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Prince George's Jail Murder: One Man's Snitch Is Another's Whistleblower

On the street, nobody knows anything, nobody's seen anything. Cops and prosecutors complain about it all the time: Somehow, right and wrong tumbled over each other and the no-snitching imperative took on the aura of morality.

But no one expects street thugs to have a finely tuned sense of ethical values. Law enforcement officers are another story. Those who are sworn and empowered to uphold the law have a special responsibility to set an example.

In Prince George's County, a police officer is dead because a thug demonstrated a sickening and total disregard for life. The 19-year-old who was accused of killing county police Cpl. Richard Findley is dead, too, apparently because someone with access to a solitary confinement cell sneered at the law and anointed himself the Black Hand.

Now, as the Maryland State Police try to determine what happened at the jail in Upper Marlboro, several correctional officers have declined to speak to investigators, and the county's public safety chief has had to order officers to cooperate.

Some example.

This is, of course, hardly shocking news. The Blue Wall, the vow of silence that binds law enforcement officers, is so strong that the few who feel compelled to inform on wayward colleagues become the stuff of Hollywood chronicles. Decades after Frank Serpico told authorities about widespread police bribery in New York, his name remains a curse word to many officers.

In a nationwide poll of police by the National Institute of Justice, 61 percent said officers "do not always report even serious violations by fellow officers," and 67 percent said whistle-blowers were likely to be "given a cold shoulder."

So why should bad guys and ordinary citizens pay heed when police and prosecutors lecture them about how it's their civic duty to come forward with information about crimes? If law enforcement officers won't think of themselves as righteous whistle-blowers rather than as rats or snitches, how can a system that depends on witness testimony possibly function?

"My sense as a prosecutor is that whenever you deal with any organization, there's a high likelihood of running into that kind of resistance," says Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, whose job it is to put together the case against whoever killed Findley's accused murderer, Ronnie White. Faced with officers who won't talk, Ivey says he uses the same tools he deploys against street thugs: "You find the little fish and try to flip them; you try to get the less culpable to testify against the more culpable in exchange for lighter punishment."

Prosecutors say there's an important distinction between why cops and citizens in high-crime areas don't talk.

On the street, "people don't talk because they really don't trust the police," says Alan Strasser, a Washington trial lawyer who was formerly chief of the felony division of the U.S. attorney's office in the District. "They sometimes see them as an occupying army. Or they're afraid of physical retaliation or at least some social retaliation, being ostracized, if they talk."

Law enforcement officers, in contrast, "feel they are fighting a battle against crime and they don't have the resources or support they need to do their job, and because of that, they face unique tensions," Strasser says. "As a result, a few of them feel they're entitled to a little slack, to do things that other people can't do."

Although there's often little prosecutors can do to persuade street witnesses to set aside their fears, there is another tool that works only on those in law enforcement, and that is the appeal to officers' deep belief in order and justice.

Ivey says appealing to officers' self-image as good guys can sometimes overcome the power of professional bonds, making officers feel that only by coming forward can they protect their own against the few who undermine the reputation of the many.

"With police officers, you have people who on average are more committed to the rule of law than a street thug," Strasser says. "Law enforcement does face higher standards, both as a legal matter and because it is right to expect more of them."

No one predicts a swift or easy resolution in Prince George's. The juxtaposition of a white police officer, Findley, and a black suspect, White, in a racially divided county only adds to the outside noise. And in the quiet of investigators' conversations with those who might know something, decades of rancor over police excesses exacerbate the tension between telling the truth and protecting colleagues.

In the TV version of life, cameras capture what we need to know about bad guys' behavior. But in reality, it's up to each of us to say when something has been done that breaks the social compact. Those who work in the jail are there not only to protect us from the violent people in those cells, but also to make certain we do not descend to the thugs' level.

Join me at a special time, 11:30 a.m., today for "Potomac Confidential"at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  July 3, 2008; 9:21 AM ET
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Comments

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Damn cops suck anyway. They are nothing more than thugs for the government. The 5 cops that are keeping their mouths shut deserve the death sentence. Friggin' cops, what a bunch of idiots!

Posted by: Mike | July 3, 2008 11:58 AM

Thanks for responding to my question during today's chat but you are wrong when you state that "correctional officers are every bit as much law enforcement as are police--they have different jobs, but both share the obligation to enforce the law." Maryland law defines "law enforcement officer" and "police officer" and correctional officers are not included within those definitions. COs have no law enforcement authority in Maryland. For instance, when detainees commit crimes in jail the police are called to investigate and file charges not COs.

Posted by: Laurel, MD | July 3, 2008 1:28 PM

In regard to the identity of "correctional officers" as cops, at least in the minds of cops, I know that someone who is a "correctional officer" can get for their relatives a FOP badge for their car in NJ. Such a badge, as openly confessed by the person telling the story, enabled her (the sister of a jail warden) to get out of NJ laws on such matters as illegal tinted windows (front windows are not supposed to be tinted such that the driver can't be seen, in order to enable speedtrap and redlight cameras to work and be legally enforceable against the driver, among other reasons).

Posted by: Allen Smith | July 3, 2008 8:09 PM

"several correctional officers have declined to speak to investigators"

I certainly wouldn't talk to investigators. Not unless I had a lawyer present. You can be sent to jail for lying to investigators, while not under oath, about something that isn't a crime anyway.

Posted by: wiredog | July 4, 2008 4:41 PM

First, Cpl. Richard Findley deserves better. May his name be honored and may he rest in peace. From reports, he gave so much to his community and now his name and the community he worked to clean up is shadowed by this heinous crime.

For the dirty SOB who swore an oath to uphold the law and then totally disregarded the "Rule of Law", may the Long Arm of the Law catch up with you. You can run but you cannot hide. Ever heard these before? Well, now they apply to you. What are the youth of today supposed to look up to when they see a uniformed member of law enforcement? You have done more to besmirch the name of Cpl. Richard Findley, as your selfish act of gratification casts its ugly shadow over the entire community of law enforcement.

Turn yourself in and face the consequences of your actions. Are you man enough to step up? Or will you cower in fear the rest of your life? You did the crime, now do the time.

Posted by: Upset in VA | July 7, 2008 8:14 AM

You kill a cop during the commission of a crime, you deserve to die. Simple as that. (Most states agree, as that's almost always enough for the death penalty enhancement). Mike, next time someone commits a crime against you, your family, or your property, I hope you think about what you wrote when the police arrive to help you. And Marc, this is not a race issue. Stop trying to make it out to be one.

Posted by: Jake | July 7, 2008 1:22 PM

How come the comments on this blog appear oldest-to-newest as you scroll down, but almost every other "comments" section on washingtonpost.com is the opposite? I hate that.

Posted by: Kevin | July 7, 2008 9:23 PM

When I first heard about this unfortunate prison cell accident, my initial thought "PG County's going old school"... it took me back to the glory days of the PG police in the 1970's. Nonetheless, I feel sorry for the poor prisoner, who according to WMAL radio host Chris Plante, may well have slammed himself hard enough against his metal bed to break his hyoid bone and cause his own death. Such a tragedy that he was able to commit suicide so close to those who would only have wanted to help him.

Regardless of what they are called, "correctional officers" are prison/jail guards. They correct nothing. Their responsibilities are to count, supervise, and look in places it would be indelicate to discuss. Again, what a shame about the young man's suicide.

Posted by: thepenismightier | July 19, 2008 5:19 AM

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