Law enforcement agencies working to find balance in 'thin blue line'

Honor vs. loyalty

Robert Crystal fears for his son.

Two years after Joseph Crystal found a dead rat on his car, he lives in fear of retaliation.

The Baltimore City police officer says he was harassed by co-workers after becoming a witness in a criminal case against other cops.

Robert Crystal said that while the investigation is ongoing, nothing has been done. Joseph Crystal is still on the force, while his father has become his personal spokesman.

“He can’t talk, so I am getting his story out,” Robert Crystal said. “Nobody deserves to be threatened at work.”

Across the region, police agencies say they don’t tolerate harassment among officers, though there’s no cut and dried solution.

“When talking about a general conduct violation, each one is different,” said Maj. Christopher Swain, commander for the bureau of professional responsibilities at the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

Neal Rossow, a Michigan-based police trainer who has taught ethics to police recruits to various agencies across the country, said what Crystal is allegedly experiencing is not uncommon.

“I think it occurs everywhere, and I think it is a challenge in our profession,” said Rossow, chief of the Flat Rock (Mich.) police department. “Loyalty is a huge value in our profession—it’s a belief that binds us. But when it comes to a decision between honor and loyalty, honor should always prevail.”

“And we just don’t seem to be able to get there,” he said.

The harassment Robert Crystal says his son is experiencing stems from a 2011 drug arrest, which ended with an off-duty police officer beating a suspect. That officer was convicted of assault and obstruction of justice, while another was convicted of misconduct.

Crystal believes his son was retaliated against because he talked to prosecutors.

Local police agencies have different ways of addressing harassment complaints.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has strict policies on sexual harassment and discrimination, and all recruits receive extensive training for them. Incidents of workplace bullying and other general harassment would be in violation of the department’s code of conduct.

In Howard County, they’re investigated by the department’s internal affairs division, as well as the county government’s human resources and law offices.

In Baltimore County, which handled 14 complaints of co-worker harassment over the last three
years, complaints also go to the internal affairs division. But other times, the officer might file a
complaint directly with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and not go through the department at all, spokeswoman Elise Armacost said.

Armacost said the department “works hard to create and maintain a culture that is intolerant of
workplace harassment.”

Anne Arundel County Police Capt. Ross Passman said investigations are a rare occurrence. In the last three years, his department has investigated seven complaints filed with its internal affairs division.

When large harassment cases do happen, they immediately go to internal affairs and a full investigation is launched.

"We take it seriously- we do everything from interviewing witness to gathering information," Passman said.

Passman said the outcome of the investigation could include everything from conflict resolution to classes and mediation.

Officials with the Baltimore City Police Department said they are still looking into the number of harassment complaints they have received from officers.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts released a statement last month on the Crystal case, saying the department is fully behind him and any other officer who reports corruption or wrongdoing.

“We will not tolerate corruption, wrongdoing, or erosion of the public trust,” Batts said in the statement.  “Any officer, or group of officers found to be engaged in conduct that is illegal will be charged, and with the cooperation of the State's Attorney's office, prosecuted to the fullest extent possible.”

A gray area

Betsy Smith, a police trainer who has written about co-worker bullying in law enforcement journals, said officers usually receive extensive training on harassment, particularly when it’s race- or gender-based.

Incidents like those Crystal says he faces fall into a gray area, Smith said.

“A lot of the time, department rules and regulations haven’t kept up with this kind of harassment,” said Smith, who retired in 2009 as a sergeant in the police department in Naperville, Ill. after 29 years. “We’re not really watching this.”

One exception is the police department in Palisades Park, N.J.

The borough council there will move to adopt several ordinances, including adding a workplace
harassment policy to the police department’s manual and banning officers from recording conversations with each other. Anyone found recording conversations could face disciplinary actions, including suspensions or termination.

Police Chief Benjamin Ramos said nothing in particular prompted the policies.

“We’re trying to keep up with different policies, trends, and our policies

were really outdated,” Ramos said.

Smith said some of what’s playing out in Baltimore could be because police officers – especially ones who joined the force decades ago—are told never to sell out another officer.

“Years ago, we used to call it the thin blue line,” Smith said. “You never turn against one of your own. That’s something we were all taught as police officers.”

Years later, there has been a cultural shift. For example, an officer might not have any qualms about giving another officer a speeding ticket, or citing him or her for driving under the influence. But it’s still complicated.

The case in Baltimore raises numerous questions, Smith said. Was Crystal trying to better the
department with his testimony? Were most police officers behind the officers on trial?

Chris Jones, a law enforcement trainer and retired sergeant with the Houston Police Department, said officers are more willing these days to speak up or take action if they think a fellow officer is behaving badly.

Sometimes it has major repercussions.

Last month, a Miami police officer filed a lawsuit against more than 100 other officers, whom she claimed harassed her after she pulled over another cop who was speeding.

How Crystal is perceived by the rest of the department likely also has played a role, said Jones, who spent several years reviewing internal affairs complaints.

“Some of it has to do with how popular the officer is who got in trouble,” Jones said. “And some of it has to do with how the misconduct case was perceived.” 

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