking out is illegal.
The problem is that few police departments pound this point home to rank-and-file officers. But the truth is, if he or she doesn’t report misconduct, that officer is just as culpable as the officer who broke the law.
The blue code of silence makes it possible for bad cops and bad administrators to get away with abusive acts from Charlotte and Tulsa to countless other places. It’s the single biggest thing that reinforces the notion that all cops routinely lie, cheat and cover up abuses.
When cops finally break the blue code of silence and administrators back them up, that will be a giant step toward changing that perception.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of “How ‘President’ Trump will Govern” (Amazon Kindle). He is an associate editor of New America Media, a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7-FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.