USA TODAY reporters interviewed dozens of law enforcement officers, attorneys, experts, activists and others to get their solutions to the pervasive problem of the blue wall of silence.
This USA Today article features Lamplighter Project Board member Austin Handle and is published in full here. The article is the final installment of the paper's "Behind the Blue Wall" series. An excerpt of the article is available below:
Daphne Duret, Jarrad Henderson, Gina Barton and Brett Murphy, USA TODAY
Published 11:15 PM EST Dec. 27, 2021 Updated 9:50 AM EST Dec. 28, 2021
Legendary police whistleblower Francesco Serpico uses numbers when he talks about the state of policing in America.
Of all police officers, he estimates that 10% are honest, he told USA TODAY in a recent interview.
Another 10% are crooked, Serpico said.
“And the other 80%,” he added, "are officers who wish they could be more honest.”
Serpico’s breakdown represents what he and many others call the crippling effects of the code of silence in law enforcement. They say the system of secrecy and retaliation is still as alive today as it was a half-century ago, when Serpico’s fellow New York City police officers allegedly refused to back him up and left him to die from a gunshot to the face as retribution for exposing corruption in that department.
USA TODAY reporters spent a year reviewing cases from the past decade of police officers who made misconduct claims against their coworkers. Reporters found an unofficial but structured pattern of retaliation that played out in the same ways in departments large and small across the country.
Most officers who spoke out said they were threatened, demoted or fired. Some received death threats or were charged with crimes. And when the officers sought help from the courts, prosecutors, and other agencies, USA TODAY found, they were forced to fight alone against a system designed to silence police whistleblowers.
With a deeper look into cases like the death of Eric Lurry in Joliet, Illinois, the firing of Moses Black in Gonzales, Louisiana, and the murder of Jo'Anna Bird on Long Island, New York, the newspaper uncovered the wide-reaching effects of both whistleblower retaliation in police brutality cases and years of efforts to hide misconduct from the public.
USA TODAY’s revelations about how the blue wall works shatter the myth that the problems in law enforcement are limited to “a few rotten apples,” according to experts like DeLacy Davis, founder and executive director of Black Cops Against Police Brutality. Davis says the newspaper's findings prove the system is part of an intentional effort that ultimately promotes the oppression of the nation's most marginalized groups.
“When you go to McDonald’s in California and order a Big Mac, and you go order that same Big Mac on the east coast, or in the deep south, does it taste any different?” Davis asked. “This is a franchise, this is how it was designed to work. So we can’t change it one place at a time. We have to change the whole system.”
USA TODAY reporters interviewed dozens of law enforcement officers, attorneys, experts, activists and others to get their solutions to the pervasive problem. Below are some of their thoughts, which were lightly edited for clarity in some cases:
Whistleblower against Dunwoody, Georgia, Police Department and vice-chair and founding board member of The Lamplighter Project
Handle was just 24 when he was fired from his department days after he posted a TikTok video hinting at allegations of internal corruption. Handle went on to become one of the founding board members of the Lamplighter Project, an organization that aims to provide peer counseling and support to whistleblowers.
Austin Handle was fired from the police department in Dunwoody, Georgia, after he complained about a lieutenant who had requested lewd photos from other officers. Handle now advocates for police whistleblowers as a member of the board of The Lamplighter Project.
This summer, Handle became the youngest person on a list of 30 law enforcement officers calling for Congress to pass federal whistleblower protections. As part of the Lamplighter organization, Handle speaks to police officers across the country to offer advice and support.
"Policing today tries to make people into robots — who are following policies and procedures like they’re doing computer coding — instead of individuals," Handle said. "But if you really look back at it, constables from Great Britain were night watchmen that were not paid, that were community members and were stakeholders who worked to patrol their communities and uphold the values of their community. People are more willing to speak out about corruption in a community they hold a stake in. The problem with police in most places now is they're not stakeholders, they’re just people who have a job."