U.S. SENATORS EYE WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTIONS FOR POLICE OFFICERS
This article features our Legal Director Tom Devine and Deputy Director of Legislation Irvin McCullough and was originally published here.
WASHINGTON — As police reform talks sputter on Capitol Hill, with key lawmakers still sparring over the most substantial elements on the negotiating table, one idea has been gaining broad bipartisan support: adding new protections for officers who report wrongdoing in their own ranks.
Hundreds of police associations, progressive advocates and many individual officers have been lobbying lawmakers in recent months, urging them to include provisions shielding whistleblowers from internal retaliation — and Congress seems to be listening.
Lawmakers have been tight-lipped recently over the state of negotiations as the clock ticks down to their August recess, but new protections for police whistleblowers are being considered, The News Station confirmed with the Republican senator leading the talks for his party.
“We’re discussing the issue, so we’ll see how it works out,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) said.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who has been working with Scott for months on crafting a compromise that can pass the Senate, didn’t rule out new protections, either.
“I don’t want to comment on any of the substance of our negotiations right now,” he told The News Station at the Capitol Friday.
Including protections for officers who expose wrongdoing would be a meaningful step forward in rooting out racism, corruption, and other misdeeds that have plagued police forces coast to coast, advocates say, alienating even good officers from the communities they serve. The issue percolated to the top of the national conversation after numerous Minneapolis police officers testified against Derek Chauvin, the white officer found guilty of killing George Floyd.
Cell phone video of Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for several minutes went viral last year, sparking massive protests across the country. A judge sentenced Chauvin to more than 22 years in prison after he was convicted of murder charges in April.
For Congress to enshrine protections for other officers who have previously been afraid to speak out in cases without such clear video footage, the advocates say, would be a game changer and signal that the federal government is targeting the culture of silence that’s allowed badge-cloaked bad behavior to go unchecked for decades.
“While videos have sparked a national awakening, defending freedom needs more than a smartphone,” the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, and around 30 law enforcement officers wrote to congressional leaders in May. “In many cases, it requires testimony from those willing to bear witness. The only witness may be a fellow officer. That means these reforms will not work as intended unless they directly attack the Blue Wall of Silence that permeates law enforcement.”
Among the officers who signed the letter was Frank Serpico, a retired NYPD detective who in 1971 was shot in the face during a drug bust and left behind by his fellow officers. In the years prior, Serpico — whose story was made into the movie by his name starring Al Pacino — had blown the whistle on widespread corruption in the NYPD’s ranks, raising questions about whether he’d been set up.
Serpico’s colleagues “did not view [his] whistleblowing as a noble, important act,” he wrote in an op-ed he co-authored last year alongside Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project.
“I would have died but for an elderly Hispanic neighbor who called for help,” Serpico said, arguing any police reform legislation needs to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
“Otherwise, reforms will run into what is widely known as ‘the blue wall of silence’, the unwritten code that values protection of fellow officers, sometimes even over protection of the public,” Serpico wrote. “This code means that law enforcement whistleblowers risk not only their careers when they come forward, they also risk their lives.”
Congress has been debating police reform legislation since the nation erupted in sustained peaceful protests which turned deadly last year.
One month after Floyd’s death, the House passed a sweeping police reform bill sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). It took aim at racial profiling, no-knock warrants — like the one that led to the death of Breonna Taylor — and the use of force, among other things. The bill didn’t have the bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate, however, and some lawmakers have been working behind the scenes to find a compromise since.
Zach Seidl, a spokesperson for Bass, declined to comment on whether whistleblower provisions have been included in any recent draft bills being discussed in the House.
Meanwhile, Sen. Booker faced blowback in recent months for privately circulating a draft bill that apparently excluded new whistleblower protections. The National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) said in a June newsletter it had “grave concerns” about the proposal, listing the lack of “any language on protecting police officers who are whistleblowers” among the nearly two dozen problems the group had with the bill.
The Government Accountability Project remains “optimistic that Congress will legislate these protections,” according to Irvin McCullough, the group’s deputy director for legislation.
“Our proposed reforms would ensure accountability by protecting honest police officers who report wrongdoing, a goal shared by Republicans, Democrats, union officials, and civil rights activists alike,” McCullough typed in a statement to The News Station. “Every congressional office we’ve briefed understands that whistleblowers’ testimony is key to enforcing both existing laws on the books and future controls currently under negotiation.”