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Cops, do your duty: intervene

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In Los Angeles, an LAPD officer makes like a young Mike Tyson and whales away on full video on a non-resisting, compliant homeless man. In Minneapolis, the world is shocked by the video of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin choking the life out of a non-resistant, compliant George Floyd. In Buffalo, New York, an officer kicks and beats a non-resistant, compliant suspect.

In each case, other officers on 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 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 stuff is so common and routine among cops that it’s canonized as the code of blue silence.

Now what if cops knew that they’d not only be prosecuted for wanton acts of violence against unarmed young blacks and Latinos, but also be fingered for potential prosecution if they stood around and did nothing or 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 or enforced policy requiring officers to intervene and report other officers who commit misconduct.

How diligent those departments that do have a facsimile of such a policy enforce it is another matter. Legislators in Michigan now propose legislation that formally requires any officer who witnesses excessive force by another officer to intervene. Most police officials in the state, predictably, have been stone silent on the legislation.

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 the wink and nod, blind eye and look-the-other-way of officers within these departments and more than a few administrators.

Chauvin is a near-textbook example of this. He had a hideous record of assaults, dubious shootings, endangering car chases, and a stack of abuse complaints against him as well as department and county prosecutor investigations. It would stretch belief to think that other officers who worked with him didn’t know about his record and his dubious policing. Yet, not one stepped forward to blow the whistle on him. This is so routine that it would have been a shock if one officer had broken ranks and screamed foul.

Here’s how deep, prevalent, and terrifying the blue code of silence is in police culture. The National Institute of Ethics, in a study commissioned by the International Association of Police Chiefs in 2016, surveyed hundreds of cops in 21 states. They found that nearly 80 percent of cops said that 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 also admitted they had witnessed misconduct by another officer but kept their mouths shut about it.

Why? Because in many cases they were told to keep quiet by other officers, and in even more cases by department higher-ups. And if they didn’t, they were scared stiff that they would be ostracized; the officer who committed the misconduct would be disciplined or fired; that  they’d be fired, or at the very least “blackballed”; or that their bosses would simply blow their complaint off.

However, there’s not, nor 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 for misconduct from beatings to the shooting of suspects or civilians.

The problem is that few police departments pound this point home to rank-and-file officers, or for that matter, to their superiors. Put bluntly, telling them, and continuing to tell recruits at the academy and officers in orientation and training sessions and in their performance evaluations, that the department has zero tolerance toward police misconduct. The blue code of silence makes it possible for bad cops and bad administrators to get away and keep getting away with abusive acts. When cops do their duty and intervene and administrators back them up this will be a giant step toward ridding departments of the Chauvins.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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