Why Cops Aren't Whistleblowers

The shameful stop snitchin' campaign among the men in blue


While awarding Barron Bowling $830,000 last September for the beating he suffered at the hands of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Kansas City, Kansas, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson went out of her way to acknowledge another victim in the disgraceful affair: Kansas City police detective Max Seifert.

In January 2003, Bowling was on his way to fill a prescription when Timothy McCue, an on-duty DEA agent, tried to pass him illegally on the right side 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 got out of their car. McCue drew his gun, threw Bowling to the ground, and beat him to the point of inflicting brain damage. McCue later justified the violence by saying Bowling "resisted arrest" when he lifted his head from the pavement. According to witnesses, McCue threatened to kill Bowling, whom he called "white trash" and a "system-dodging inbred hillbilly."

McCue, the DEA, and officers of 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 inflicted on Bowling's face.

Only one of the officers at the accident scene that day had any integrity. That would be Seifert, a cop with an exemplary record. Seifert took the witness statements that implicated McCue. He documented Bowling's injuries and testified for Bowling in his lawsuit. He actively fought the cover-up.

As Judge Robinson pointed out, Seifert was forced into early retirement because of his actions. He lost part of his pension and his retirement health insurance. He was "shunned, subjected to gossip and defamation by his police colleagues, and treated as a pariah," Robinson said. "The way Seifert was treated was shameful."

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. Steven Culp, then Kansas City's deputy police chief, is now, incredibly, executive director of the Kansas Commission on Peace Officers' Standards and Training. Officer Robert Lane went on to become a councilman for the town of Edwardsville, where he was later convicted of participating in a ticket-fixing scheme. And McCue is still with the DEA.

It may be true that abusive cops are few and far between, as police organizations typically claim. The problem is that other cops rarely hold them accountable. Perhaps that's because they know they will be treated the way Max Seifert was. For all the concern about the "Stop Snitchin'?" message within the hip-hop community, police have engaged in a far more impactful and pernicious Stop Snitchin' campaign of their own. It's called the Blue Wall of Silence.

Consider New York City police officer Adrian Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was concerned about quotas for stops and arrests imposed by his commanding officers. Worse, some officers had been 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 he surreptitiously recorded commanding officers giving the instructions. 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.

But the department did take action against Schoolcraft. Last October 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 removal of documents related to the quotas from Schoolcraft's home.

In October The Village Voice reported another troubling incident, in which 10 rookie New York cops viciously beat a cabbie outside an Upper East Side bar in 2008. None of the cops were charged, although a few faced administrative discipline. Their captain was promoted. The only cop to suffer any serious repercussions was Sgt. Anthony Acosta—the one who tried to stop the beating. He was stripped of his gun and badge and assigned to desk duty.

There are more stories like these. Last year a former Albuquerque cop named Sam Costales was awarded $662,000 in a lawsuit against his own department. In 2006 Costales testified against fellow officers after an incident that resulted in the arrest of the 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, and his testimony helped Unser win an acquittal.

None of the Bernalillo deputies were disciplined. But by now you probably can guess who was: Sam Costales. His own chief opened an internal affairs investigation of Costales for wearing 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 an officer is investigated, the police union got involved—but not to protect Costales. James Badway, secretary of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association, sent an email message to the Bernalillo sheriff stating that the union was "embarrassed" and "ashamed" that Costales would testify against fellow officers.

In his 2005 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."

That 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 unions have institutionalized the protection of bad apples. It's that the cover-up and retaliation extend all the way to the top of the chain of command—and that 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.