Officers Have a Responsibility To Set an Example and Speak Up

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 3, 2008

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.

Some example.

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."

Although there's often little prosecutors can do to persuade street witnesses to set aside their fears, there is another tool that works only on those in law enforcement, and that is the appeal to officers' deep belief in order and justice.

Ivey says appealing to officers' self-image as good guys can sometimes overcome the power of professional bonds, making officers feel that only by coming forward can they protect their own against the few who undermine the reputation of the many.

"With police officers, you have people who on average are more committed to the rule of law than a street thug," Strasser says. "Law enforcement does face higher standards, both as a legal matter and because it is right to expect more of them."

No one predicts a swift or easy resolution in Prince George's. The juxtaposition of a white police officer, Findley, and a black suspect, White, in a racially divided county only adds to the outside noise. And in the quiet of investigators' conversations with those who might know something, decades of rancor over police excesses exacerbate the tension between telling the truth and protecting colleagues.

In the TV version of life, cameras capture what we need to know about bad guys' behavior. But in reality, it's up to each of us to say when something has been done that breaks the social compact. Those who work in the jail are there not only to protect us from the violent people in those cells, but also to make certain we do not descend to the thugs' level.

Join me at a special time, 11:30 a.m., today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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