‘Stop Snitchin’ Culture Plagues Law Enforcement

Police Blue

By Jeff Adachi

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.

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.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender. He hosts a monthly television forum on criminal justice issues at sfjusticematters.com


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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15 thoughts on “‘Stop Snitchin’ Culture Plagues Law Enforcement”

  1. Tia Will

    In fact, lying in court to avoid being ostracized by peers is so common, police even have a name for it: “testilying.”

    only a handful of officers have been criminally prosecuted, and only one — Furminger — sentenced to prison.”

    How ironic if Mr. Adachi believes that the best way to end the practice of lying to protect one’s colleagues or to avert one’s gaze is to toughen the penalties for doing so.

    During my 30 years in medicine, we have had to take on directly the issue of lying, denying and covering up errors and bad practices. When I trained, there was a virtual code of silence. While it is true for doctors ( as I am sure it is for police) most individuals are diligent, hard working and truly devoted to the best practices of their profession, there are always a few who do not meet this standard. The common practice used to be for others to pick up the slack, hide the mistakes and basically hope that nothing terrible happened. Over time, a different approach has been adopted, at least within my system. The focus has shifted from pointing a finger of blame, to evaluating the system within which a bad outcome has occurred and addressing in a systematic fashion how to improve that process. Did the bad outcome occur because the surgeon lacked the skill ? Perhaps all that is needed is retraining. Did it happen because the surgeon does not do enough of these kinds of cases ? Either provide more cases to strengthen experience or restrict the surgeons practice to areas of demonstrated competency. Did it happen because the surgeon showed up drunk ? Provide mandatory rehabilitative services or suspend license. Or maybe the bad outcome wasn’t the fault of the surgeon at all, maybe some other factor was overlooked, such as a lab discrepancy or the absence of a needed piece of equipment. Then the solution is to solve the systems problem.

    What is never the solution is to simply cover up the problem. But this means that those who might potentially come forward with observations or solutions must have confidence that their willingness to come forward will not result in personal harm or punishment. The phrase who knew what and when is in itself somewhat intimidating. What if you have known for two years that another officer was breaking the law ? If you only now come forward, even if you know it is the right thing to do, what will happen ? Will you lose your job ? Will your back up fail to show up when you are in danger ? Will you end up jailed for your previous silence ? This requires a change in philosophy which may be extremely hard for police, seemingly focused on a “good guys vs bad guys” philosophy ( in their own words, not mine) from an ideology based on catch and punish, to one of safety and protection .

    What I see as needed is a willingness on the part of the police to admit that internal cover ups are a problem for them as well as for the entire society and for our society to be willing to take some of the burden off of the individual police departments by not calling for an “off with their heads” approach, but perhaps by an insistence that our policing not be based on intimidation and secrecy but rather by transparency, honesty, examination of systems and external review all of which have led in my opinion to much improved performance within the medical profession.

    1. Davis Progressive

      the problem that adachi lays out is a broken system.  there are disincentives to speak out against fellow officers, disincentives for the police command to deal with problems, limited oversight and almost no transparency.  but that system relies on consequences for bad behavior.

      1. PhilColeman

        I would be very interested of how you have concluded command officers lack incentive to deal with the problems identified, or any others. Also, why is the oversight limited? Who or what limits what is presumably a higher level of attainment.

    2. Miwok

      Having served in the University of California system for over 20 years I can say they always cover up to the highest levels, no matter how low it goes. The ignorance and corruption is the most discouraging thing there. I recently had a conversation with a relatively new accountant who has the attitude that her way is best, no matter what the policy says.

    3. TrueBlueDevil

      This has to be a tough problem, especially because the “thin blue line” rightly sees their job as often life or death, and they form very close bonds. I wonder about the same oversight for the “quack doctors” who dispense bogus “medical marijuana” cards to teenagers without a real medical reason or proper evaluation, or prescription drug addicts who aren’t forthright with their doctors.

      How do we monitor those with special jobs or authority?

      1. Tia Will


        I think that you are asking a good question. Oversight over egregious prescribing practices in much easier to achieve in a large integrated system than it is for individual practitioners. Without specific complaints this is virtually impossible for the medical licensing board to monitor.

        1. TrueBlueDevil

          Isn’t there a way to flag or track a doctor who writes 10 or 20 “medical marijuana” scrips a day?

          I have first-hand knowledge of a a teenager who is on a medication for one legitimate issue, then 2 kinds of mood meds, plus eats poorly (Rockstar, fast food, etc.),… and then on top of this got a script for pot. She went in and complained about a “back pain ” or “period pain”, and he wrote the prescription without knowing all of the other complicating issues. He did no physical, he didn’t have her medical background or medical records, he didn’t call her primary physician. Plus these kids swap their prescribed meds as they decide to play doctor themselves at 17 or 19.

          I don’t know how many kids do this, but it’s not rare. Is it 2%, 5%, 7%?

          Wouldn’t a simple way to check on these “quack docs” be to simple pull those that advertise online, or in local papers, as prescribing “medical marijuana” for a bargain price, and then send in decoys?

          We send in underage kids or those without proper IDs to liquor stores.

          1. David Greenwald

            What you’re seeing is the consequence for the semi-legal status of medical marijuana. Rather than actually allowing it to be a prescription under the medical profession, they have put it into this weird category where it is neither legal nor illegal and therefore not regulated.

  2. David Greenwald

    Seven of the officers involved in the text message issue in SF are facing termination now.

    San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said a captain is among seven officers who have been suspended and face being fired for trading bigoted text messages with a convicted former police sergeant.

    “Their conduct is incompatible with that of a police officer and I believe causes them to fall below the minimum qualifications required,” Suhr told reporters today.

    link: http://ww2.kqed.org/news/2015/04/03/sfpd-suspends-eight-officers-in-text-messaging-scandal

    1. David Greenwald

      The difference being that you expect police officers to conduct themselves differently from the people they are attempting to enforce laws upon.

  3. Frankly

    The converse of the “stop snitchen” culture is the “everyone feels empowered to complain about everything and everyone they don’t like” culture.  I wish I had more confidence in the average employee to intelligently and  objectively assess situations worthy of snitching and those that are not.

    Do we want a snitching culture?  I don’t think so.

    1. Davis Progressive

      a lot of the reports i read about police oversight is that police officers will not come forward to speak against their fellow officers and the chain of command rarely disciplines serious cases of misconduct.  so i think the problem isn’t that we need a snitching culture more than we need a culture where people are willing to speak out against fellow officers when lines are crossed without fear of reprisal.

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