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More Police Are Willing To Break Code of Silence

N.Y.C. officer who came forward may be a hero - but still needs protective custody

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 1997



NEW YORK

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calls Eric Turetzky a hero. But instead of a ticker-tape parade, the officer and his family have been given "special protection" by New York's police.

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Officer Turetzky's feat? He followed the law. He provided the first, key evidence to support an allegation that rogue cops tortured and sexually assaulted a Haitian immigrant in a Brooklyn precinct house last week.

Turetzky said he was motivated by the horrendousness of the allegations. But that simple act of conscience could end up tarnishing his career - not with the brass, but with the beat cops.

In coming forward, Turetzky violated one of the most fundamental, informal rules of conduct in the close-knit police culture: He breached the so-called "blue wall of silence."

Hero or rat? Any cop who turns in one of his own knows he'll most likely be viewed as both. But many experts say that's beginning to change. The advent of tougher anticorruption enforcement, new technologies, and an increased emphasis on community policing are transforming police departments across the country. As a result, they say, the "blue wall" is being breached more often than in the past.

"One bad cop can bring discredit on a whole department," says Jim Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police in Washington. "Good officers are anxious to weed out the bad when they crop up."

In Turetzky's case, the charges against at least four officers are so egregious that he's being viewed primarily as a hero - even among cops. But he's also received threats.

"If he wasn't in jeopardy, if they didn't believe the perceived threat is real, he wouldn't be in protective custody," says Hubert Williams of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit Washington think tank.

The NYPD was riding high before the new allegations. Crime was dropping, along with formal civilian complaints about abuse. Although details about the case are still unfolding, experts are praising the department for its quick response - particularly since a deafening wall of silence is usually erected around officers accused of criminal conduct.

A circle-the-wagons mentality exists in most professions - from medicine to journalism. But Mr. Williams says it's more dramatic in law enforcement because police officers work in a more volatile environment. At 2 in the morning in a dark alley with a robbery in progress, they have few other people to rely on, other than cops.

"When officers are placed in physical jeopardy, they need to depend on each other, trust each other to provide backup," says Williams.

That creates strong bonds and family-like loyalty. But when an officer is corrupt or abusive, that loyalty can become detrimental, putting other officers in a bind. They can turn him or her in and be tainted as a "rat," or just quietly ignore the problem.

"One officer calls it more of a 'blue wall of reluctance,' " says Milton Mollen, former chairman of the Mollen Commission. In the early 1990s, the commission exposed rampant corruption in some high-crime precincts in New York and an atmosphere of official tolerance.

Detective Jeffrey Baird, a key figure in that investigation, charged he was harassed, threatened, and later denied promotions because he breached the blue wall. He filed suit under the city's whistleblower law last year.

But former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton gives much credit to Mr. Baird and other officers involved in the Mollen Commission probe for creating an atmosphere where corruption is no longer tolerated, at least officially.

The NYPD's anticorruption unit was overhauled. Officers now are allowed to report corruption anonymously. And the department gives its officers "integrity" tests randomly and routinely. As a result, officials say, officers are far more likely to report corruption than in the past.

"If there's a silver lining to this incident that's so egregious [in Brooklyn], it's that it will result in intense scrutiny of our policies and procedures on police brutality," says Mr. Bratton, now president of First Security Consulting, a security firm here.

Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Mayor Giuliani have sent clear messages that they will not tolerate abusive behavior by police, or silence. Commissioner Safir is threatening to fire any officer who doesn't cooperate fully.

POLICE departments from Pittsburgh to Miami have undergone similar traumas and reforms. Some were prompted by internal sting operations, others by changes in technology. The video camera brought the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles to light. Millions of citizens own video cameras, and thousands of police cars across the US now carry them. That changes the dynamic in a dark ally: If abuse occurs, it's now more likely to be recorded.

But criminologists say efforts by police departments around the country to become partners with the community in fighting crime, rather than adversaries, are also breaking the code of silence.

"Police don't want to be alienated from their communities. They want to be respected as professionals," says Williams. James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston agrees, adding that's all the more reason the blue wall should continue to fall.

"Whistleblowers who come forward need to feel admired, not detested," he says. "It's the only way the system can be freed of corruption, misconduct, and brutality."