About 7 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1978, officer Leonard Campbell saw someone dart into an alley off T Street. He and seven other 3rd District officers had been chasing a narcotics suspect who had just escaped. Within minutes, the eight street cops were combing the dark strip full of stones and debris. They found the man hiding under an oil tank.
The suspect's hands were still cuffed behind his back. Two officers lifted him to his feet. It was then, Campbell later alleged, he saw Elwood Anderson--the officer from whom the man originally escaped--run up and kick the suspect in the chest.
"Man, what's wrong with you? Don't kick him again," Campbell recalls shouting as he pulled Anderson away.
Campbell said the prisoner, Gregory Akers, was doubled over in pain. The other six officers seemed stunned--by Campbell's interven-tion. Campbell recalled, "They looked at me all funny."
Anderson told Campbell he had slipped and had not kicked Akers. He apologized and asked Campbell not to report the incident. But to Campbell, the scene was eerily reminiscent of another alley and another time 25 years earlier when his brother had been the victim of a police beating. No one had said anything about it; there had been no report, no investigation, no justice.
Campbell was torn over whether he should report the incident. "It was one of the hardest decisions I have made . . . . It was just like being on a jury. I kept going over it . . . . The invisible code that we have, it did come to mind."
He says he contacted a friend, another 3rd District officer, who had once reported police brutality to his superiors. "He gave me the best answer anyone could. He told me . . . that if I did report it, I would be on my own . . . . 'You're going to be blackballed. They're going to give you the max for anything you do. They'll never forget. You'll have to live with it. But, on the other hand, can you live with yourself?'"
Within an hour, Campbell had filed his complaint.
By making allegations against another officer, Campbell had breached what his friend, officer Nathan Smith, calls the unspoken "code among policemen that you don't tell on each other." It is a code of silence, a mutual protection pact that has very practical origins.
Four years after violating the code, Campbell is still paying.
The code seems to stem from a much more basic truth: that survival is the first priority of police work. Day after day in crime-ridden areas such as 3-D, where it is not uncommon for officers to find themselves alone in an unfriendly crowd or dangerous alley, they must be confident with the knowledge that their colleagues always will back them up.
"We don't have no one to call on but each other," says Smith.
Word quickly spreads if an officer is perceived to be undependable, as someone who must be watched closely. Officers do not want to have to worry about each other when danger may be only seconds away.
"I know what it's like to have been in a battle . . . and to hear the yelp and the wail of a scout car coming to your assistance. I also know the feeling of not hearing it," says Lt. Kenneth Brown.
"The trust you build up . . . survives after a period of time and . . . permeates the entire unit, district to district--the entire city--and spills over into adjoining jurisdictions," says Brown. "Most guys look at it as 'Hey, we must stand together. We're the thin line, more or less, between lawfulness and lawlessness, survival and nonsurvival.'"
It is this need for trust that created the code of silence.
Detective Lowell Duckett says, "When you raise your right hand the first day on the job it means : 'I will tell no evil, see no evil and hear no evil.' The bond is there because of the nature of the job."
An assistant U.S. attorney says, "Most police officers have a sense that it's us against them, that the community doesn't appreciate them and doesn't support them. They get so much hostility, and so much distrust, that they become a kind of little family, and the family is the most important thing."
After Campbell's complaint was filed, 3-D officials launched an investigation.
Anderson said he had not kicked Akers.
All six officers in the alley said they had not seen Anderson kick Akers.
Akers himself--a 25-year-old American University student who had been arrested for allegedly carrying a bag of Preludin pills--said he had not been kicked.
Campbell was the sole accuser.
Fellow officers and police officials faithful to the unwritten code began a campaign of harassment against Campbell. To them, Campbell says, he was no better than the stool pigeons, the squealers, the lawbreakers police routinely paid to turn in friends.
Campbell was ostracized, temporarily removed from the street and assigned to clerical chores. He says he received anonymous phone calls at night, and that one member of his squad would have no more to do with him. "I'll work with anyone," the officer said, "but the snitcher."
"Those officers were going to let me burn for telling the truth, for doing what was right," says Campbell.
Says an officer not involved in the Anderson case: "If there is one thing this job teaches you, it's how to lie. If you don't, they'll burn you. So if I see an officer get out and smack somebody, my statement is, 'I was too busy to see what was going on.'"
Lt. William Freeman says that all officers know right from wrong but that most will eventually find themselves in situations where emotions take over. Last year, there were 122 citizen complaints citywide of physical abuse by police. While officials could not say how many had merit, they cited a 1979 study that showed 92 percent of the complaints filed between 1975 and 1978 were unfounded.
Freeman says he doesn't know if the allegation against Anderson is true, but if it is, he understands.
"Call it a fit of anger, a fit of frustration, whatever you call it, it was a normal human response," says Freeman. "You chase a guy three to four blocks--where do you put the anger? He put it in his foot."
Another official, who declined to be identified, says he once covered up for one officer accused of beating a prisoner because he empathized with the officer's momentary rage. He says he gave instructions that the officer's candid version of the incident be revised.
