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The Police Assault on Whistleblowers in Their Ranks

Blue Omerta

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

Two police lieutenants face a similar criminal charge but one gets a slap on the wrist while the other is fired.

One of these two police supervisors is an officer with a distinguished record of exposing corruption and misconduct.

Guess which of those two veteran police officers received the harsher punishment?

The whistle-blower!

Upon firing Lt. Aisha Perry weeks ago, Police Department officials subjected her to the humiliation of a public arrest, complete with ‘perk walk’ before television news cameras. But they kept a lid on a secret that casts suspicion on the real reason behind Perry’s termination: While publicly firing Perry for theft of utility services, PPD brass were at the same time quietly disciplining seven other Department employees behind the scenes for similar theft of utility service offenses.

But Philadelphia police officials refused to discharge anyone of those thieves who, when confronted by police investigators, admitted their crimes.

Yet, whistle-blower Perry – a 31-year PPD veteran who vigorously denies the utility theft accusation – received both the punishment of termination and that humiliating public arrest.

Those seven PPD employees, including a staff member of a Deputy Police Commissioner, admitted fraudulently obtaining cash grants established to assist low-income residents to pay their utility bills.

One of those seven PPD employees receiving internal PPD discipline — suspensions ranging from three to fifteen days — was a detective lieutenant who earned $94,000 last year, according to city records.

Ironically, after that detective lieutenant completes his fifteen day suspension he will return to duty arresting criminals, despite the fact that he himself is now an admitted criminal.

Compounding the disparity in the severity of action taken against whistle-blower Perry, compared to the Gang of Seven, police sources said that over one hundred other PPD members have faced internal discipline for utility thefts without their cases being referred to prosecutors as were the misconduct claims against Perry.

Although the seeming travesty inherent in the arrest and firing of Lt. Aisha Perry occurred
in Philadelphia, the mistreatment of whistle blowers within police departments is a nationwide problem that generally escapes public scrutiny.

In August, for example, a former policeman in a small town near Los Angeles and a former New Jersey State Trooper both won lawsuits filed after enduring retaliation for their whistle-blowing.

“Whistle-blowers are generally not supported by the administration of law enforcement agencies,” stated a disturbing study on the issue compiled for the International Association of Chiefs of Police a dozen years ago.

While sexism and racism certainly played roles in the two decades of retaliation targeting Lt. Perry, a pivotal instigator involved in these assaults against her is the warped concept among police that whistle-blowing violates the “Code of Silence” practiced by many police.

This unofficial “Code of Silence,” which is pervasive within the police culture across America, demands silence from law enforcers about lawlessness within police ranks as a perverse expression of solidarity among police officers.

The Chiefs of Police study in question found that 46 percent of the officers interviewed admitted witnessing misconduct by another officer “but concealed what they knew” –- practicing the Code of Silence.

Equally outrageous was that study’s finding that 80 percent of those “admitting withholding evidence” of police misconduct were persons within the upper ranks of police departments.

Lt. Aisha Perry won a federal lawsuit she filed against the PPD in the late 1990s charging ranking PPD personnel with denying her a promotion as retaliation for her arresting a drunken hit-&-run driver who turned out to be an off-duty Philadelphia policeman.

Although the federal judge presiding at Perry’s whistle-blowing trial specifically admonished Philadelphia’s then Police Commissioner to halt attacks against Perry, PPD supervisors nonetheless slapped her with a series of misconduct charges on the first day she returned to work following that federal jury ruling in her favor.

A vile example of the harassment constantly targeting Perry is an anonymous malicious letter which falsely accused Perry of involvement in a 2010 fatal car crash.

That letter writer – who possessed police-specific information – laid fault for the two fatalities during that 2010 crash “squarely on [the] shoulders” of Lt. Perry.

Fortunately for Perry, facts contained in PPD documents about that 2010 crash in Philadelphia’s upscale East Falls section easily refute that anonymous letter writer’s false accusations.

Further, those facts exposed errors in news media reports about that crash that relied on PPD-provided information.

The December 2010 crash occurred as a police sergeant chased a car after police command ordered officers not to engage in pursuit.

That policewoman denied hearing the stop-chase order from police radio command.

The car chased by the sergeant went out of control during the hi-speed pursuit down narrow School House Lane, striking a tree and bursting into flames.

Two men burned to death inside the car while a third occupant was thrown from the vehicle.

Police initially tagged the survivor of the wreck as the driver but were flummoxed when the survivor’s family stated he was blind and couldn’t have driven any vehicle.

News reports of that crash reported that it occurred “after” police ended their pursuit, making no reference to the active pursuit by the policewoman.

Those news reports also listed the survivor – the blind man – as the driver of the car.

One police accident investigator, incensed by what he considered errant acts by the sergeant, initially recorded that car crash as “manslaughter-gross negligence-no arrest.”

Lt. Perry did come to that accident scene after the crash, taking charge as a ranking supervisor at the chaotic scene, performing supervisory duties that the pursuing sergeant did not.

Police investigators interviewed Perry about the allegations in that anonymous letter but dropped the matter as unfounded.

The family of one of those fatally burned in that 2010 crash recently filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia and against the pursuing officer, Sgt. Christine Fitzgerald.

That lawsuit contends Fitzgerald failed to follow the PPD’s Directive 41 that limits high-speed chases in urban areas because of the “significant risk of personal injury and death recognized” by PPD and City officials as potentially being caused by such chases.

“Defendant Fitzgerald’s actions were arbitrary and taken in reckless indifference to the safety” of that vehicle’s occupants, that lawsuit alleged.

PPD spokesmen said the Department would not comment on the lawsuit or the incident since the “case is still active.” A PPD spokesman said Internal Affairs is completing its investigation into the 2010 crash, including an examination of possible violations of Department regulations.

Aside from the crash issue, Philadelphia police and prosecutors charged Perry with stealing utility services, claiming she had tampered with meters to obtain electric, gas and water service without paying. Curiously, police and prosecutors failed to publicly provide any details about Perry’s alleged misconduct as would be standard procedure in arrests.

Supporters of Perry see her arrest as another instance of retaliatory assault against this whistle-blower.

Such a contention is not without foundation, given the sordid history of retaliatory acts against whistle-blowers by PPD personnel and police union officials — acts that that take place both on the job and after work.

For example, retaliation drove three white policemen –- Ray Carnation and brothers Bill and Mike McKenna –- who had reported on cases of racism and misconduct by fellow officers, out of the PPD in the late 1990s.

They received a record-setting $10-million federal jury verdict in a whistle-blower lawsuit, but City Hall appeals and suspect rulings by a federal judge stripped them of their rightful reward for retaliation.

Police whistle-blowers frequently find little support from their police union, the fraternal Order of Police.

Earlier this year in Philadelphia, the FOP won its campaign to reinstate a policeman fired for stealing money from civilians even though those acts had been observed by other police officers and documented on video by PPD investigators.

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.