Whistleblowers Sounding the Alarm

Regardless of how they are viewed, whistleblowers' capacity to effect change within their agencies often eclipses that of those with more formally acknowledged power.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Photo: Mark W. ClarkPhoto: Mark W. Clark

Ideally, there shouldn't be corrupt officers within our profession. Not that there wouldn't be those tempted to don a badge and abuse its power. But with a gatekeeping throng of background investigators, psychologists, and drill instructors ever vigilant for such deficiencies of character, the profession theoretically should be spared their presence.

And yet unscrupulous souls do get hired and even promoted. No rank is immune to their insinuation, and when their pernicious natures become manifest in abuses of power and acts of deceit it becomes incumbent upon someone else to stem the tide of wrong. Often that person proves to be someone with an insider's knowledge, a conscience, and the willingness to do something about it. Such people are the whistleblowers, those men and women who bring the darker aspects of our profession to light.

The efforts of whistleblowers may be variously appraised. To some, they are the problem—loose cannons prone to acts of recklessness. To others, they are the answer to the provocative question: "Who watches the watchmen?" that was posed by the Roman Satirist poet Juvenal some 2,000 years ago. Regardless of how they are viewed, their capacity to effect change within their agencies often eclipses that of those with more formally acknowledged power.


Fairly or not, the whistleblower has been perceived as having betrayed some manner of allegiance and is often branded a traitor. And while the lack of honor among thieves is no surprise, allegiance is expected of officers.

It is in the matter of reconciling loyalty to peers and fidelity to sworn oaths that things become problematic, particularly when such agendas prove to be at cross purposes. Conceptually, the academic pedantry that advocates loyalty being extended first and foremost to the agency and the community one serves is fine. But in a world where "cult of personality" administrators blur lines so that they and their agencies become undivorceable from one another in the minds of subordinates, doing the right thing can prove costly with reprisals to the informant running the gamut from peer ostracism to death.

If anyone is capable of speaking credibly on such matters, it's Frank Serpico.

As a young plainclothes police officer in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Serpico was exposed to varying acts of corruption, acts that he revealed to people both inside and outside the department. His revelations garnered little traction until Mayor John Lindsay appointed the Knapp Commission to investigate corruption within the NYPD. Serpico's testimony before the commission did not endear himself to those officers whose conduct had generated its need. Shortly thereafter, Serpico was shot in the face while conducting an undercover drug operation. Three officers on scene refused to render medical assistance to him.

An embarrassed NYPD awarded a recovered Serpico its medal of honor—without ceremony or notice; it was handed to him across a desk top "like a deck of cigarettes"—and he was allowed to retire. These days Serpico continues to advocate the need for officers to come forth and expose wrongs they see committed in-house, citing incidents such as Abner Louima's torture and Amadou Diallo's shooting two years later as evidence of the ongoing need for what he refers to as "lamp lighters" rather than whistleblowers.

Four decades on, there remains an obvious need for "lamp lighters." But whether officers' and agencies' darker deeds come to light depends upon different factors.

Why People Inform

Whistleblowers come in all shapes and sizes, from all backgrounds, and with varying degrees of candor. They range from leakers (Mark "Deep Throat" Felt) to witnesses (Linda Tripp) to full-fledged whistleblowers (Daniel Ellsberg). This gradience speaks both to their relative willingness to essay the role of whistleblower, as well as to the disparate impetuses for their revelations. It accounts for why some may resort to anonymity in bringing forth information and why others may come across as little more than hostile witnesses.

And just as the line between "traitor" and "patriot" can be razor-thin with history the final arbiter, labels like "whistleblower" and "snitch" can be dependent on perspective. However they are seen by themselves or others for coming forth, informants often endure negative perceptions. Even that neither-here-nor-there label of "informant" may inspire distrust from both cops and criminals alike: Might this guy burn me tomorrow?