"I said, 'We have a problem here. It'll look bad for the investigation. You'll have to talk to this man . . . If he doesn't change his statement, he'll get into trouble.' He turned in a new report the next day."
Campbell understands the temptation to overreact. There were times when he could not control his temper, when he had to step back and allow another officer to take over. Once, he felt like jumping on a prisoner who spit in an officer's face. Another time, a drunk woman hit him and he angrily grabbed her, only to feel her young children wrapping themselves around his legs. "I caught myself," Campbell recalled. "Her kids were crying, 'Please don't kill my mother.' I told her to go."
Campbell knows that police are not supposed to be "thin-skinned," but he counts himself a human being first.
"I've seen the things police sometimes do to people on the street, and it wasn't the right time or place to talk about it." But kicking Akers, he says, was different. "It wasn't necessary. The guy never said anything. He was still handcuffed."
Even several months after the incident, after the police department charged that there was an elaborate cover-up by Anderson, Campbell's "snitcher" reputation stood. Rookies who knew nothing about the original incident kept their distance from him, Campbell recalled. "They didn't even know me, and they wouldn't work with me because of 'the word.' "
"The word" is a fact of life at 3-D. It crosses racial lines, age barriers--all barriers--and manifests itself in the intense struggle on the streets. There are other 3-D officers for whom "the word" became a legacy.
One young officer said he confronted his older partner last year after the veteran pushed a prisoner down a flight of stairs. "I don't like what you did," the younger officer said privately. The veteran replied, "You could say you just came out the door and didn't see anything." Word of the confrontation spread, and the inexperienced officer was immediately tagged as someone who could not be trusted.
Officer Thomas Childs complained to his superiors about two colleagues who tied a belt in the shape of a noose around a prisoner's neck. The reaction was "as if I had done something wrong," Childs recalled. His nightstick was taken and later returned to him in a manila envelope, reduced to sawdust, a sign of warning and contempt.
Officer Bobby Walker saw two officers beat one of his prisoners in the face. He reported the incident to a lieutenant. The lieutenant took the prisoner into an office. "I don't know what happened in that lieutenant's office," Walker recalled. "When he came out of that room, the prisoner wouldn't identify anyone." Walker was disciplined for failure to safeguard his prisoner.
"It taught me," says Walker, "that if you're not ready to stand up and lose it all . . . to keep your mouth closed. I've seen a lot since then, and I've never brought it up."
Leonard Campbell says he had his first contact with police brutality in 1957 when, at the age of 5, he and his 12-year-old brother were confronted in an alley by two white police officers, both of whom appeared to have been drinking. One of the officers challenged Campbell's brother to a fight, saying, "If you lick me, I'll let you go. If you lose, I'll lock you up."
Terrified, Campbell ran home. When he returned with his sister, the alley was empty. They called the police station. They were told that Campbell's brother had been "locked up for disorderly conduct." They found him at the police station with puffed eyes and a bruised face. "They had really done a job on him. They had beat his head with a phone book," Campbell recalled.
To avoid further trouble, Campbell's father signed a paper dropping the matter.
Campbell said when he found himself in another alley 25 years later, watching Akers try to catch his breath, listening to another officer tell Akers, "Be a man, act like a man," seeing Akers struggling to straighten up, all he could think of was his brother.
"The only reason this exists here," Campbell said, "is because we allow it to."
When the 3-D investigation began, Campbell said in his statement, "I clearly observed officer Anderson kick the prisoner."
Anderson spoke to investigators under a grant of total immunity from prosecution. Then he disputed Campbell's allegation.
"Maybe he misconstrued what had happened in the alley, or was too quick to judge . . . , " Anderson said in his statement.
Campbell was shown the accounts of the six officers in the alley. "Nobody saw nothing but me. They had made me out to be the liar." Not only had the white officers backed up Anderson's account of the incident involving Akers, who is black, but Campbell was upset to learn that the few black officers had as well.
Akers' seven-page statement was shown to Campbell. "Anderson was running towards me," Akers had said. "He appeared to be losing his balance. Next thing I knew, he was kinda sliding toward me horizontally. He lost his balance . . . . I flinched because I couldn't jump back . . . . Anderson was laying on the ground, but he had not touched me . . . . "
Campbell flipped through the statement as a police official stood nearby. "Officer Campbell, you said he was assaulted. The victim said he wasn't."
Campbell says he was astonished by Akers' written version of the incident.
"I don't care what he said. He was assaulted . . . . I'm positive what I saw."
At one point, Campbell left the room to regain his composure. A black sergeant peeked out of his office and motioned him in, Campbell recalls, and whispered, "Campbell, whatever you do, stick to your guns." The sergeant checked the hallway again before allowing Campbell to leave.
"I felt like I was in the rural south somewhere," Campbell says. "It dawned on me by the questions. They were trying to make something seem like an accident that wasn't an accident . . . I explained, 'I'm a police officer. I saw this happen. I was five feet away.' "
One of the black officers who had been in the alley told Campbell later: "I called it as I saw it".
Campbell said coldly, "It should have been your mother he kicked that way."
