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Shannon Spalding was a Chicago police officer and part of an FBI joint task force to expose a “criminal extortion ring” in the Chicago Police Department (CPD). Spalding and her partner Daniel Echeverria learned Officer Ron Watts and his team were involved in enriching themselves off the narcotics trade.
According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), in 2007, “Spalding and her partner feared for their futures as officers, but felt they had no choice but to report the internal corruption to their supervisor” in the narcotics division of CPD’s Bureau of Organized Crime. When they told the bureau about Watts and his team, “their supervisor ordered them to quash the allegations.”
Not long after, Watts murdered “Big Shorty,” a drug dealer “caught up in a homicide investigation.” Big Shorty attempted to strike a deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and confessed that he “paid a ‘tax’ to Watts and his team for protection, which allowed him to sell narcotics without fear of prosecution.”
But there was no formal investigation into Watts, and he was allowed to remain on the police force.
Spalding and her partner went to the FBI. High-ranking Chicago officials responded by trying to make the investigation disappear. They targeted Spalding and Echeverria, who were reassigned to desk duty for the CPD. Both were later “sent to the police academy and separated.” When the Justice Department became involved, the chief of internal affairs allegedly tried to convince Spalding to commit perjury. “I can’t – and I won’t – protect you,” the chief said.
Spalding responded to the retaliation by filing a whistleblower lawsuit after her immediate supervisor in the Fugitive Apprehension Unit said, “I’d hate to one of these days have to be the one to knock on your door and tell your daughter you’re coming home in a box.”
The lawsuit resulted in retaliation that was more severe. Spalding was arrested and placed under investigation on “phony federal charges.” She went on extended leave as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was caused by what she endured as a whistleblower.
Spalding’s story is one of several whistleblower stories that appear in GAP’s report that examines the “Blue Wall of Silence” within police departments throughout the United States.
The Blue of Wall of Silence is defined by GAP as a “social control within police culture that deters reports of misconduct and enforces conformity through fear of retaliation."
“Protection of fellow officers can often be valued over the protection of the public," the report further describes. "Broad cultural norms of peer solidarity are continually promoted and sustained through a sense of obligation to comply with this unwritten code of honor."
Police whistleblowers face retaliation that whistleblowers working in other professions tend to endure: “making the position part-time, changing the job title, reducing salary, and denying promotions or raises, “inciting isolation or ‘mobbing’ harassment by peers, attempting to terminate the employee, increasing or decreasing the employee’s workload, abolishing the whistleblower’s position, giving poor performance reviews, and/or accusing the whistleblower of the same misconduct” they have disclosed.
“Retaliation unique to policing can include failing to provide back-up or abandoning the whistleblower who is under attack,” the report adds. “It is not unheard of for such officers to be abandoned in shoot-outs or left to die, a consequence Frank Serpico and other law enforcement whistleblowers have faced.”
GAP breaks police whistleblowing into stages. The officer observes corrupt or unlawful acts. The officer contemplates disclosing the misconduct to supervisors. The “severity of the misconduct” is then weighed against the “potential repercussions of reporting.” If the officer decides they are willing to challenge corruption, they become a whistleblower who will either see their complaint investigated or face retaliation. Often that investigation lacks any independent review that would protect them.
Austin Handle was a police officer with the Dunwoody Police Department, which is in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. He uncovered a “decade’s worth of rampant corruption.”
When he joined the department in 2018, he observed Lieutenant Fidel Espinoza as he “hired new officers based on his own sexual preferences.” Handle said the officers were recruited because Espinoza believed they would participate in “sexually exploitative relationships without resistance.”
“Espinoza used his position of power to coerce nine other officers into a sexting ring where sexual favors and illicit pictures were exchanged for positive commendations, extra high-paying shifts, and protection,” according to GAP. “Known internally as ‘Guardians,’ these reviews and commendations led to work benefits like raises and promotions, which Handle perceived as one quid pro quo after another.”
