Officers Have a Responsibility To Set an Example and Speak Up
On the street, nobody knows anything, nobody's seen anything. Cops and prosecutors complain about it all the time: Somehow, right and wrong tumbled over each other and the no-snitching imperative took on the aura of morality.
But no one expects street thugs to have a finely tuned sense of ethical values. Law enforcement officers are another story. Those who are sworn and empowered to uphold the law have a special responsibility to set an example.
In Prince George's County, a police officer is dead because a thug demonstrated a sickening and total disregard for life. The 19-year-old who was accused of killing county police Cpl. Richard Findley is dead, too, apparently because someone with access to a solitary confinement cell sneered at the law and anointed himself the Black Hand.
Now, as the Maryland State Police try to determine what happened at the jail in Upper Marlboro, several correctional officers have declined to speak to investigators, and the county's public safety chief has had to order officers to cooperate.
This is, of course, hardly shocking news. The Blue Wall, the vow of silence that binds law enforcement officers, is so strong that the few who feel compelled to inform on wayward colleagues become the stuff of Hollywood chronicles. Decades after Frank Serpico told authorities about widespread police bribery in New York, his name remains a curse word to many officers.
In a nationwide poll of police by the National Institute of Justice, 61 percent said officers "do not always report even serious violations by fellow officers," and 67 percent said whistle-blowers were likely to be "given a cold shoulder."
So why should bad guys and ordinary citizens pay heed when police and prosecutors lecture them about how it's their civic duty to come forward with information about crimes? If law enforcement officers won't think of themselves as righteous whistle-blowers rather than as rats or snitches, how can a system that depends on witness testimony possibly function?
"My sense as a prosecutor is that whenever you deal with any organization, there's a high likelihood of running into that kind of resistance," says Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, whose job it is to put together the case against whoever killed Findley's accused murderer, Ronnie White. Faced with officers who won't talk, Ivey says he uses the same tools he deploys against street thugs: "You find the little fish and try to flip them; you try to get the less culpable to testify against the more culpable in exchange for lighter punishment."
Prosecutors say there's an important distinction between why cops and citizens in high-crime areas don't talk.
On the street, "people don't talk because they really don't trust the police," says Alan Strasser, a Washington trial lawyer who was formerly chief of the felony division of the U.S. attorney's office in the District. "They sometimes see them as an occupying army. Or they're afraid of physical retaliation or at least some social retaliation, being ostracized, if they talk."
Law enforcement officers, in contrast, "feel they are fighting a battle against crime and they don't have the resources or support they need to do their job, and because of that, they face unique tensions," Strasser says. "As a result, a few of them feel they're entitled to a little slack, to do things that other people can't do."