America's Most Successful Stop Snitchin' Campaign
The failure to protect whistle-blowing cops is inexcusable.
Last month, when she awarded Barron Bowling $830,000 for the beating he suffered at the hands of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in 2003, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson went out of her way to acknowledge another victim in the sordid affair: Kansas City Police Det. Max Seifert.
On July 10, 2003, Bowling was driving down 10th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, on his way to fill a prescription, when Timothy McCue, an on-duty DEA agent, tried to illegally pass Bowling on the right of a wide one-lane street. Bowling accelerated to prevent McCue from passing, and the two cars collided. After the collision, McCue and another agent emerged from McCue's car. According to Robinson's ruling, McCue drew his gun, threw Bowling to the ground, then beat the hell out of him when he lifted his head from the pavement (which McCue would later describe as "resisting arrest"). According to witnesses, McCue threatened to kill Bowling, whom he called "white trash" and a "system-dodging inbred hillbilly."
It only got worse for Bowling. McCue, the DEA, and officers at the Kansas City Police Department then conspired to cover up the beating. Bowling was charged with leaving the scene of an accident and assaulting McCue with his car during the collision. He was later acquitted on those charges but convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia—a marijuana pipe police found in his car. Witness statements incriminating McCue for both the accident and the beating were lost or destroyed, as were photos of the damage McCue did to Bowling's face.
Only one of the officers who came to the accident scene that day had any integrity. That would be Seifert, a cop with an exemplary record who once shot an armed man to free two hostages. Seifert is the one who took the witness statements that implicated McCue. He is also the one who documented Bowling's injuries and testified for Bowling in Bowling's lawsuit. Here is how The Kansas City Star described what happened to Seifert next:
For crossing "the thin blue line," U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson wrote, Seifert was forced into retirement.
"Seifert was shunned, subjected to gossip and defamation by his police colleagues and treated as a pariah," Robinson wrote. "…The way Seifert was treated was shameful."
Seifert also lost part of his pension and his retirement health insurance. So what happened to the cops involved in the cover-up? Ronald Miller, then Kansas City's police chief, is now the police chief in Topeka. Officer Robert Lane went on to become a councilman for the town of Edwardsville; he was later convicted of participating in a ticket-fixing scheme and sentenced to 10 days in jail plus probation. Steven Culp, then Kansas City's deputy police chief, is now, incredibly enough, executive director of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training. Agent McCue is still with the DEA.
When we hear stories about police misconduct, the standard response from police groups and their supporters is that such behavior is rare, the fault of "a few bad apples." While that may be true, the "good" officers tend to cover up for them. And in some departments, the good cops are afraid to come forward, because they know they will be treated the way Max Seifert was.
Consider New York City police officer Adrian Schoolcraft, recently profiled on NPR's This American Life. Schoolcraft was concerned about the quotas that commanding officers were imposing for stops and arrests. He also reported that some officers were instructed to downgrade offenses, or even talk victims out of pressing charges, to make the city's crime statistics look better. NYPD officials publicly denied there was any quota system or data fudging, but that didn't jibe with what Schoolcraft was hearing in the station house. So Schoolcraft starting surreptitiously recording commanding officers giving instructions on quotas. According to The Village Voice, he brought his complaints to "a duty captain, a district surgeon, an NYPD psychologist, three Internal Affairs officers, and five department crime statistics auditors." None of them took action against the officers imposing the quotas, though last week NYPD announced five officers would face internal discipline for downgrading crimes.
But the department certainly did take action against Schoolcraft. Last October several officers from NYPD's Emergency Services Unit (essentially a SWAT team) appeared at Schoolcraft's Queens apartment, threw him to the floor, handcuffed him, and had him forcibly admitted to the psychiatric ward at Jamaica Hospital. NYPD officials lied to hospital staff about Schoolcraft's condition, causing him to be held for six days against his will. Officially, the visit to Schoolcraft's apartment was prompted by an unapproved sick day. But that does not explain the show of force or the officers' removal of documents related to Schoolcraft's complaints about the NYPD from his home.
Last week The Village Voice reported another troubling incident, in which 10 rookie NYPD cops beat a cabbie outside of an Upper East Side bar in 2008. The cabbie was arrested for aggravated driving without a license. None of the cops was charged, although a few faced administrative discipline. Their captain was promoted. The only cop to suffer any serious repercussions was Sgt. Anthony Acosta, who was handcuffed at the scene for trying to stop the beating. Acosta was later stripped of his gun and badge, and assigned to desk duty.
There are more stories like these. Last year former Albuquerque police officer Sam Costales was awarded $662,000 in a lawsuit against his own department. In 2006 Costales testified against fellow police officers after an incident that resulted in the arrest of retired race car driver Al Unser. Costales said Unser did not assault or threaten officers from the Bernalillo Sheriff's Department, as claimed in police reports. Costales' testimony helped Unser win an acquittal.
None of the Bernalillo deputies was disciplined. By now you probably can guess who was disciplined: Sam Costales. His own chief opened an internal affairs investigation of him. His transgression: He wore his police uniform when he testified in Unser's case. Albuquerque cops apparently are permitted to wear the uniform when they're testifying for the prosecution, but not when they're testifying for the defense. As is often the case when a police officer is investigated, the Albuquerque police union got involved—but not to protect Costales. James Badway, secretary of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, sent an email message to the San Bernadillo sheriff apologizing for Costales' actions. Here is an excerpt:
As Secretary of the APOA I feel it is my duty and responsibility to apologize to you and your officers. Ofc. Sam Costales does not represent APD/APOA. The majority of our officers look at the BCSO as our brother and sisters in blue. We are embarrassed and ashamed of Ofc. Costales's testimony in the Unser trial. If there is anything we can do to rebuild the damage caused by Sam please let me know.
A few years ago, I attended a conference on the use of police informants. In one session, the "Stop Snitchin'" movement, which discourages African Americans from cooperating with police, came up. I was astonished to hear one hip-hop artist and activist say he would not cooperate with the police even if he had witnessed the rape and murder of an old woman in broad daylight. He just didn't trust the police. I told him his position was absurd: Whatever his concerns about the police when it comes to the use of drug informants (concerns I share), they shouldn't prevent him from cooperating with the investigation of an innocent person's murder. His response: "Isn't the Blue Wall of Silence really just the most successful Stop Snitchin' campaign in history?"
In his book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper explains the implicit threats that make the Blue Wall so successful:
You have to rely on your fellow officers to back you. A cop with a reputation as a snitch is one vulnerable police officer, likely to find his peers slow to respond to requests for backup—if they show up at all. A snitch is subject to social snubbing. Or malicious mischief, or sabotage…The peer pressure is childish and churlish, but it's real. Few cops can stand up to it.
Which makes it all the more important that police administrators and political leaders support and protect the cops who do. The most disturbing aspect of these stories is not that there are bad cops in Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. It's not even that other cops covered for them, or that police unions have institutionalized the protection of bad cops. The most disturbing part of these cases is that the cover-up and retaliation extend all the way to the top of the chain of command—and that so far there has been no action, or even condemnation, from the elected officials who are supposed to hold police leaders accountable.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.