Combating the Code of Silence

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Monday, Oct. 10, 2011 | Did a "code of silence" within the Fullerton Police Department create a culture that enabled the fatal beating of a transient by officers?

The FBI and an independent investigator face that question as they examine the violent death of Kelly Thomas.

Police academies and civilian oversight organizations have worked in recent decades to train officers who will not tolerate wrongdoing by their peers. But they are combating unofficial practices that are ingrained in many departments.

In the "old days," said Dr. Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Virginia's Radford University, police academies often resembled fraternity houses with "almost six months of hazing." The goal was to create bonds and solidarity among officers.

The National Institute of Ethics in 2000 surveyed police officers in 42 states. It found that 79 percent surveyed conceded that not only did a law enforcement code of silence exist, it was "fairly common throughout the nation." Forty-six percent admitted they had witnessed misconduct by another police employee but concealed what they knew.

Asked the reason, the most common answers were: "I would be ostracized"; "the officer who committed the misconduct would be disciplined or fired"; "I would be fired from my job"; I would be blackballed"; and "the administration would not do anything even if I reported it."

But, say Burke and others, there have been improvements in recent years. Higher ethical standards and improved training in law enforcement have resulted in more officers declaring on surveys "the actions of others were unacceptable" or "bad police work."

"Fellow officers are saying, 'This is a negative reflection on my profession, and I don't want it to occur,' " said Burke. "You didn't have that years ago."

And even where there is an absence of good training, advances in technology have made police officers more accountable.

In the old days, Burke said, "you could get away with misdeeds" because most of the time there were few, if any, witnesses. Today, Burke said, "everybody has a camera" and "you're going to be on YouTube at some point."

Videos from bystanders were a major factor in keeping the Thomas case before the public during the more than two months it took Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to charge two of the six officers involved in the July 5 beating.

And a police video taken by a camera at the bus station where the beating occurred provided critical details for the DA's case. In addition, four of the six officers involved were wearing digital voice recorders.

Importance of Strong, Ethical Leadership

Trained law enforcement officers are the only group in the United States legally allowed to use force against the citizenry.

In California, however, unless criminal charges are filed or a case goes to civil trial, state laws and court decisions make it virtually impossible for the public to learn whether an officer has been disciplined for excessive use of force or other abuse.

Without public scrutiny, internal leadership and self-policing are critical, said law enforcement experts.

Retired FBI agent Frank Scafidi, who began his career with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, said he has seen the code of silence at work.

He cited two major remedies for law enforcement agencies to raise their standards: strong ethical leadership from chiefs who make it clear that unethical conduct won't be tolerated and private discussions among officers about what they will and won't allow.

"The best thing for everybody is for those line officers to recognize there are limits to what they will do to enforce the law," said Scafidi.

Officers are drawn to police work, he said, "because you want to be the shield between the dirt bags and the decent people." Depending on the kinds of assignments they have, some officers can become convinced "it's us against them."

Officer must discuss what they won't tolerate and draw the line where " 'if it happens again, or something worse, I'm going to report it,' " Scafidi said.

"When you're out there in the car, just the two of you, you have that discussion," he said. "That's where that code of silence begins, and that's where it has to be destroyed."

Fullerton's Recent History

Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers went on medical leave in August after members of the City Council and the public criticized his initial handling of the Thomas case. He was criticized for not acting quickly to inform the public and for taking nearly a month to put the officers on paid administrative leave.

At least two other cases have come to light that have raised questions about officers' conduct.

Last week, acting Chief Kevin Hamilton publicly apologized for an incident in 2010 in which officers mistakenly raided the wrong house while searching for a narcotics suspect. The family whose home was wrongly entered said the officers didn't inform superiors until several days later after the family reported the incident to the police chief.

In another case, the Los Angeles Times reported a federal court judge strongly criticized the department for allowing a police officer to return to patrol after he was accused of groping women.

In the aftermath of the Thomas beating, the FBI opened a civil rights investigation, and the city has hired Michael Gennaco to evaluate the way the department operates. Gennaco heads the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Office of Independent Review.

The Los Angeles Police Department underwent similar scrutiny after the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King by four officers. Then in the late 1990s the Rampart Division scandal emerged involving more than 50 LAPD officers and including cases of corruption and beatings. As a result of the breakdown within the department, LAPD tried to reform its long-standing culture.

In a 2006 report, civilian oversight investigator Merrick Bobb said the efforts wouldn't have succeeded without the internal support from LAPD top officials, police unions and rank-and-file and retired officers.

"If this department ever finds its way to fighting crime while winning trust — without bias, brutality or corruption — it will be because these officers and LAPD's current leadership cared more about digging deeper to finally 'get it right' than the political costs of doing so," Bobb's report asserted.

The clean up plan required standards to be enforced.

"Officers knew that disrespect to the public would be reprimanded, misconduct punished, corruption rooted out and brutality prosecuted," Bobb's report observed. "As importantly, leaders made clear that creative problem solving and community work that reduced crime and generated trust would be rewarded as much or more than high arrest tallies."

Burke put it another way. "A vast majority [of officers] will do the right thing," he said. But when something bad happens, "you've got to find out why did this happen to begin with and how do we keep it from happening again."

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

 

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