POLITICS

Police Union Official Calls Out 'Snitch' Cops, Shows Why It's So Hard To Hold Officers Accountable

This is what happens when you break the "blue wall of silence."

The cloud of scrutiny darkened over the San Francisco Police Department this week, following the chief's admission that a veteran officer had drawn complaints and was disciplined after making racially charged and sexually suggestive remarks inside a precinct station.

It was the latest controversy for the force, which has been damaged by a series of revelations about officers exchanging racist and homophobic text messages.

For one police union spokesman, however, the issues of misconduct and bigotry in the department appear less concerning than the realization that fellow cops came forward to report this bad behavior.

In a recent Facebook post, Gary Delagnes, former head and acting consultant for the city's Police Officers Association, lashed out at the officers who had accused Sgt. Lawrence Kempinski of making inappropriate comments, calling them "snitches."

Kempinski was allegedly overheard saying that he had to "chase Negro boys around," and remarking to a female colleague that he had a "big gun" for her, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Last week, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr confirmed that he'd suspended Kempinski in April and removed him from street duty following the beginning of an investigation in February.

"Two other officers who heard the statement immediately raced to their superiors and snitched [Kempinski] off," wrote Delagnes. "This officer did nothing wrong other then making an ill advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media."

Delagnes also lamented the fact that officers were "being encouraged to be trained snitches on one another," and accused SFPD brass of "boast[ing] about the incident" by bringing it to the press proactively.

In the current debate over police reform, critics of misconduct frequently cite the so-called "blue wall of silence" as a primary obstacle to change. This unwritten rule supposedly discourages officers from reporting or admitting the malfeasance, errors and criminal behavior of their colleagues, thereby shielding them from potential repercussions.

In effect, if you see something, don't say something. In fact, just shut the hell up about it. And if you don't, you'll risk retaliation, ostracization and outright threats.

Last year, we reported on the story of Joe Crystal, a former detective in the Baltimore Police Department who had informed on officers after witnessing them brutalizing a suspect. Crystal said the consequences were severe: He was harassed, moved to night shifts and denied requests for backup while on duty. A dead rat once mysteriously appeared on the windshield of his car. Crystal eventually left the force, and has since filed a lawsuit over his treatment. 

While this code of silence is commonly understood in law enforcement communities, police officials rarely admit to it publicly. Many of them deny that it exists, instead suggesting that the problems in their ranks are limited to a few "bad apples." They claim that the vast majority of officers are not only good, but also intolerant of misconduct by their peers.

But Delagnes' comments show that this supposed virtuousness is not so clear-cut in some circles. Many officers are still expected to adhere to this unspoken axiom, even if it means ignoring the very sorts of disturbing conduct that continue to plague police departments around the nation.

And rank-and-file officers aren't the only ones who risk facing backlash for attempting to hold their colleagues accountable. According to Delagnes, if a department decides to show a commitment to discipline, its leaders could invite charges that they're bending to outside pressure from "cop haters." 

In order to make meaningful strides toward police accountability, departments are going to need help from both officers and their leaders. Statements like Delagnes' show why it's so hard to use either of those resources to effect change.

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