According to University of Maryland political psychology professor C. Frederick Alford, such reactions are more normal than not. Alford, the author of "Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power," notes that while society considers whistleblowers brave in theory it regards them with wariness: Just why would someone willingly break from the tribe?

The question is all the more difficult to answer when not seen from the whistleblower's perspective. It isn't that the whistleblower is incapable of anticipating reprisals; rather it is that she sees herself as acting toward a utilitarian end. Unable to reconcile the very ideals that propelled her into the profession in the first place with the realities she encounters, she feels her hand is forced to correct the ship's course and bring it back to a desired homeostasis. Unfortunately, that desired equilibrium may not have existed in the first place.

Speaking with Mother Jones magazine, Alford cited a summative statement made by a whistleblower himself: "I wasn't against the system, I was the system! I just didn't realize that there were two systems."

No one within law enforcement is immune to such frustrations. The difference is that whistleblowers take a stand—and then they take action. They see themselves not as iconoclastic Samsons bringing down the pillars about them, but saviors propping them up. If there is a commonality to them, it is that they are provoked by some subjective sense of justice, and see themselves as compensating for a perceived lack of initiative elsewhere.

Aggravated over Rolling Stone's "glamorization" of Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and upset that nothing was being done to counter it, Massachusetts State Police photographer Sean Murphy leaked less flattering images of the suspected terrorist taken at the time of his capture to the news media. His initiative did not come without cost. A one-day suspension initiated an odyssey that saw Murphy transferred from his job as a tactical photographer at state police headquarters to a rural patrol job working the overnight shift and ultimately culminated with a negotiated retirement and the forfeiture of five days of vacation pay.

Still, Murphy claims no regrets, telling CNN's Chris Cuomo, "The way I see it, Chris, there's no way I couldn't do it."

In Orangeville, Ontario, police whistleblower Sgt. Curtis Rutt expressed a similar lack of remorse in the aftermath of his filing a 100-page report on the force, filled with allegations of poor training and sloppy work, including the [investigation of a] high-profile murder case of a local nurse. Charged under the Police Services Act with two counts of discreditable conduct, one for deceit and another for breach of confidence for allegedly leaking information to the media, Rutt found himself suspended with pay for a two-year period before resigning because his continued employment with the agency was "intolerable."

"I think it is deplorable the amount of public money squandered by this police service to prosecute me for simply requesting a long-needed overhaul on how police services are provided to our community," Rutt wrote in his letter of resignation.

Orangeville Police Chief Joseph Tomei said that Rutt's suspension was due to his unauthorized work as a paralegal at the time of his resignation. Rutt believes otherwise, but doesn't regret writing or releasing his report.

"Not at all," he told the Toronto Star. "I'd do the same damn thing."

When Auburn (Ala.) PD's Justin Hanners saw his newly appointed police chief implement a ticket quota in 2010, it rubbed him the wrong way.

"I got into law enforcement because I wanted to serve and protect, not to become a bully," said Hanners. He spoke out about the implemented system, noting that the articulated expectations of officers would have translated to 72,000 officer-initiated contacts a year—in a 50,000-person town.

Murphy, Rutt, and Hanners worked different agencies in different regions of the continent.

And all lost their jobs.

Unforseen Consequences

The whistleblower's actions may have consequences that reverberate far and wide beyond the whistleblower and his targets—and in unexpected manners.

Evaluating Serpico's own legacy, one retired NYPD officer reflected, "I went on the job in June 1971. If I remember correctly, the Knapp Commission had public hearings later that year. What sticks in my head during that time and the proceeding years are that the NYPD in general used more energy in attempting to prevent corruption of a few officers than allowing the majority of officers to enforce laws that were corruption prone. Crime increased. What happened in NYC probably occurred in every major U.S. city in some degree."

The less desirable fallout may have something to do with why some officers don't come forward. Recognizing the potential costs in litigation, some may adopt a different mindset that they see as no less utilitarian: Sure, exposing the problem may effect some good, but at what cost? I want the problem fixed, not for me or the department to lose money we can't afford to.

