A plague of ‘professional courtesy’

In this frame grab made from a Oct. 11, 2011 video available from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Florida Highway Patrol Officer Donna Jane Watts approaches Miami Police Department Officer Fausto Lopez with her handgun drawn after Watts stopped Lopez, who was traveling at 120 miles per hour. The confrontation got Lopez fired and was the start of harassing and threatening phone calls for Watts. (AP Photo/Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles)
In this frame grab made from a Oct. 11, 2011 video, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts approaches Miami Police Department officer Fausto Lopez with her handgun drawn after Watts stopped Lopez, who was traveling at 120 mph. (Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles via Associated Press)

In October 2011, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts pulled over a fellow law enforcement officer who was zipping along a highway at over 120 mph. Miami Police Department officer Fausto Lopez led Watts for seven minutes before finally stopping. He told Watts he was on his way to an off-duty job.

Often in such cases, the officer in charge will extend what police culture has dubbed “professional courtesy” to the offending officer. That is, they’ll let him go. To her credit, Watts didn’t do that. She arrested Lopez, who had a history of speeding and dangerous driving. Lopez was later fired.

But that isn’t the end of the story. The Florida Highway Patrol then investigated Watts for her handling of the incident. The agency cleared her of any wrongdoing, but it took two months. It’s hard to believe a cop who arrested a regular citizen for driving 120 mph, and who then initially refused to pull over, would be subjected to a similar investigation.

But then the real retaliation began. On police Internet discussion boards, Miami police officers posted open threats against Watts. One Miami cop apparently tried to pull over an Florida Highway Patrol officer in retaliation, until that particular move backfired. Another FHP officer found his car smeared in human feces.

For Watts, the harassment has been quite a bit worse. She has received hundreds of calls to her private phone, some pranks, some threatening. She has had pizzas randomly delivered to her home. Strange cars began parking outside her home. And her career as a police officer may well be over. The Miami New Times reported in 2012 that her “superiors don’t think she’ll ever be able to return to duty on the road, and if she ever got into a situation where she needed backup she does not think she would receive it.”

Watts has now filed a lawsuit. As part of that suit she filed an open records request with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. As the Associated Press reports, that request found that “over a three-month period, at least 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times.”

Under the 1994 Driver Privacy Protection Act, government officials who improperly access DMV databases are subject to a $2,500 fine for each offense. Police organizations are now rallying to weigh in on Watts suit . . . in favor of the officers who were harassing her. For example, Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Agencies, told the AP, “I think it would be unfair and outside the scope of the legislation to think individuals would get whacked like that.”

Tellingly, Johnson’s organization is asking Congress to amend the Driver Privacy Protection Act so that fines attach only when driver databases are accessed with a “specific intent to secure an economic benefit.” That would presumably exclude cops who access databases to harass cops who don’t extend courtesies, to harass cops who report or arrest other cops or to look up the personal information of attractive women. (Keep this in mind when your state legislators want to establish more databases to track, for example, what prescription drugs you’re taking.)

The retaliation against Watts is a problem that extends well outside of Miami. Police officers who fail to extend professional courtesy to fellow officers can face ridicule, shaming and other retaliation. It’s an extension of the “Blue Code of Silence,” the informal admonition that cops refrain from implicating other cops. Several years ago there was even a Web site called “Cops Writing Cops” which provided a forum for police officers to publicly shame fellow cops who had the audacity to ticket them. (The site has since been taken down.) A 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer study revealed that off-duty cops put stickers in the windows of their private vehicles to identify themselves to their fellow officers. And then there are outfits like “LEO Pro Cards,” a business that prints up handy, wallet-sized cards that cops and their family members can flash to request professional courtesy from other officers.

In 2011, 16 NYPD officers — all of them current or former officials in the city’s police union — were indicted for fixing more than 1,600 tickets for fellow officers and their families. At their arraignment, hundreds of fellow officers showed up to support them. According to reports, the protesting officers also blocked reporters from accessing the courtroom and shouted insults at people waiting in welfare lines.

