An LAPD officer makes like a young Mike Tyson and on video wails away on a non-resisting homeless man. In Minneapolis, the world is shocked by the video of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin choking the life out of a handcuffed and compliant George Floyd. In Buffalo, an officer kicks and beats a suspect, also non-resistant and compliant.
In each case, other officers at the scene either stood by and did nothing or, as in Minneapolis, piled on a near lifeless Floyd. In Buffalo, it got even worse. One officer, repulsed by the kicking and beating of a suspect, intervened. She was then assaulted by the thug officer, terminated, and her pension contested by the department.
These three recent horror stories sparked mass protests. But this behavior is so routine among cops that it’s been canonized as the code of blue silence.
Now what if cops not only knew that they’d be prosecuted for wanton acts of violence against unarmed young Blacks and Hispanics, but they’d also be targeted for potential prosecution if they stood around and did nothing, or worse, joined in the abuse? This would be a major game changer in rooting out abusive cops. The problem is most big city police departments do not have any written policy requiring officers to intervene and report other officers who commit misconduct. That includes the LAPD.
How departments that do have a facsimile of such a policy enforce it is another matter. Legislators in Michigan now propose a law that formally requires any officer who witnesses excessive force by another officer to intervene. The LAPD should follow Michigan’s lead on this.
We hammer murderous cops who commit blatant abusive acts up to and including the slaying of unarmed citizens. But they couldn’t exist in any department without other officers and administrators who look the other way.
Chauvin is a textbook example of this. He had a hideous record of assaults, dubious shootings and a stack of abuse complaints filed against him. It would stretch belief to think that other officers who worked with him didn’t know about his behavior and record. Yet, not one of them stepped forward to blow the whistle on him. Actually, this is so routine that it would have been a shock if an officer had broken ranks and yelled foul.
Here’s how deep, prevalent and terrifying the blue code of silence is in police culture. In a study commissioned by the International Association of Police Chiefs in 2016, the National Institute of Ethics surveyed hundreds of officers in 21 states, with nearly 80 percent saying a code of silence exists. More than half said it didn’t bother them, almost half admitted that the code was strongest when excessive force was used, and half said they witnessed misconduct by another officer but kept their mouths shut.
Why? Because, in many cases, they were told to keep quiet by other officers, and in even more cases by department higher-ups. They also said they were scared they would be ostracized, disciplined or fired if they didn’t keep silent.
A significant number of them said they wanted to speak out about the abusive acts of fellow officers but were pressured by “uninvolved officers” to keep quiet.
However, there is not or never has been any need for them to quake at that prospect. Courts have sided with officers in the few times that they have broken ranks and called out other officers to higher-ups. In one case, an appeals court in California reminded police officers in a ruling on the issue that it’s the legal and professional duty of an officer to report misconduct by another officer. It’s a protected constitutional right and that any form of retaliation against the officer for speaking out is illegal.
The problem is that few police departments pound this point home to rank and file officers, and the blue code of silence allows rogue cops to keep getting away with abusive acts. When cops finally do their duty and intervene, it will be a giant step toward ridding departments of officers who behave like Derek Chauvin. n
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His most recent book is “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). Hutchinson is also a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One, and host of “The Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.