How the Blue Wall works: Police Officer James E. Griffin’s colleagues vandalized his locker, calling him a rat, after he reported a fellow officer for misconduct. Griffin was ostracized from his Department and his successful career was derailed. (Photo credit NY Times)
When the press tries to minimize high-profile police shootings, they talk about how the murderous cops are the exception rather than the rule, just a few “bad apples.” And while it is true that most police officers are not murderous, the bad apple expression is still just pretext. Referring to violent officers as “bad apples” ignores all the other officers who turn a blind eye to their partners’ misconduct, or worse, help hide their fellow officers’ abuses. This code of silence among cops to hide each other’s misconduct, described as “the Blue Wall,” all too frequently supports and emboldens the culture of police violence.
We watched an example of the Blue Wall unfold in Ohio recently, where University of Cincinnati Officer Ray Tensing fatally shot a motorist in the head over a minor traffic stop. Officer Tensing immediately justified the shooting by falsely claiming that he shot the driver because the car was dragging him. Two officers on scene lied to corroborate this false account. But the truth of the shooting—that Officer Tensing was never dragged by the car—was contained in Tensing’s body cam video, and to the Department’s credit, the Blue Wall officers who supported Tensing’s fiction are now under investigation.
Recall also the videotape that a passerby happened to make of the Walter Scott police shooting, when South Carolina police officer Michael Slager shot the fleeing Scott in the back. The officers at the scene did not know that the shooting was being videotaped, so when Slager called it in, he claimed that Scott stole his taser gun: the shooting was supposedly justified because the officer felt threatened. But what the video shows is that after Scott had been shot, Officer Slager’s partner dropped a taser gun by Scott’s side to falsely back up Slager’s account of why the shooting happened.
The Loevy Blog has written before about the Blue Wall Syndrome and the damage done when cops place their code of silence ahead of the truth. Although it never fails to shock me, one common tactic we at Loevy & Loevy uncover in a lot of our police shooting cases is officers planting a gun at the scene of a shooting in order to claim that the victim was threatening and that the shooting was therefore justified. In one of our cases, police practices expert Steven Greenberg explains that this tactic of planting a gun is indeed employed by the police with some regularity. In fact, according to Greenberg, some corrupt police officers keep what are known as “drop guns” with them or in their cars, just in case. These guns are small, devoid of fingerprints, untraceable, and are kept by the officers for the sole purpose of dropping at the scene of a police shooting in order to falsely support the shooting officer. This outrageous practice meshes with what Loevy & Loevy attorneys have learned through our investigations: we have spoken with countless individuals who have described how cops shake them down and threaten them with jail time unless they hand over a gun. These weapons become untraceable to the police and can be slipped into the officers’ car and planted on others as the need arises.
The Blue Wall is intense and undoing it will be no small task. Cops who try to speak out about their comrades’ wrongdoing complain of being ostracized, harassed, demoted or even framed themselves for false accusations. In a profession where an officer’s safety often relies on fellow officers having his or her back, alienating all of one’s colleagues is a daunting proposition.
So yes, Officer Slager and Officer Tensing are appallingly “bad apples,” for shooting unarmed, fleeing men for no valid reason. But when their fellow officers jumped in to plant a gun or fabricate a justification for the shooting, they undeniably became part of the problem. The Blue Wall of Silence culture is strong and longstanding. For real change to occur, the Blue Wall must come down: departments must protect the cops who do complain and not tolerate the code of silence.