Handle went on TikTok and called attention to discrimination, misconduct, and sexual harassment at the Dunwoody Police Department on May 4, 2020. A week later, Handle was fired for “untruthfulness.” (They also accused Handle of “speeding with his lights and sirens on,” which every officer in the Dunwoody Police Department probably has done at some point.)
Major Oliver Fladrich frequently accused Handle of “policy violations” without any evidence, and Fladrich forced Handle to scrub his “carpet on his hands and knees” and collect clothing for a “homeless youth program that did not exist.”
Police Chief Billy Grogan eventually oversaw an internal investigation against Espinoza and omitted Handle’s testimony and evidence. Espinoza was cleared of wrongdoing.
“Let’s talk about why good cops don’t say anything. They do. They do, and then they’re harassed,” Handle declared.
Police whistleblowers do not know if the First Amendment will protect them after they expose wrongdoing. As GAP outlines, a court must rule that the speech involved a public concern of greater importance than the “disruption to the employer.” They also have to prove they faced retaliation and shut down their employer’s “alternative explanation” for what happened. “That legal gauntlet is not a safe channel to risk a career.”
In the US, whistleblowers lack constitutional rights as a result of a case known as Garcetti v. Ceballos. The outcome of that case created a “duty speech” loophole that means “public employees who make statements pursuant to their official job duties are not protected by the First Amendment and may be subject to discipline by their employers.”
“Richard Ceballos was a deputy district attorney who wrote a memo highlighting misrepresentations made in an affidavit used to get a search warrant, which called a criminal case into question,” the GAP report recalls. “Because he had a duty to report violations, Ceballos submitted the memo to his supervisors recommending that the case be dropped. They proceeded with the prosecution anyway and retaliated against him.”
“Because Ceballos wrote the memo as part of his official responsibilities as a prosecutor on the case, the speech was not protected by the First Amendment,” according to GAP.
Lt. Kamil Warraich is a Pakistani American who worked in the narcotics and gang unit for the Asbury Park Police Department (APPD). In 2016, he reported that an internal affairs investigator was “backdating investigations.” The response to his complaints was retaliation.
“The practice of targeting minority neighborhoods and allowing officers not to report use of force,” were other examples of wrongdoing Warraich challenged. But rather than address the corruption, Warraich was targeted with several investigations launched by internal affairs at the APPD.
The GAP report says internal affairs sought a “twenty-day suspension, an arbitrary demotion, and termination by unjustly utilizing the fitness for duty evaluation (FFDE) process.” Warraich was put on paid administrative leave in late 2019, and has yet to return to the force.
“In late 2019, Lt. Warraich filed two complaints with the [Office of the Attorney Genral], one reporting the retaliation against him and violations of the internal affairs guidelines. The other complaint was submitted as a whistleblower disclosure and alleged Internal Affairs (IA) complaints filed by citizens against police officers from 2014 to 2019 were not investigated by the IA’s Commander,” the report recalls.
Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) handled the 2019 complaints just like it handled Warraich’s prior filings. The office botched the investigation and engaged in a coverup.
These stories of whistleblowers “illustrate the deeply rooted, long tradition of enforcing the Blue Wall of Silence.”
“It does not matter whether the misconduct is racism, corruption, or violence,” GAP declares. “The first principle is to sustain the freedom to abuse by denying any misconduct and avoiding accountability.”
GAP offers a few suggestions for remedying this systemic problem. Whistleblowers could be afforded anti-retaliation rights. They could be offered protection from “all forms of retaliation, including a whistleblower defense against civil and criminal liability.” Gag orders could be blocked from being imposed, and independent investigations with shields to ensure the confidentiality of the whistleblower could be incorporated into police departments.
There will always be “profiles in courage who are exceptions to the rule," GAP asserts. But unless the culture is changed, every whistleblower who comes forward will be forced to choose between the truth or their career.
Serpico wrote the foreword for GAP's report. He believes whistleblower protection should extend to all who bear witness, whether they are in law enforcement, a citizen, a survivor of police brutality, or a civil society organization.
“We need to protect all who bear witness because it is irrelevant who blows the whistle to expose the indefensible. There can be no justice without the truth,” Serpico concludes.