February 19, 2014

The Blue Wall of Silence in South Florida

That cops let other cops (and their families, friends, and anyone else lucky enough to have scored a PBA card or, better yet, a relative's badge) skate on various traffic infractions, is reasonably well known, at least in the circles that I travel. In fact, for us non-officers, the only reason to have a police union card is so you can try to get out of tickets. It is called "professional courtesy."

Surely, you say, there must be limits to what an officer will ignore. Unfortunately, station house culture being what it is, many police officers are far less forgiving of police officers who enforce the law against fellow officers, than they are of officers who break the law in the first place. In police culture, reflexive support for a brother in blue is the norm, while upholding the law is tantamount to snitching, which is frowned upon by police officers and criminals alike.

In 2011, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Watts watched in amazement as Fausto Lopez, a fellow law enforcement officer flew by her while she was patrolling a local highway. As she pursued him, he reached speeds in excess of 120 mph. After chasing him for more than seven minutes, Watts finally pulled over Lopez, an off-duty Miami Police Department officer, who explained he was late to an off-duty job. Much to Lopez's surprise, Watts didn't let him off the hook; she arrested him. Eventually Lopez was fired.

Despite the unambiguous evidence supporting the arrest, the Florida Highway Patrol investigated Watts for her handling of the incident. It is unlikely, to put it mildly, that the arrest would be questioned if Lopez wasn't an officer.

But that was only the beginning. Watts soon found herself the target of a relentless campaign of harassment. She has received hundreds of threatening calls and been the butt of various pranks and instances of stalking. As the Associated Press reports, Watts discovered that “over a three-month period, at least 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times.”  The 1994 Driver Privacy Protection Act provides that government officials who improperly access DMV databases are subject to a $2,500 fine for each offense and Watts is suing for the maximum allowed under law.

Apparently, local and national police organizations have determined that the villain here is Watts, whose sole offense was to arrest Lopez for a crime he plainly committed, and they are lobbying for changes to the law that would protect officers such as those who abused their authority to access Watts's DMV information. In Florida, the blue wall of silence is still a formidable force.

The national police organizations' emphasis on fraternity ├╝ber alles is depressingly predictable, and all too common.  As set out in a nice piece by Radley Balko, there is an abundance of similar stories concerning the intersection between courtesy, criminality, and police culture across the country. (Washington Post)

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