If you are a regular reader of Key West The Newspaper (The Blue Paper), I hope you read John Donnelly’s thoughtful commentary on the “Blue Wall of Silence,” published here two weeks ago. If you missed it, click on “back issues” on this website’s home page and call up the August 8 issue and scroll down to “Police Investigating Police Will Not Expose Criminal Cops– nor Protect Citizens.” Donnelly quotes police officers (anonymously, of course) explaining their “rationale” for failing to speak out or downright lying about other officers who may have broken the rules (at best) or who have maybe even committed a crime (at worst).
Apparently, there is no level of wrong-doing that a police officer could commit that would prevent fellow officers from trying to give the officer cover– to try to protect the officer from disciplinary action or prosecution. Donnelly concluded that “on the firing line of life, in combat settings with a murderous element, the lines of decency can be blurred. However, crossing these lines is improper and unacceptable. It breeds a culture of corruption whereby officers can become judge, jury and executioner– an alarming and outlawed proposition.”
Regular readers will also know that I have been researching and writing about police corruption and incompetence for 20 years. A number of big police corruption stories have been broken in The Blue Paper and you may recall that one police chief actually had me arrested and jailed for writing about corruption in his department. In Donnelly’s commentary, he implicitly asked the very simple questions I have been asking for years: “Why can’t we expect our police officers to simply be honest– to do the right thing and tell the truth? Why would that be an unreasonable expectation?”
Yes, these are naive questions. But they shouldn’t be. Even new police officers– whom you might expect, when just starting out, would at least WANT to be honest– are almost immediately sucked into the Blue Wall of Silence thing. Of course, peer pressure is a major factor. But it is more than just peer pressure. The careers of officers who refuse to play the game can be– and often are destroyed by other officers and police management. More often than not, police management punishes whistleblowers, rather than protecting them. Over the years, I have known a few honest cops– but only a few. And every single one of these officers have been forced out of the Key West Police Department for refusing to play the Blue Wall of Silence game.
I agree with Donnelly, who writes that “corrupt officers denigrate the overall performance of the unit, damage morale and weaken the effectiveness of the organization. The very fabric of what they are supposed to stand for is destroyed.” And routinely failing to speak out or lying to cover for another officer’s wrong-doing is a slippery slope leading to routine lawlessness– like falsifying sworn police reports, enforcing laws that don’t exist and, sometimes, beating the hell out of somebody for no good reason.
Donnelly calls for the employment of a “conscientious, competent and credible police chief, capable of effectively supervising their department with integrity and sensitivity.” Easier said than done. The Police Chief is hired and fired by the City Manager. Although the City Manager is hired and fired by the Mayor and City Commissioners, they have little official say about the operation of the KWPD or who runs it. And, for the most part, they seem to like it that way. They desperately want to be able to depend on their Chief to handle law enforcement here without scandal or controversy– and they are easily snowed when they are told that everything is wonderful when there might be serious internal problems.
Possibly, all I need to tell you about Key West Police Chiefs is that, in recent years, five Chiefs have been forced to resign. One was forced to resign for sexually harassing his Public Information Officer. Another got the job even though the then-City Manager knew that, years earlier, he had lost his job as a Sheriff’s Deputy because he had a sexual relationship with an underage police cadet. One of our Chiefs quit after just a few days on the job after he reportedly got a telephone death threat. Another was fired for insubordination and incompetence. And we should not forget the Chief of Police who was forced to resign after it was rumored that he had called in the FBI to investigate corruption at City Hall. We simply cannot tolerate that kind of behavior here in the Southernmost City, can we?
You may be outraged, or even saddened by the state of law enforcement here. But you should not be particularly surprised. The following statement my seem mean-spirited, but it needs to be said: The typical cop is not the sharpest pencil in the box. All you need to do to became a cop is to manage to get through high school and pass a 5-month academy. Only average strength is required. Many women are becoming cops. (Please, critics! I’m not saying that having female cops patrolling our streets is not a good and politically-correct thing. I’m just making the point that you don’t have to be a muscle man to get through the Police Academy.)
Many cops may have grown up with inferiority complexes but with an intense desire to “be somebody.” By becoming cops, they can carry a gun, order people around and arrest them (or beat them up) if they don’t obey. According to the “literature,” as they say in college, “power” is certainly one reason cops become cops. Other reasons include:
— To Make Society Better. Some people who decide to join the police force are genuinely good people and sincerely want to help people in their communities and get paid for it. But then they confront the Blue Wall of Silence– and they either go along or they’re out!
— To Have an Exciting Job. For some, the thought of a 9 to 5 job punching a clock or sitting in an office cubicle is too mundane for them to even imagine. These types of people may have grown up watching cop movies and TV shows such as “CHIPS,” “Starsky and Hutch,” or “Miami Vice.” For them, it’s all about the excitement of a job on the streets, catching the bad guys and making busts. These types are sometimes very ambitious, but at the same time, many may become disappointed when they realize it isn’t exactly like what they saw on TV.
–Family Tradition. Many men and women become police officers to continue a special tradition in their families.
— To Hide Behind the Badge. It would be very difficult, or impossible, for a convicted criminal to get a job with law enforcement. But yes, let’s say it– some police officers, once on the force, become criminals. Sometimes, the best place for criminals to hide is behind a badge. If you find that hard to believe, just google “cop is arrested.” Lying on a sworn police report is a criminal offense in Florida. Although it is virtually a way of life for cops to lie on their police reports in Key West, this crime is rarely prosecuted here.
Just another reminder: Back in 2002, Key West voters– reacting to an out-of-control police department– amended the Key West City Charter to create a Citizen Review Board (CRB) to address complaints about Key West Police officers. But are you aware that the police union hampers the work of the CRB by forbidding officers from appearing before the board to tell their side of the story. They are, however, required to sit for interviews during internal investigations– which are cops investigating cops. Corruption in that process is one reason the voters were willing to create a CRB.
Dennis Reeves Cooper founded The Blue Paper in 1994 and was editor and publisher for 18 years, until he retired in 2012.