I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here. 

We got a touching email Wednesday from a 30-year veteran of a Massachusetts police force.

He wrote that his distinguished career “was all tarnished … after I reported (an) officer lying on the stand and going to the FBI.”

He was responding to an investigative story we published this week, Behind the Blue Wall, that documented how often police whistleblowers face retaliation for reporting misconduct. They have been threatened, fired, jailed, one was even forcibly admitted to a psychiatric ward. 

“I want to personally thank you for bringing this to light,” the officer wrote. You were able write about what I’ve experienced over the past 6 years. It was a great read. I took deep breaths and felt liberated.

It’s not new for police to cover for their colleagues and penalize those who do. But with this investigation, we wanted to quantify, for the first time, the extent of the problem and how it impacts the whistleblowers. We also wanted to know how whistleblowers are silenced by officers. 

An investigation was conducted:Death threats, dead rats and destroyed careers. What law enforcement does to whistleblowers

What we discovered: “In building a catalog of more than 300 examples from the past decade, reporters found there is no wrongdoing so egregious or clear cut that a whistleblower can feel safe in bringing it to light.” 

These documents were obtained by how? 

The police departments were unable to provide records about whistleblower complaints. We attempted this. We had no success in many instances. They cited privacy issues and ongoing investigations or just ignored the requests. These were the results. investigative reporter Brett Murphy explains, reporters went for side doors. They also asked whistleblowers to tell them about other misconduct.

Whistleblowers are “turning to their local human resources division for the city governments, state labor boards, the feds, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), the attorneys general, state police, anywhere that they thought they could get out from their own department because they were kind of terrified of what was gonna happen to them internally.”

So we went to the same places and requested records that included words such as “police” or “sheriff” and “retaliation.” The requests were resisted by many, but we stood firm for the rights of the public. We sent reporters to seven states to interview police officers, victims of misconduct and grieving families. 

Reporters issued 400 requests for public records and obtained tens to thousands of pages. They found 300 cases in the past decade where an officer helped expose misconduct – a small window into how the system works. The vast majority of those cases ended with those whistleblowers saying they faced retaliation. 

“It doesn’t matter how horrible the stuff they expose,” Murphy stated. “Fellow deputies beating an inmate who died later; a captain who had a 16 year-old girl conceived and paid for an abortion; a coworker boasting about the murder of a unarmed teenage boy.

“In all of these, officers speaking out were forced from their respective departments and made traitors of by other officers.”

According to the team, officers who lie or remain silent for the sake of their accused colleagues later got promotions, overtime and admiration by their peers. 

Another finding that sticks with Murphy: How the systems that police created to hold themselves accountable, such as internal affairs, often have been weaponized to hunt down and punish whistleblowers.

Continue reading:An officer from the police exposed footage of a man being held in death row. Now he’s facing prison time.

“Whistleblowing is a life sentence,” former Chicago undercover narcotics officer Shannon Spalding told our team. She faced death threats and resigned after she exposed corruption that led to dozens of overturned convictions. “I’m an officer without a department. I lost my house. I lost my marriage. It affects you in ways you would never imagine.”

It was quite striking. investigative reporter Gina BartonThis is the cost it takes on whistleblowers. 

“I talked to several guys who said they were surveilled – mysterious cars would drive past their house while their wife and kids were outside. “Very frightening and intimidating acts,” she stated. Police officers became victims of their own professional and agency. You’re expected to put your life on the line to support these people, and to trust them that they will always be there for you. And then, you see, they do terrible things.

It is important to note that not all officers who come forward face retaliation. In some cases, whistleblowers were rewarded by departments.

“In Del City, Oklahoma, a detective who testified against a fellow officer for shooting an unarmed man rose up the ranks to major. In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, an officer who testified against the chief ended up replacing him. There are undoubtedly other departments with similar stories that did not make it into the public record,” our story said.

“But for every example of retaliation USA TODAY found, countless others likely remain concealed. That’s because the system works. Many officers have witnessed or heard about other career paths being destroyed by speaking out.

One Tweet Response we got to the story suggested police are no different than any other group in covering for their own: “An institution circles the wagons.” Investigative reporter Daphne Duret explains the massive difference.

She said that “these kinds of retaliations might happen in another profession.” People die when such things happen in law enforcement. When (police) encounter people, a police officer can be judge, jury and executioner.” Whistleblowers can face retaliation. This “has a chilling impact” on any other officers.

This is how the story began. Investigative editor Matt Doig was reading online chats about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. One police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while he cried for help. He was not stopped by three other officers. Commentators were curious as to why. 

“One person who said he was a cop said, ‘You guys don’t understand law enforcement, it’s your whole life, not just your professional life, but your personal life,'” Doig remembers. ” ‘If you speak out against a brother, your career is over, but your life is over, too. All of us go to the same barbecues. She will not be my wife because her friends are cop wives. ” 

He was struck by the thought that how many whistleblowers have been subject to retaliation. How widespread is the problem? Could it be quantified? 

The team was able to do exactly that. 

Already, we’re hearing talk of creating an independent inspector general to give whistleblowers a safe place to report. We’re hearing that agencies are discussing their internal practices, now that the attention is on them.

This is the goal of investigative journalism. Shine a light. Correct a mistake Make the powerful pay. 

We’re also heartened by officers reaching out with personal stories – and gratitude.

This was the end of his Massachusetts letter. 

I cannot thank you enough. “Beers are for me!”

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Support journalism – subscribe to USA TODAYHere. Black Friday Deal: $1 per week, 52 weeks.

Source: USAToday.com


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