I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
We got a touching email Wednesday from a 30-year veteran of a Massachusetts police force.
He wrote that his distinguished career “was all tarnished … after I reported (an) officer lying on the stand and going to the FBI.”
He was responding to an investigative story we published this week, Behind the Blue Wall, that documented how often police whistleblowers face retaliation for reporting misconduct. They have been threatened, fired, jailed, one was even forcibly admitted to a psychiatric ward.
“I want to personally thank you for bringing this to light,” the officer wrote. “You were able to write what I have experienced for the last 6 years. After reading this I took a deep breath and for the first time since this began I feel liberated from the stigma of being a rat, untruthful, discredited.”
Police covering for colleagues, and punishing those who don’t, isn’t new. But with this investigation, we wanted to quantify, for the first time, the extent of the problem and how it impacts the whistleblowers. And, we wanted to find out how officers silence their own.
What we discovered: “In building a catalog of more than 300 examples from the past decade, reporters found there is no wrongdoing so egregious or clear cut that a whistleblower can feel safe in bringing it to light.”
How did we get these documents?
We tried going to police agencies themselves asking for records on whistleblower complaints. In many cases, no luck. They cited privacy issues and ongoing investigations or just ignored the requests. So, investigative reporter Brett Murphy explains, reporters went for side doors. They asked whistleblowers where else they reported misconduct.
Whistleblowers are “turning to their local human resources division for the city governments, state labor boards, the feds, EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board), the attorneys general, state police, anywhere that they thought they could get out from their own department because they were kind of terrified of what was gonna happen to them internally.”
So we went to the same places and requested records that included words such as “police” or “sheriff” and “retaliation.” Many fought the requests, and we fought back for the public’s right to know. We sent reporters to seven states to interview police officers, victims of misconduct and grieving families.
Reporters sent out 400 public records requests and secured tens of thousands of pages of records. They found 300 cases in the past decade where an officer helped expose misconduct – a small window into how the system works. The vast majority of those cases ended with those whistleblowers saying they faced retaliation.
“It doesn’t matter how bad the stuff is they expose,” Murphy said. “Fellow deputies beating a prisoner who later died; a captain who impregnated a 16-year-old girl and then paid for an abortion; a co-worker bragging about killing an unarmed teenager.
“In each of those, the officers who spoke out were forced out of their departments and branded traitors by fellow officers.”
Meanwhile, the team reported, “the officers who lied or stayed silent in support of an accused colleague later secured promotions, overtime and admiration from their peers.”
Another finding that sticks with Murphy: How the systems that police created to hold themselves accountable, such as internal affairs, often have been weaponized to hunt down and punish whistleblowers.
“Whistleblowing is a life sentence,” former Chicago undercover narcotics officer Shannon Spalding told our team. She faced death threats and resigned after she exposed corruption that led to dozens of overturned convictions. “I’m an officer without a department. I lost my house. I lost my marriage. It affects you in ways you would never imagine.”
That was striking to investigative reporter Gina Barton, the toll this takes on the whistleblowers.
“I talked to several guys who said they were surveilled – mysterious cars would drive past their house while their wife and kids were outside. Very frightening and intimidating actions,” she said. “The police were victims of their own profession and their own agency. These are people who you’re supposed to lay your life on the line for, and you’re supposed to trust them to have your back no matter what, and then they do these terrible things.”
To be sure, not every officer who comes forward faces retaliation. We found cases where departments rewarded whistleblowers.
“In Del City, Oklahoma, a detective who testified against a fellow officer for shooting an unarmed man rose up the ranks to major. In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, an officer who testified against the chief ended up replacing him. There are undoubtedly other departments with similar stories that did not make it into the public record,” our story said.
“But for every example of retaliation USA TODAY found, countless others likely remain concealed. That’s because the system works. Officers have seen or heard of other careers destroyed over speaking up.”
One Twitter response we got to the story suggested police are no different than any other group in covering for their own: “An institution circles the wagons.” Investigative reporter Daphne Duret explains the massive difference.
“These kinds of retaliations could happen in another profession,” she said. “But in law enforcement, when this kind of stuff happens, people die. When (police) encounter people, a police officer can be judge, jury and executioner.” And when whistleblowers face retaliation, “it does have a chilling effect” on other officers who might come forward.
That’s how this story started. Investigative editor Matt Doig was reading online chats about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. One police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while he cried for help. Three other officers didn’t stop him. Commenters were wondering why.
“One person who said he was a cop said, ‘You guys don’t understand law enforcement, it’s your whole life, not just your professional life, but your personal life,'” Doig remembers. ” ‘If you speak out against a brother, your career is over, but your life is over, too. We all go to the same barbecues together. My wife will leave me because all her friends were the wives of cops.’ ”
That got him thinking, how many whistleblowers had faced retaliation? Could we quantify the number, find out how pervasive the problem is?
That’s exactly what the team did.
Already, we’re hearing talk of creating an independent inspector general to give whistleblowers a safe place to report. We’re hearing that agencies are discussing their internal practices, now that the attention is on them.
That’s the purpose of investigative journalism. Shine a light. Right a wrong. Hold the powerful accountable.
We’re also heartened by officers reaching out with personal stories – and gratitude.
The Massachusetts officer ended his letter with this:
“I can not thank you enough. Beers are on me!”
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Support journalism – subscribe to USA TODAY here. (Black Friday deal: $1 a week for 52 weeks.)