The more the phenomenon of whistleblowing is examined, the less a mystery it is that more people don't come forth. Many feel complicit in the transgression; some are. And as the degree of wrong can be deemed indictable, the implications of being considered a co-conspirator or accessory loom large.

Others find themselves straddling a fence in continued deliberation. One employee from a major metropolitan agency cites two incidents that continue to weigh on her mind.

The first involved an inmate whose medical condition was not treated properly and he died. The second involved an inmate who drank poison and was transported to die somewhere else.

The employee has remained silent about these incidents. Although her department has implemented a system for "anonymous" reporting of problems, she notes that suggestion boxes located at the station are more likely to be filled with gum wrappers and trash than thoughtful feedback that would help the department.

"It's a dog and pony show designed to say to outside overseers: 'See? We're doing something over here,': she says. "But it appears to have been consciously designed for failure. You say it's anonymous, but you have to sign in and get a PIN number assigned you and then register? Like they're not going to be able to go back to the time of its filing and not know who sent it and when? Gimme a break."

Asked what would force her hand to report malfeasance, she says, "When other people's lives or safety are in jeopardy. That's why we all come on the job."

Ironically, the same consideration that causes some people to do wrong inhibits others from reporting it: Money.

In the case of the former, it's the desire to obtain more through illicit means; in the case of the latter, it's fear of being denied it through vindictive terminations.

"Yeah, supposedly we'd be protected by those 'whistleblower' laws," one employee acknowledges. "But who's to say that they (the department) don't already have a library on you. You don't know. They could drum stuff up and say that you were making shit up to cover your ass. It's happened before."

Repercussions can take different forms than just employment termination.

When Robert Armstrong, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy assigned to the department's Temple Station, arrived at a residence in response to a call, he was confronted by a female wielding a rifle. Armstrong fired three rounds, wounding the woman and killing her fetus. At least, that was the story related by Armstrong and three of his peers.

The truth was something quite different, and it fell upon a training officer and his trainee to share it: How the deputies had earlier that evening convened at a nearby Winchell's Donut Shop; how Armstrong, determined to gain entry into a household he was sure was dealing drugs, pitched his idea of stiffing in a call; how he knew that he would be dispatched to the location with an availed pretext for getting inside.

But the training officer declined to get involved and when things went south for Armstrong, he and his trainee came forth with their side of the story. The ensuing fallout cost four deputies their jobs and Armstrong was tried and convicted for manslaughter (a second-degree murder verdict was ultimately reinstated by a judge).

The reporting training officer promoted to sergeant shortly thereafter, and his trainee was left to bear the brunt of the residual resentment. Deemed persona non grata by his fellow deputies and labeled a "snitch" by some at the station, the trainee-cum-whistleblower spent most of his time at Temple distrusted by deputies who refused to work with him. The deputy's home life proved no sanctuary and as further aggravators took their toll, his behavior became increasingly eccentric until a sergeant found his lifeless body in the station parking lot. The ostracized man had taken his life with his service revolver.

Zealot or Crusader?

There are those who profit from the whistleblower and his legacies. He continues to be a draw at the box office and a presence on best-seller lists. Last year a man whom many consider a whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was one of Time Magazine's Persons of the Year and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But for those who actually live with the legacies of whistleblowers' actions, it can be an iffier proposition. Favorable acknowledgment, even if not belated, is transitory; residual resentment by those impacted invariably proves more lasting.

As the sagas of Edward Snowden and others play themselves out, those in the law enforcement community may be emboldened or inhibited from coming forth. Some will stay on the sidelines, content to stay out of the limelight.

With today's egalitarian technology, more whistleblowers will undoubtedly come forth. The question of whether or not they will regret doing so is one left for time to answer.

Those who fail to blow the whistle might well have regrets of their own, knowing that they did not take an opportunity to right a wrong.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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