Matt Katz: So far in the show, we've highlighted cases of police misdirection but what of the officers who want to do the right thing? The so-called Thin Blue Line insists that the men and women in blue are loyal first to one another, and going against the tide for police whistleblowers can be career suicide, but some still take that risk. The most famous cop whistleblower is Frank Serpico, who in the late '60s reported widespread corruption and brutality in the New York City Police Department. His complaints led to a New York Times expose and official commission exploring police corruption and in 1973 the Al Pacino movie, Serpico.
Speaker 1: How could he wash our own laundry around here.
Speaker 2: Oh, yes.
Speaker 1: You can be brought up and charged of this.
Speaker 2: I always thought so but the reality is that we do not wash our own laundry-
Speaker 1: You're in trouble Serpico.
Speaker 2: -it just gets dirtier.
Speaker 1: You are in trouble.
Speaker 2: I don't care if I'm in trouble. I don't care who gets it anymore, including myself.
Matt Katz: We spoke to Serpico after George Floyd's murder in 2020 when he was helping to get the word out about legislation to protect police whistleblowers.
Frank Serpico: We're still operating on all draconian thug squad principles about how many people you can lock up, instead of how many people can you keep out of jail.
Matt Katz: That proposed legislation failed to gain traction, but this February, Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly introduced the new law that aims to provide stronger protections for those who seek to expose police abuse. Tom Devine is the Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistleblower protections, and he explained to me just how the legislation was revived.
Tom Devine: First, I'd like to credit you folks [unintelligible 00:01:34] Connolly was inspired to introduce the bill after listening to your program with Frank Serpico on and about the need for these rights.
Matt Katz: Devine says the legislation would protect anyone who provides evidence of police misconduct.
Tom Devine: It'd protect victims, citizen witnesses who have smartphones, civil rights groups, the media. It protects the law enforcement officers who refuse to violate the law. It had best practice confidentiality rights for those who don't be exposed, and it would protect them against all forms of retaliation, not just workplace harassment, but also civil and criminal liability. One of the ugliest, most horrible things that we've been coming across in our new report breaking the blue wall of silence is that police departments try to prosecute the honest law enforcement officers who challenge police department crimes.
Matt Katz: What are they prosecuting them for?
Tom Devine: I'll give you the example of Javier Esqueda. He was a training supervisor in [unintelligible 00:02:31], Illinois. He discovered that one of his trainees was involved in George Floyd-style murder. He reported it internally, was told to keep quiet. He wouldn't back off, and the government's prosecuting him for four felonies seeking 20 years imprisonment because he checked out the evidence of a police murder.
Matt Katz: Can you tell me a little bit more about the case like how it started, why he got involved in this in the first place?
Tom Devine: The case involved a suspect who is being questioned in the back seat of a car, and the police thought he was trying to swallow his evidence. They cut off his flow of oxygen until he was so ill that he died when they got him to the hospital finally. Sergeant Esqueda is responsible to oversee incidents involving the trainees that he was supervising and is a training sergeant. He was doing his job and he discovered that there had been a murder. When he tried to challenge it internally within the department and with the City Council in Shalya, his whole world caved in.
Matt Katz: What did he try to do? Did he first raise it to a supervisor and then when that didn't work, he went to elected officials?
Tom Devine: He first tried to raise it with a supervisor. When the supervisors refused to even talk about it, he leaked the information to the media and the city council, which he had a First Amendment right to do for a government crime. He wasn't charged with blowing the whistle. He was charged with finding the evidence. They charged him with four felonies of five years each for the different documents that he studied in order to discover that there was a murder.
Matt Katz: What's the status of the case now?
Tom Devine: He's awaiting trial.
Matt Katz: In 2020, Frank Serpico came on the show and he said that getting other cops on board with essentially writing out their colleagues is not easy. How could this law address this cultural issue, this blue wall of silence that's ingrained in police institutions?
Tom Devine: So much of the culture of silence is based on fear and the police departments are ruthless against anyone who challenges something that couldn't be defended in public and would threaten their identity in society. That's why there's such a greater proportion of criminal prosecutions of police whistleblowers who are blowing the whistle on crime than any other sector that I've worked in. It's a high-stakes, ugly sector. The first step in changing culture is to change the laws.
That won't automatically do it but all of a sudden it becomes respectable to advocate doing the right thing instead of illegal to advocate doing something that really is the right thing for the public it's the wrong thing for the government. Mr. Serpico, he's a real trooper. He's agreed to work the halls of Congress with me on this legislation. He inspired all sorts of law enforcement, informal whistleblower support organizations like the Lamplighters Society based on what Mr. Serpico thinks whistleblowers should be called Lamplighters. They've got members all over the country. There's over 40 whistleblowers who put their names out supporting these reforms.
It's lonely in the big picture but there's a critical mass of that's the honest public servants that we need to be protecting.
Matt Katz: You said there's 40 police officers who were also whistleblowers who have put their name to this legislation.
Tom Devine: I think we're up to 42 or 43 now. It keeps increasing.
Matt Katz: Some of them are current officers.
Tom Devine: Oh, absolutely. Federal state, and local police officers. Not the police bureaucracies but so many of the rank and file officers. They didn't join the police to beat up on minorities. They didn't join the police to make money off of drug dealing. They joined the police to defend the public. They just can't handle turning into the opposite of everything that they dedicated their life to. This is a general phenomenon for whistleblowers. As one of my clients said, "Tom, I'm going to have to shave every day the rest of my life and I want to be able to look in the mirror when I do it."
Matt Katz: This new proposed legislation, your team pushed for similar whistleblower protection in the George Floyd Policing Act of 2021, which ultimately failed in the Senate. What's different this time are you hoping?
Tom Devine: The George Floyd legislation hit the political wall over greater controls for the police. There was a consensus and neither side was objecting to whistleblower rights for the police. Representative Connolly's legislation HR 6762, it's a second bite of the apple, and whistleblower protection is half of this reform. The other half is to have the Federal Inspector General, who would circumvent the conflict of interest of local police departments investigating themselves. If they wanted to clean their own house and do it properly they still could but whistleblowers would have an alternative because so many times when you blow the whistle internally, it's like turning yourself in.
Matt Katz: What kind of opposition do you hear on Capitol Hill to this?
Tom Devine: [unintelligible 00:07:41] I haven't briefed an office yet that had objections to this legislation. It's just a Matt Katzer of the members of Congress deciding that it's in their interest to assert leadership on this issue. That's why we're issuing this report and that's why we're so grateful to you folks, for getting the word out.
Matt Katz: Tom Devine is the legal director of the Government Accountability Project. Thank you, Tom.
Tom Devine: Thanks for having me.
Matt Katz: Coming up, calls to defund the crime beat in Philadelphia. This is On the Media.
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