It may seem like a little thing, letting another cop off on a speeding charge. But it can reinforce the notion in some officers that they’re above the law. A 2012 Sun-Sentinel examination of three months worth of toll records found 800 instances in which cops in southern Florida were caught driving between 90 and 130 mph. Many weren’t on duty, but coming or going to their jobs. A broader 13-month investigation found 5,100 “high-speed” incidents, 96 percent of which were cops driving in excess of 90 mph. About half were cops outside their jurisdictions, meaning it’s unlikely they were responding to an emergency call. The investigation found 21 incidents in which citizens were left dead or severely disabled after being struck by speeding cops, sometimes driving 120 mph or more. The most severe punishment from any of those cases was 60 days in jail. The Sun-Sentinel also found that in 88 percent of cases in which a police officer’s speeding caused an accident, the officer wasn’t even issued a citation. Among regular citizens, 55 percent are issued citations. In one particularly egregious example . . .

 . . .  Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Thieman, running late for work, slammed into Eric Brody of Sunrise in 1998, leaving the 18-year-old in a coma for six months and impaired for life. Four years earlier, Thieman injured another motorist while driving his patrol car at least 20 mph over the speed limit but wasn’t ticketed, said Block, the lawyer who represents the Brody family.

Thieman was going as much as 25 mph over the speed limit when he hit Brody, records show.

But a sheriff’s investigation blamed the teenager for improperly turning left in front of the deputy.

“The only one who was written up was Eric,” Block said.

A 2012 investigation by TV station KHOU found 155 accidents between 2008 and 2012 in which a Houston police officer was at fault. None of those accident resulted in a citation for the officer involved.

The 2007 Post-Intelligencer investigation also showed that professional courtesy in Seattle extended even to drunk driving offenses. That too isn’t limited to Seattle. Just last month a cop in Tennessee was given a DWI pass by his fellow officers. Indianapolis is still dealing with the fallout from a 2010 incident in which IPD Officer David Bisard struck two motorcycles, killing one person. His fellow officers waited more than two hours to test his blood-alcohol content, which even then registered .19. In 2006, Bernardino County, Calif., Dep. Kenneth Holtz faced harassment from colleagues after arresting a fellow deputy on a DWI charge. Holtz was eventually fired for violating policies regarding “respect among members” and “conduct reflecting adversely on the department or employee.” The deputy he arrested was promoted.

In 2009, a Chicago an off-duty detective with a history of causing accidents smashed into a parked car, killing two people. He was drunk. Despite the fact that two of his prior accidents also involved slamming into other cars, causing injury, he was never given sobriety tests, and he was never even ticketed.

Other stories and investigations of cops granting DWI courtesies to other cops have come from Westchester County, N.Y.; Tuckahoe, N.Y.; Dorchester County, S.C.; the Massachusetts State Police; San Jose, Calif.; Buffalo, N.Y.; San Diego, Calif.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Denver, Colo. Many of these investigations involved fatalities.

A 2000 study from the National Institute of Justice confirms that this is an institutional problem, not a series of isolated cases. The researches surveyed over 3,000 police officers at agencies of all sizes all around the country. One question asked how likely respondents would be to report a fellow cop who had caused a traffic accident while intoxicated. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “definitely no” and 5 being “definitely yes,” the average score was 2.38.

There’s also a nose-under-the-tent component to professional courtesy. You’ll often see the tradition defended as just a small, insignificant gesture between professionals who share a tough job. But if anything, cops should be held to a higher standard than everyone else. They are after all given the considerable power to arrest, detain and kill. Once cops start letting other cops off for traffic offenses, you begin to instill in some police officers the idea that they’re less beholden to the law than the average citizen, not more. It isn’t difficult to see how that could set the stage for more consequential corruption.

Of course, there’s no way to prove that professional courtesy leads to other corruption. But even if you could prove that it didn’t, it’s a mistake to dismiss cops letting other cops off for speeding or DWI as insignificant in and of itself. Among the linked stories in this post are numerous cases of cops whose pile of courtesies extended by other cops piled up until, eventually, their disregard for the safety of other people on the road resulted in death. That’s anything but inconsequential.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · February 18