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Of Rats and Whistleblowers

Posted  March 20, 2014

By Gordon Schnell

We have made some progress in how we feel about whistleblowers.  Unfortunately, that old school-yard “nobody likes a snitch” mentality still remains firmly entrenched in our collective psyche, even among the group singularly tasked with serving and protecting us — the NYPD.  Look no further than the emerging story of now retired NYPD Detective James Griffin.  He was ostracized and ultimately run out of his job by his colleagues after refusing to take the fall for another cop’s serious missteps during a homicide investigation.  He reported the misconduct to the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) instead, just as he was supposed to do.  That is why the IAB exists; to investigate and root out this precise kind of police misbehavior.

But where it gets really bad is that Griffin’s persecution for doing the right thing did not end with his fellow bluecoats.  Apparently, it rose to the very top of the force to include the senior officer who now runs the IAB.  Recently released court documents allege that the NYPD’s newly anointed IAB top dog, Assistant Chief Joe Reznick, actively participated in the Griffin witch-hunt, going so far as to brand him with the dreaded “rat” label for reaching out to the IAB in the first place.

Reznick is supposed to be the NYPD’s leading champion for whistleblowers.  The success of his entire office depends on whistleblowers like Griffin stepping forward when they see police officers behaving badly.  But even he it seems cannot escape the deep-rooted mistrust and distaste for whistleblowers that still infects so many.  Sadly, this is just the most recent example of the innate aversion towards whistleblowers among New York’s finest.

In 2009, Officer Adrian Schoolcraft was harassed after bringing to NYPD investigators taped conversations revealing police abuses and corruption.  Not only was his job threatened.  In a plot twist that would have been far-fetched even for an episode of Law & Order, he was allegedly abducted from his home by an Emergency Service Unit and forcibly admitted to a psychiatric ward where he languished for several days. Schoolcraft’s tapes sparked an investigation, ordered by then Commissioner Ray Kelly, which exposed even more incidents of deliberately concealed abuse by the 81st precinct in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Having served in the same precinct decades before, famed NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico has jumped to Schoolcraft’s defense and joined forces with Schoolcraft’s legal team in his $50 million lawsuit against the Department.  Serpico is also taking aim at Reznick for his handling of the whole Griffin ordeal.  For those who haven’t seen the movie, Serpico exposed police corruption in the 1970s, leading to the creation of the Knapp Commission and the massive NYPD house cleaning that followed.  For his good effort, Serpico was shot in the face during a drug raid in what many have concluded was a set-up by his colleagues.  While recovering in the hospital, in lieu of flowers and Hallmark well-wishes, he received menacing threats such as “With sincere sympathy…that you didn’t get your brains blown out, you rat bastard.”

This negative perception of whistleblowers extends well beyond the inner circles of the NYPD.  Merriam-Webster and Thesaurus.com present what is perhaps the clearest example of how pervasive the problem is.  With over 90 million monthly visitors, these online publications are the two leading resources for everything word related.  Of the thirty synonyms they provide to describe “whistleblower,” the vast majority are deeply derogatory and paint whistleblowers as dishonest, disloyal and driven by unsavory motives.  Here is just a sampling: Betrayer; Bigmouth; Busybody; Fat Mouth; Fink; Gossip; Rat; Rumormonger; Snitch; Squealer; Stool Pigeon; Tattletale; and Troublemaker.

It is no wonder that whistleblower retaliation remains such a problem both inside and outside the precinct.  So if we really want the much ballyhooed “If you see something, say something” mantra to be more than just an empty slogan.  And in this post-9/11, post-Madoff world, it is certainly fair to say that most of us do.  Then it is high time to change the way we think and speak about whistleblowers.  Assistant Chief Reznick, and his boss, the legendary NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, both of whom have remained disturbingly silent through this latest whistleblower saga, should be among those leading the charge.