In 2013, a young woman named Witlee Ethan began dating a police officer. Nothing strange in this. He seemed like a stand-up example of his work -- he was charming and attentive. But the relationship ended almost as quickly as it began.
In the short period between April and June, the man shifted from charming and attentive to controlling and unpredictable. At one point, he began sending Witlee photos of body parts, apparently stored at the crime unit in which he worked. “He would go from Jekyll to Hyde within moments…” comments Witlee, “...when I went to break up with him [...] he got angry; he pushed me back in a corner of his house forcing me into a police hold ... and sprained my wrist.”
Going to the hospital, she was refused care by medical staff. This was partly due to orders issued by the police staff who responded to the domestic violence call. Witlee filed all the official medical documents confirming she had been a victim of domestic violence. But this was not enough.
The police refused to question her boyfriend, the attacker, and used the fact that he had morning duty as the rationale. “He was protected,” says Witlee, “and had privileges” outside the law because of the “blue code of silence.”
What is the “blue code”, though?
Within the law enforcement system, naturally, loyalty exists. This blue code or code of silence, can be a strong positive bond of friendship if an officer has the integrity the community expects and demands of him But the “code” is necessarily flawed: it applies to human beings, the same as any human being on the street. If the law is above the law -- where is the accountability? If a police officer is crooked, and the blue code exists, how can cases like Witlee’s not fall through the cracks? More pertinently, how can women (or men or children) like Witlee not end up as casualties of a flawed system?
This seems to be the key takeaway -- that idea that I’d like to leave my readers with -- as I listen to Witlee detail the pain and fallout of her collision with a crooked cop, and the system that has protected him, and driven her into hiding.
She tells me when she demanded to make a report and have an order of protection served, she was told, “We don't serve on our own!" "You're crossing a line!" “You're ruining his life and he didn't even do anything wrong" and even, “You're now an enemy of the police!"
Eventually they served it [the Order of Protection], but she had to call 911 multiple times. She was, at one point, finally advised to talk to the female lieutenant. But the woman also sided with the men in her department, and they held to the “blue code.”
“If they [the police] won’t serve it,” the 911 operator said, “I can’t do anything to make them; they’re above me.”
So what are we to do? And is Witlee an outlier, or an example of a much larger cohort, easily at risk for abuse by law enforcement officials who may choose to ignore the law they’re meant to protect?
While most law enforcement professionals are men and women of integrity, it cannot be emphasized enough that if the system protects them -- and those without integrity -- from the law, it is a broken system. It leads to abuse. Witlee is not the only one who suffers in this scenario. Good men and women police officers are also trapped by the expectation that they “protect their own,” like the 911 operator.
Witlee suggests people in their own states look into police records and newspaper reports, although she says it often hard to find evidence of this kind of abuse. In fact, the public often are barred from reports of law enforcement abuse. “Contact your representatives,” she says, “Ask that new laws and an outside accountability source be instated” so that the blue code of silence no longer has the power to make the law a bludgeon against the weak. The law should protect the vulnerable; not the powerful. And the best cops would agree with this.
For more information on Witlee’s story, you can access her website and blog at: http://liveeachdaywithpurpose.com/
For more resources and information on police accountability, and advocating against police brutality and the “code of silence”--
Politico’s Report on this issue:
The Marshall Project:
Mass Action Against Police Brutality: