Whistleblowers — employees who witness and choose to speak up about serious misconduct, corruption, illegality, public health and safety threats, and other abuses of power — are powerful catalysts for accountability. This is true across every issue, including abuses by law enforcement.
Police officers are uniquely positioned to expose the systemic and individual abuses of power and misconduct that have plagued communities of color. Yet police whistleblowers who promote accountability consistently confront the “Blue Wall of Silence,” a powerful cultural phenomenon that infests law enforcement environments and significantly chills disclosures related to misconduct and abuse of power. Police officers have lost their jobs, and even their lives, after deciding the blow the whistle on racism in the police force. Thus, policing systems must work to dismantle barriers to reporting. Any reforms aimed at preventing and addressing police misconduct must include effective mechanisms that both facilitate whistleblower disclosures and offer robust protections from retaliation to the brave ethical officers who come forward. By dismantling the “Blue Wall of Silence,” police whistleblowers can promote cultures of accountability and continuous improvement within their departments, and BIPOC communities can be protected by, rather than need protection from, those charged with serving the public.
Government Accountability Project, in collaboration with 10 law enforcement whistleblowers (including former U.S. Marshall Matthew Fogg and former NYPD officer Frank Serpico) and more than 51 NGOs (including the NAACP, RAICES, ACLU, Public Citizen, and Demand Progress) to include whistleblower protection as an essential element of police reform. Previously included in 60 federal remedial laws, whistleblower rights are crucial to ensure proposals work as intended. Technology, such as video footage of police officers, is an important first step. But witness testimony from fellow officers would ensure that accountability-free abuses of power are not another way of life in police departments. This testimony comes when law enforcement whistleblowers enjoy best practice anti-retaliation protections.
Congressionally enacted whistleblower protections for law enforcement officers, be they stand-alone anti-retaliation laws or those included in police reform legislation, would create an important enforcement mechanism for exposing misconduct and promoting accountability. Indeed, they will help dismantle the “Blue Wall of Silence” by not only overtly expressing the value of police whistleblowing, but by practically reducing the risk law enforcement officers face to their careers, safety, or lives when they choose to blow the whistle on misconduct or abuse. In turn, the testimony of police whistleblowers could increase support for significant safeguards such as the ban on chokeholds, oversight of mandatory body cameras, restrictions on no-knock warrants, and controls on the transfer of military equipment to state and local police.
We recognize that whistleblower protections for law enforcement officers to report misconduct are only one piece of the reform movement needed to address systemic racism and corruption. But it is an important piece that can help expose, address, and prevent abuses by police that not only harm People of Color but also threaten democracy itself.
Government Accountability Project’s letter to Congress on the need for police whistleblower protections within legislative reforms can be found here.