The Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department chronicled a history of abusive behavior from law enforcement. But one anecdote in the lengthy document released this week showed that when some cops try to hold their colleagues accountable, they better be prepared for backlash.
According to the DOJ, a black police sergeant, known for calling out wrongdoing among his peers, was consistently harassed with passive-aggressive signs by a lieutenant:
In 2014, a BPD lieutenant placed several signs next to the desk of an African-American sergeant with a reputation for speaking out about alleged misconduct in the Department. Among the signs were warnings to "stay in your lane," "worry about yourself," "mind your own business!!" and "don’t spread rumors!!!" After the sergeant filed a complaint about the signs, the lieutenant admitted to creating them and placing them next to the sergeant’s desk. Yet BPD took no meaningful corrective action. Though the complaint was sustained, the lieutenant received no suspension, fine, or loss of benefits. Instead, he was given only "verbal counseling" instructing him that such behavior is "unprofessional and inappropriate." This minimal response to admitted allegations that a supervisor warned his subordinate to "mind your own business" rather than report misconduct underlines BPD’s failure to create a culture of accountability.
The anecdote highlights a widespread problem many critics have pointed out among police departments: the "blue wall of silence," an unofficial code among cops that when a fellow officer is accused of wrongdoing, it’s better to say nothing than to condemn a fellow officer.
On the surface, it’s a tactic to build camaraderie: If someone finds himself facing charges of misconduct, the blue wall of silence creates a kind reprieve that he won’t face problems because his fellow officers have his back as long as he doesn’t turn his back on them.
But as the report showed, without accountability, the kinds of unadulterated racial biases that erode community trust in police and police credibility fester into the endemic problems the department faces today.
A 2014 Gallup poll showed that while 56 percent of American adults have a great deal of confidence in police, 59 percent of white adults held this view, compared with only 37 percent of African Americans — a difference that is inextricably linked to the kinds of racially biased practices indicated in the DOJ report.
Baltimore police are responsible for putting an end to racist policing practices. A part of that requires building trust with communities where it has been systematically broken. But if fellow officers can’t trust that they can stand up to one another, actual change will likely remain in a standstill.