Omertà is an Italian code of honor that demands silence when questioned by authorities or outsiders; and willfully ignoring and generally avoiding interference with the illegal activities of others. The Business of Crime by Humbert S. Nelli
Among police officers in this country, the code has been “circle the wagons” and that has been supported in Honolulu by former SHOPO union president Tenari Maafala and current president Malcolm Lutu. Their line has been “don’t shame the officers by publicizing their names when they break the rules. It’s a tough job.”
Yes it is, but the times they are a-changing and if SHOPO can’t see that it is doomed to disrespect and irrelevance.
People are demanding public performance ratings inside police departments. No codes of silence. Honolulu’s chief Susan Ballard gets it. She says officers will be required to intervene if their beat partners are doing something wrong. “You’ve got to stop them,” she said recently.
That’s a hard sell if it also means reporting to the public that somebody just can’t seem to do the job right, who is abusive or rude or too quick to employ force rather than persuasion? Does a member of the brotherhood (few sisters) “rat them out”? Mostly, no.
News agencies are not going to use the name of an officer disciplined for getting donut crumbs or jelly on the seat of a patrol car. But they should have been told earlier that Derek Chavin, the Minneapolis cop charged with killing Floyd George, shot one suspect, was involved in the fatal shooting of another, and received 17 complaints during his nearly two decades with the department.
Police officers have long operated with impunity, says Dan Simon, professor of law and psychology at Gould School of Law, University of Southern California. “It’s a fundamental tenet of group behavior that there are strong norms of cohesion within the group. This is particularly so within a group that sees itself to be threatened or besieged by any sort of environmental situation. Cops feel like that. They very much trust their partners. They very much rely on their partners. Together, they perceive themselves doing a task they often feel is under-appreciated and overburdened.”
David Sklansky, professor of law at Stanford University, says there are more officers in 2020 than 50 years ago who see the flaws in the system and who are “horrified” by abuses of power. “Police departments have been changing and the surrounding culture has been changing,” Sklanksy says.
It’s rare enough for a police officer to be charged with a crime for actions in the line of duty, says Mary Fan, professor at the University of Washington School of Law. Getting an officer to testify against a colleague is “two levels above rare,” she says.
The National Police Foundation says “Even good people, placed in the wrong situation, will do the wrong thing. Bad supervision, intense peer pressure, and an organizational culture that sends unclear signals can cause honorable men and women to behave in dishonorable ways.”
Its most recent national survey found that a majority of African-American police officers believe that police treat whites better than they do African-Americans and other minorities, and that police are more likely to use physical force against minorities or the poor. Few white police officers, however, share these views.
We probably need more female officers, who seem better at employing de-escalation rather than force. The national figures on women officers are pretty discouraging:
Everyone could take a lesson from the Lynnwood, Wash., police department. It has a public website that details exactly what force its officers may use under which circumstances, from handcuffing to shooting. You know when an officer has violated one of those. It’s in writing and crystal clear detail.
SHOPO, our police union, should be supporting, not opposing, State House bill 285, which calls for disclosing offending officers’ names and allowing the release of misconduct records for all suspended officers for all offenses.
Pimping for secrecy will not bring about more public respect.