JOHN KIRIAKOU: Penetrating the Blue Wall

The fallout for police whistleblowers is at least as bad as for those elsewhere in government.   

National memorial service in Washington for police officers killed in the line of duty, May 2019. (Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Marshals)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Like many Americans, especially those on the political left, I have a distrust of the police.  I’ve had several negative experiences that have left me jaded, including one in which I am the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit. My brain defaults to thinking the worst of the men and women in blue.  That’s often unfair, and it’s something that I’m trying to overcome.

One thing I realized very recently was that, as in any other vocation, there are some police officers who are born whistleblowers.  Like any others, they revealed the truth when they were witness to waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.  That’s something to be celebrated.

It’s hard to be (or to have been) a whistleblower in the intelligence community.  You become an outcast among the people you considered to be friends, among people whom you once trusted with your life.  It’s not an easy transition going from one-time insider to persona non grata.  But it happens, not just in the intelligence community, but among the police, too.

And in many cases, the fallout for police whistleblowers is at least as bad as it is for whistleblowers elsewhere in government.

Moses Black of the Gonzales Police Department in Louisiana is one such whistleblower.  In 2015, Black, a veteran officer, reported a colleague for using excessive force on a handcuffed prisoner.  An internal review board cleared the colleague, and police leaders almost immediately began retaliating against Black.  He was suspended for 90 days for being late once to work.

Intersection in Gonzales, Louisiana. (formulanone, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The city council overturned the suspension, but Black was subsequently fired after he asked a neighbor about a seat belt ticket she had received from another officer.  Black has been unable to find work in any other police department in Louisiana.

Code of Silence

This kind of police behavior is not new.  In the 1920s, President Herbert Hoover created a commission to investigate what seemed to be the inability of police officers around the country to stop the violence surrounding illegal sales of alcohol.  The primary problem that the commission found was that police departments valued loyalty over effectiveness or competence.  One of the commissioners wrote, “It is an unwritten law in police departments that police officers must never testify against their brother officers.”  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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In 1970s New York, the Knapp Commission, formed after the revelations of police whistleblower Frank Serpico, found that its own investigation of police corruption was repeatedly compromised by what one police captain said was “a code of silence that is greater than the omerta of the underworld.”  And despite the Knapp Commission’s many recommendations, a new commission in 1994 found that police whistleblowers routinely had their lockers burned or their tires slashed.

Frank Serpico in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons)

That commission concluded that, “If the (NYPD) ever hopes to make lasting improvements in corruption control, it must do something it has failed to do in recent history: acknowledge that the code of silence exists and take steps to overcome it.”

This anti-transparent, corrupt attitude is not unique to police officers.  Prison guards often respond the same way to whistleblowers.  One guard in the Churchill County, Nevada, jail told reporters that, after he reported misconduct involving an inappropriate use of force to his superiors, a sergeant said to him, “Jesus Christ, Erwine, why don’t you just hug them all?  They’re inmates, for Christ’s sake!”

Michael Erwine was fired and, like Moses Black, has been unable to find work as a prison guard or police officer anywhere in the state of Nevada.

This is a nationwide problem.  Police whistleblowers have won lawsuits against their departments in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle, and smaller departments in South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Oregon.  But still nothing changes.  In fact, a study by USA Today found that police departments frequently warped the internal affairs investigative process to pursue investigations against the whistleblowers.

The USA Today study found further that even on those rare occasions when officials who retaliated against whistleblowers were punished, they were almost always allowed to keep their jobs or to retire quietly with their pensions.

There are very few avenues for reform here.  Legislation won’t fix it; that’s been tried.  Blue-ribbon panels have failed.  Federal investigations and mandates have failed.  The fix can only come from within.  It’s only when the police themselves become invested in reform and embrace the rule of law that they want to impose on the rest of us that we’ll get the change we deserve.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Penetrating the Blue Wall

  1. zzzzzzzzz
    May 26, 2022 at 14:43

    Consortium News and Kiriakou are contributing nothing to the conversation about mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. Kiriakou appears to have made some realizations while he was incarcerated. He also appears to feel some remorse about various unsavory activities that he participated in. But this translates into nothing more than another article that reads like it was constructed after a quick Google search about retaliation against whistleblowers. As is normal for Kiriakou, he trots out yet another utterly perfunctory and thoughtless suggestion: change can only occur from within, by cops, because everything else has failed.

    Why does Kiriakou insist on writing trifling articles when he clearly belongs at the head of an intelligence agency. Let’s see how the self-policing goes in that context. Consortium needs to get some younger, more adventurous writers, people who are hitting harder. Otherwise, it’s the irrelevant liberalism of Counterpunch and Truthout.

  2. Cal Lash
    May 26, 2022 at 01:05

    Note: In the US there are some that believe only County Sheriff’s are legitmate law enforcement.
    Google, Posse Comitatus.
    And there are some that when you are a victim
    you should call the Bishop not the cops.
    (Even suspects should check in with the elders.)

