Like most people in law enforcement, I was once a brick in the blue wall of silence.
You’ve probably heard about the thin blue line — the idea that police officers and the laws they’re sworn to uphold are all that stand between order and chaos.
The blue wall of silence is different.
It refers to the unofficial oath of silence within departments. Cops don’t rat on cops. That blue wall is one of many factors that further pushes the widening divide between the world as seen by law enforcement and the world experienced by the citizens whom officers are sworn to protect.
For my entire FBI career, I was dedicated to protecting that blue wall. But when I testified last year against Roy Oliver, the officer who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in the shooting death of black teen Jordan Edwards, I was reminded of why I decided to leave my loyalty to that wall behind.
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Most probably recall the case: Jordan, 15, was in a car with his brother and several other kids — all, as far as I could tell, good kids who were leaving a party. Jordan’s brother was driving away from the officers, none of whom was in danger based on surveillance video, when Oliver opened fire.
A reasonable officer, I stated during the trial, would not have pulled the trigger.
I still believe that it’s important for officers to be loyal to one another; it’s a dangerous profession. But our first loyalty is to the law. Bad officers make maintaining that loyalty unnecessarily tough for everyone.
Breaking through that wall was hard to do
Even after I retired as a special agent for the FBI and became a court-certified expert witness, I declined to take on cases in which I would be required to testify in court or give a sworn deposition against fellow law enforcement officers. My dedication to the wall ran just that deep.
It didn’t start to crumble for me until about 2003, about five years after I left the bureau. I was talking over breakfast with an old friend who still worked at the FBI. He wanted to know why I had refused to work with prosecutors investigating law enforcement personnel who were being sued or charged with a crime.
At the time, the question seemed like a no-brainer. Use my expertise to testify against a police officer? That’s just not what ex-law enforcement agents did.
My friend appealed directly to my sense of duty. My obligation, he pushed, was not to an individual or a group. It was to the law. And if someone hired to enforce that law violated the public’s trust, it was my obligation to speak up.
I winced. It felt as if he had stuck my FBI lapel pin right into my heart.
If you’re going to do this work, he continued, you should be willing to look at all sides of the issue and do what you believe is right.
I’ve carried that point of view with me ever since. Any law enforcement officer who cares about the law, and public perception, should work hard to get officers who’ve done something illegal, immoral or wrong off the force. Citizens don’t want them around. Just as important, neither do their fellow officers.
A few months after our talk, I took my first case in which I provided expert testimony against a law enforcement official. An FBI agent, no less. It was a hard case to take. But after reviewing the documents, it was one I felt I had to. That was more than 10 years ago.
The switch was rough at first. Access to certain corners of the law enforcement world that had always been open to me was curtailed. It hurt to be seen as disloyal.
Eventually, though, the people who were cutting off avenues to information retired or got transferred. It took almost four years for things to return to normal. It was a small price to pay for doing something I thought was right.
It takes soul searching
My job now is about being independent and fair. I try to investigate and offer my testimony without prejudice. I have a system that’s of my own making. I grade each case I receive on a scale from one to 10. I only take cases that fall on the far ends of the spectrum — bad cops doing bad things or good cops falsely accused. Even with that scale, it takes a lot of soul searching to take on a case.
To civilians, this may all sound elementary. Of course you should take the stand or give a deposition against wrong-doers.
In law enforcement, however, loyalties run deep, as they should.
Some expert witnesses (officers, detectives and agents) are hard-liners when it comes to the wall. Like the person I used to be, they’d never consider testifying against a colleague.
This resoluteness stems from the uniqueness of the job. The lives of cops and agents are very much on the line every day. That inherent risk can create unbreakable bonds. Those factors can’t be dismissed. Neither, though, can this simple fact: The bad decisions made by a few officers can undo many of the good decisions made by the rest of us.
I hope there are more people out there like my friend from the FBI. We need people who are willing to have frank talks about the need to provide expert testimony not merely for “both” sides, but for the right side, even if that means siding against law enforcement.
The nature of the job, and the level of violence in our country, ensures that we’ll unfortunately never rid ourselves of incidents like the shooting death of Jordan in Texas.
When incidents like these occur, I often wonder how difficult it will be for the victim’s family to find a credible former law enforcement officer to testify on their behalf. I also wonder whether inadequate or nonexistent expert testimony will negate a just outcome. I wonder, too, whether a bad police officer will stay on the job and possibly do more damage, both to his colleagues and to the public, because of the failure of a defendant to build the best possible case.
The blue wall of silence, like any structure built on distrust, is one that needs to come down.
Philip Hayden is affiliated with Eagle Security Group in Fredericksburg and Arlington, Virginia. He is also a retired supervisory special agent with the FBI, a law enforcement consultant and a court-certified expert witness in police procedures, the use of force, tactics training, investigative techniques and mental mindset during high-risk situations.