On May 18, Whistleblower Network News, along with 170 advocacy organizations, signed a letter urging Congress to include “best practice anti-retaliation rights” for law enforcement whistleblowers in upcoming police reform legislation.
The letter points to the fact that over 60 federal remedial laws include whistleblower protection because of a need for “accountability and enforceability.” The groups urge members of Congress to include whistleblower rights in police reforms because “accountability in law enforcement remains a major challenge.”
“Accountability-free abuses of power have become a way of life, and for current reform proposals to work as intended, they must have effective measures protecting those who bear witness in order to enforce the law against law enforcement officers who break it,” the letter states. “In many cases, accountability requires testimony from those willing to bear witness, which are often fellow officers and law enforcement personnel.”
The organizations explain that the “blue wall of silence,” or culture of not speaking up, is detrimental to law enforcement officers who do blow the whistle. The letter explains that whistleblower testimonies “could turn citizen rights into reality for major safeguards” like bans on chokeholds, “controls on other deadly force,” and “an oversight record based on the whole truth for all oversight and enforcement,” among other reforms.
“Whistleblowing for law enforcement is “committing the truth,” because they are treated as if they had committed a crime. But the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is the foundation for legitimate reform. There can be no higher priority than protecting those who provide it,” the letter concludes.
The letter is addressed to Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). The letter is also addressed to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
A group of 30 law enforcement officers also sent a letter to the same Congress members advocating for whistleblower protections. “Many of us also have blown the whistle on law enforcement abuses of power that betray our mission by endangering the public’s rights or lives. Now more than ever before, America is blowing the whistle on deeply ingrained abuses,” the letter begins. Several of the signatories on the letter, such as Frank Serpico, Frederic Whitehurst, Austin Handle, Robert Ledogar, and Robert MacLean have been featured as Whistleblowers of the Week on WNN.
“Why is accountability overdue? Proof is needed and whistleblowers are less likely to come forward without protection.” The officers state that “these reforms will not work as intended unless they directly attack the Blue Wall of Silence that permeates law enforcement.” Explaining the Blue Wall of Silence, the letter says that “Deep-seated cultural bias has made it a lonely, dangerous struggle for those exercising their free speech rights to hold their fellow officers and leaders accountable.” Law enforcement whistleblowers risk their careers when they blow the whistleblowers, and sometimes even their lives.
“Accountability often is impossible without testimony from those who bear witness. So if there are no anti-retaliation rights in police abuse legislation, its reforms may be left unenforced,” the letter states. The officers have the same demands as the advocacy organizations, urging Congress to include whistleblower protection in police reform bills.
“We have risked our careers, and sometimes our lives, despite no credible protection against retaliation. But it has been a lonely battle against the Blue Wall of Silence. New police reforms will have to reverse a longstanding way of life that has sustained accountability-free abuses of power,” the letter concludes.
Tom Devine, the Legal Director for Government Accountability Project, commented on the letters, stating: “Without a safe channel for officers to speak up against abuse, backed up by best practice anti-retaliation protections, enforcing new controls on police conduct will be a magnet for cynicism. Sometimes the best or only witness is an honest law enforcement officer willing to speak truth to power. Protect them so they will.”
Recent Proposed Legislation
In June 2020, Representative Karen Bass (D-CA) introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 into Congress and then reintroduced the Act in February 2021 with House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The Act “is a bold, comprehensive approach to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement, empower our communities, and build trust between law enforcement and our communities by addressing systemic racism and bias to help save lives,” according to Rep. Bass’ press release. It would ban chokeholds, “eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement,” “establish national standard for the operation of police departments,” and implement a number of other reforms. The Act passed in the House of Representatives on March 3 in a 220-212 vote; however, it is still facing debate on the floor of the Senate. However, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act does not mention any whistleblower protections or programs designed to protect law enforcement officers to speak out against misconduct.
Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) also proposed a police reform bill in June of 2020, the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere Act of 2020, or JUSTICE Act. However, the JUSTICE Act also had no mention of whistleblower provisions or protection from retaliation. Sen. Scott and other lawmakers are still working on developing bipartisan policing reforms.
Adding whistleblower protections to any proposed police reform legislation has the potential to encourage change in police departments and enhance proposals that are already on the table. It’s an approach to reforming policing in America that could contribute to a change in the culture of law enforcement. In this way, whistleblowers could have had proper recourse for pursuing whistleblower complaints and evaded the retaliation they endured.