The few who supported Campbell refused to do so openly. "What you did, I'm glad you did. I couldn't have done it," one said. Others refused to include him in their activities, telling his friends, "We're doing this after work, but don't tell Campbell . . . . "
Campbell recalls the time a 3-D sergeant, unaware of Campbell's role in the Akers affair, was talking with him when the phone rang. Campbell heard his name mentioned. "Oh, this is the guy," Campbell recalls the sergeant saying. As he hung up, he turned to Campbell: "You can't go on the street like that because your beard's too long, your hair's too long--I might give you a '750' discipline notice ." Campbell was assigned clerical duties that day.
It was a difficult period for Campbell. He spent many hours at home alone. At the police station, he became more and more isolated. Recalls Lowell Duckett: "He was having to walk beats by himself, guys would ostracize him and give him the 'West Point' silent treatment. But the sense that he had done something that needed to be done overcame those obstacles. They might not trust him, but they would respect him."
If there was any positive aspect to the experience, Campbell says, it was that officers would think twice about touching a prisoner when he was present.
By Sept. 27, 1978, 15 days after the incident, police officials and federal prosecutors had reviewed the case and concluded that Campbell's allegations were without merit. The case was closed.
Soon after, Campbell was summoned by a top official at 3-D, who asked whether Campbell would submit to a lie detector test. When Campbell asked for time to consider it, he says his boss blew up, accusing Campbell of trying to "hold up" Anderson's pending promotion to sergeant with allegations that were "worth nothing."
"Right there I knew where I stood," Campbell recalled. "He's the top. Whatever I do, I'm out on my own." Campbell's closest friends advised against his taking the lie detector test. "Don't do it, man. They'll throw stuff in there," one warned him, fearing that Campbell had become the target of the investigation and might be set up with tricky questions.
Campbell replied, "I feel if I don't take it, it'll hurt the case more."
He reported on schedule to the examiner. But, as he waited to be hooked up to the machine, the test was canceled. Campbell was furious. He had been taken to the brink, he realized, to see how long he would stick to his story. But he had called their bluff.
Not long after that Campbell was radioed in his scout car and asked to meet another cruiser. He was introduced to officials from Internal Affairs, a specialized unit that handles inquiries into charges of police misconduct. Campbell was told the case had been ordered reopened by then-Chief of Police Burtell M. Jefferson. A short time later Campbell received a grand jury subpoena. He looked up the D.C. code numbers listed on the subpoena in order to determine the nature of the investigation. He found the words "obstruction of justice."
On Nov. 28, 1978, Akers recanted his statement. He now said he had been kicked and that Anderson had contacted him shortly after the incident and offered the following deal: If Akers was willing to lie about the incident, Anderson would pay him a small sum of money and "take care of the Preludin pills case when it came to testify" at the trial.
Akers outlined an elaborate scheme. Anderson would use the code name "Cowboy" and Akers would use the name "Touche'." Akers said he consented to the proposal because he feared retribution and had "no friends" at 3-D. He said he had concocted a statement for the police and made a duplicate for Anderson.
Anderson was indicted June 6, 1979, on charges of assault and obstruction of justice. The indictment alleged that Anderson had "endeavored, by means of bribery, misrepresentation, intimidation, force and threats of force" to obstruct the police investigation into the the beating. Anderson pleaded innocent.
On June 17, 1980, a D.C. judge ruled that since police originally had given Anderson immunity from prosecution for his account, much of the government's case could not be used against him. More than a year ago, the U.S. attorney's office took the case to the D.C. Court of Appeals. The government lawyers argued that if Anderson were found to have subsequently lied, it should erase the immunity grant. The matter is pending. If tried and convicted, Anderson faces a prison term of up to four years. Anderson was suspended from the force without pay. He stands by his original account of the incident and declined to comment for this article.
Sometimes, just the perception that an officer has told on a colleague is enough to violate the code of silence.
One young officer worked hard to gain the respect of his more experienced colleagues. He was determined to show restraint and not make the mistake of coming on too strong with his own value system.
"I just lay back. I don't jump up and say, 'Can I drive?' . . . . I don't touch the radio. I just wait. If the veteran does not touch the radio for a while then I take that as a signal that I can.
"I don't want to step on anybody's toes . . . . I realize I have a lot of to learn."
One day, however, his partner, unhappy at a minor error made in processing an arrest, pushed a prisoner down a flight of stairs. He confronted the veteran later. "I don't like what you did. It wasn't right. The guy didn't do anything to deserve it. It's just wrong."
The veteran replied, "You could say you'd just come out the door, and didn't see anything."
The young officer said, "If the sergeant asks me, I don't have any choice but to tell him . . . . I told him as long as me and him ride again I didn't want to see it happen. He knew where I stood. I knew where he stood."
Several officers heard about his outburst and spread the word. It did not take long for the young officer to gain a reputation.
But there was something the young officer never told his partner, nor the other officers who were so quick to pass judgment.
Before he had warned his partner he would refuse to lie, he already had been asked about the matter. Knowing he would be working and depending on these same officers for years to come, he recalled having mustered up the only possible answer: "I told him I'd just come out the doorway, and didn't see what happened."