After millions of people around the world watched in horror as George Floyd died during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers, many Americans are awakening to the historical consequences of systemic racism and the apparent vacuum of meaningful accountability for law enforcement. Congress is starting to respond; the House and Senate have competing reform bills.
Unfortunately, any bill will be insufficient without witness protection for the whistleblowers necessary to enforce the law. Otherwise, reforms will run into what is widely known as “the blue wall of silence,” the unwritten code that values protection of fellow officers, sometimes even over protection of the public. This code means that law enforcement whistleblowers risk not only their careers when they come forward, they also risk their lives.
I, Frank Serpico, know this from experience: In the late 1960s and ’70s, I blew the whistle on police corruption. My disclosures prompted the Knapp Commission, an investigation that uncovered and helped combat systematic corruption. But my colleagues did not view my whistleblowing as a noble, important act. During a “drug buy and bust,” I was shot in the face. My back-up failed to call in “officer down” and left me to bleed to death. I would have died but for an elderly Hispanic neighbor who called for help.
I was tormented by the police during my entire recovery. The late New York City Police Commissioner Patrick V. Murphy was aware of my revelations and the resulting danger I faced. He could have protected me. Instead, he assigned me to the most dangerous position in narcotics. In his book, “Commissioner: A View from the Top of American Law Enforcement,” he was apologetic to his cronies, stating that he regretted my promotion. Instead of commending me for exposing corruption, he sent a clear, chilling message to any would-be whistleblower.
My experience was no aberration. The Government Accountability Project’s work with whistleblowers confirms it is the rule, not the exception. For example, former U.S. Marshal Matthew Fogg also was abandoned and nearly lost his life during a stakeout after he challenged racial bigotry within the U.S. Marshals Service.
Yet another former police officer, Cariol Horne, knows the risks of whistleblowing from experience. In 2006, Horne prevented a fellow Buffalo police officer from choking a black detainee. However, when she testified against her colleague in court, she was accused of interfering with the arrest and endangering the other officer. These accusations led to her dismissal and subsequent loss of pension.
Even if chokeholds were outlawed in all contexts, the deep-seated culture of peer pressure degenerates into personal harassment if an officer exposes anything that threatens a peer. When California police officer Jed Arno Blair exposed two other officers for theft and planting drugs on suspects, his colleagues rewarded him with scorn, harassment and exclusion. Blair said colleagues threatened his family, spit in his locker, and threw his clothes in a urinal, and that leadership ignored his complaints.
Citizens’ outcries and video footage of police brutality have finally sparked a long-overdue national reckoning. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Exposing and reforming police misconduct requires more than capturing what happens on a smartphone. Often the only witness to these types of misconduct may be a fellow officer whose testimony against a colleague is the only chance for justice. The rule of law relies on their protection. Testimony from honest police officers can be the most effective path to justice.
Without whistleblower protection, however, any new reforms will be killed when they run into the blue wall of silence. If police officers continue to have a powerful culture lying to protect their own, how are we going to enforce controls such as the ban on chokeholds, controls on other deadly force, expanded liability, restrictions on “no knock” warrants, restrictions on military equipment, and accurate records? Without truthful testimony, the new rights may be a mirage.
Police reforms will have to reverse a longstanding way of life — abuses of power without accountability. If Congress is serious about these reforms, politicians must support and protect those whose testimony is indispensable for their reforms to have a viable chance of taking root. It is not realistic to expect police officers to defend the public if they cannot defend themselves.
Frank Serpico is a former New York Police Department detective who blew the whistle on corruption within the NYPD.
Tom Devine is the legal director at Government Accountability Project, the world’s leading experts in whistleblower protection and legislation.