  3. May 25, 2022 at 13:14

    I think police department needs to be divided up in to two groups. One group of non-violent crimes and routine traffic cop/community officers without Guns and one with a much narrower focus on violent type of crimes. The ones without guns should outnumber the violent types by atleast 10 to 1. The violent ones should only be called in for specific situations. Taking guns away from the police and also from the public would significantly reduce the false bravado. Along with it, we should take away no knock warrants and asset forfeiture laws, eliminate minimum sentencing as well as eliminate felony charges for minor offences like mariuaja possession. That should be a good start.

  4. May 25, 2022 at 07:30

    First off, the reason people on the political left distrust police is that virtually all police are on the far political right. Police have nothing but disdain for anyone on the left, as well as minorities which also often are more left leaning. So until this issue gets a bit more sunshine directed at it, nothing will change. There is a very large political component to bad policing. You don’t get a lot of left leaning people going into careers in policing, prison, or the military. Those industries are filled with right wing people who are not respectful of people with different opinions. As long as they get a free pass to harass, intimidate and even brutalize people on the left, they will not be trustworthy.

  5. Dr. Hujjatullah M.H.B. Sahib
    May 25, 2022 at 06:51

    That last sentence of yours is a gem and should apply to not only uniformed polices but also to their “superior” cousins the secret polices the world over who are even better at the sickness of brainlessly and definitely soulessly serving even the unjust whims of their respective “national” pay-masters. It is high time that the various polices begin to have their own internal moral rewiewers who are explicitly immune to pressures emanating from their organic and political superiors and their controling elites ! Humanity and polities can really be proud of themselves when this happens.

  6. Rebecca Turner
    May 25, 2022 at 03:24

    As other commenters state, this internal police reform is impossible. Policing itself must be abolished. This article shows the severe limits on Mr Kiriakou’s willingness to imagine a world owned and run by the working class.

    • John Kiriakou
      May 25, 2022 at 22:04

      That would be great in a perfect world. But even having served my time in a low-security prison, I was exposed to murderers (including a convicted serial killer), hundreds of pedophiles, rapists, armed robbers, and others who most certainly should be behind bars. Abolishing policing, while an interesting libertarian concept, simply wouldn’t work. There are just some people from whom society needs to be protected.

      • Cal Lash
        May 26, 2022 at 00:54

        Policing can be traced back to 2040 BCE.
        There are 18000 law enforcement agencies in the US.
        There are 20000 gangs on the US
        plus there are many
        organized crime groups on earth.
        The demise of crimes would likely bankrupt some places on the planet.
        Support whistleblowers.
        Say thank you to Winner, Assange, and many other truth seekers.

  7. Cal Lash
    May 24, 2022 at 23:18

    There are hundreds of studies on this issue.
    So I’m going to not say much.
    Thanks Connie. Thats not likely
    W.R. Wright’s “not likely” may be accurate.
    As A retired cop i worked two tours of Internal Affairs for two Police Chiefs in my 19 assignments as a police officer. detective and supervisor. There were a number of “bad” officers that left or were fired. A number were reinstated by civil service bosrds in defiance of police administration.
    I dint think we should give up on making humane improvements in police.
    I contribute to Whistleblowers as they still do not have sufficient protection. Here is where we can definitely improve.
    In honor of Daniel Ellsberg and memory of Bob Parry and Gary Webb.

    Cal Lash

  8. Jeff Harrison
    May 24, 2022 at 21:24

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Decimus Junius Juvenalis (Juvenal) Second century AD. It’s been with us for a while.

    I think, John, that for anything to get better, we have to change the rules that give cops an incredible degree of impunity. The second thing we need to do is change our approach to the law. We have this almost reverential attitude to the law, as if, like the 10 commandments they are handed down by the almighty itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today you hear that we need to have a law to prevent X. That’s not what the law’s for. Robert Heinlein put it best in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” when he has the professor tell Manny, “We have laws to tell us not to do what we don’t want to do anyway” That’s not the same thing. Corruption takes root when you have laws that no one is particularly willing to follow and people take steps to run around the “law” (see: US sanctions the world)

    • May 26, 2022 at 22:40

      I think that even the so-called “Ten Commandments” were not handed down by God. That is pure fiction.

      I will say that at least one of the “Ten Commandments” is wrong, namely the commandment to “honor your father and mother”, which in the biblical text is unconditional and makes no exceptions if one’s parents are abusive or otherwise unworthy or not deserving of honor. It is wrong to tell a person with abusive parents that that person has any duty or obligation to honor such parents.

      If anything there should be a commandment to parents to treat their children with dignity and respect, so that they (the children) might come to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect.

      And another commandment to parents to earn and be worthy of the love, honor, and respect of their children.

  9. May 24, 2022 at 17:06

    That’s not likely to happen.

  10. Connie
    May 24, 2022 at 16:21

    The police will never hold themselves accountable. The only reform is to get rid of the police altogether.

Comments are closed.