‘We have to change the whole system’: Experts sound off on how to end police code of silence

This excerpt features Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director, Tom Devine, and was originally published here.

Tom Devine

Executive Director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization

Devine said he has made great strides in helping get whistleblower protections for people in a variety of other professions, but police and union lobbyists have boxed police officers out of most of those reforms.

“Law enforcement whistleblowers have always been kind of left off the bus,” Devine said.

Devine hopes that will change with a bill from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., that is designed to provide a number of protections specifically for law enforcement whistleblowers, including the creation of an independent federal inspector general’s office to field officers’ complaints about their coworkers anonymously. “It would be the gold standard, not just for police whistleblowers, but whistleblowers period,” Devine said.

The move would also neutralize the impact of the 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Garcetti vs. Ceballos, which held that public employees had no First Amendment rights when they report misconduct on the job.

“It was a disastrous erosion of free speech rights, especially because the previous standards protected duty speech in matters of great public importance, which is particularly relevant for law enforcement when you consider cases of police brutality and other forms of misconduct that affect the public,” Devine said. “So you can file a suit, but after you file a suit it’s extremely difficult to win because the department will say your speech was within your job duties so you have no rights. Departments use it to make it look to the public like they’re rooting out corruption by saying ‘Look, we have policies that give officers a duty to report.’ But in reality it’s a duty that’s honored about as often as someone holding a winning lottery ticket.”