The most influential Stop Snitchin’ campaign in San Francisco isn’t in the Bayview or the Tenderloin. It lives on the streets and in the jails, wielding power over those you might not expect: police officers and sheriff’s deputies.
In March, a trio of scandals allowed us to peer over the blue wall of silence. The view isn’t pretty: SFPD officers sending racist text messages, jailers forcing inmates into gladiator-style fights, and crime lab technicians covering up bungled DNA results.
The ugly incidents involve different players and different departments. But they have one thing in common. They occurred because otherwise law-abiding colleagues turned a blind eye to the misconduct.
Every officer knows that crime flourishes when good people say nothing. It’s time for them to apply this Policing 101 lesson to their own ranks and punish not only those accused of misconduct, but those who ignore or enable it.
Task forces may be useful for investigating misconduct after the damage has been done. Federal corruption laws punish the tip of the iceberg, such as former San Francisco Sgt. Ian Furminger, a major player in the racist text scandal who was recently convicted of stealing from drug suspects.
We must expand our focus to holding people accountable for their complicity in allowing misconduct to go unchecked. It is the only way to change a toxic law enforcement culture that brands whistleblowers as traitors. The San Francisco Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department should immediately institute general orders or policies holding liable officers who fail to report misconduct.
Of course, there are many good men and women serving in uniform. And witness intimidation and misplaced loyalty to colleagues are not unique to San Francisco officers. It is a national problem that has festered so long that perjury has become routine. In fact, lying in court to avoid being ostracized by peers is so common, police even have a name for it: “testilying.”
In the 1990s, the Christopher Commission found the greatest single barrier to cleaning house at the scandal-plagued LAPD was the officers’ unwritten code of silence.
“Police officers are given special powers, unique in our society, to use force, even deadly force, in the furtherance of their duties. Along with that power, however, must come the responsibility of loyalty first to the public the officers serve. That requires that the code of silence not be used as a shield to hide misconduct,” the Commission concluded.
The racist texts, the human cockfights, and the lab misconduct are the latest in a seemingly endless string of shameful incidents. From a lab tech that stole and used drug evidence to police illegally entering hotel rooms to steal from San Francisco’s poorest people to prosecutors failing to turn over officers’ and criminal records, only a handful of officers have been criminally prosecuted, and only one — Furminger — sentenced to prison.
It is time for accountability —not only for the perpetrators of misconduct ,but those who knowingly avert their gaze. Law enforcement officers must follow their own advice: If you see something, say something.