Law Enforcement Whistleblowers and their Protections
Law enforcement officers at the federal, state and local level have recently generated increased scrutiny for allegedly violating the civil rights of protestors and other citizens in Portland, Seattle and other cities. These violations include:
- Searching or arresting people who aren’t engaging in illegal activity
- Targeting journalists and other legal observers
- Using force disproportionately
- Making arrests outside their jurisdiction
If you are a law enforcement officer or other government employee who has witnessed police officers committing one or more of these violations, you may want to report the activity but fear doing so will endanger your job, work relationships or career. Know that you have options: whistleblower laws protect you against retaliation for reporting these incidents.
In particular, 42 U.S.C. §1983, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, protects whistleblowers from retaliation by public officials for disclosing constitutional violations, including police brutality, to the press, a city council and other public bodies. Section 1983 is one of the most powerful whistleblower laws, providing the right to a jury trial, injunctive relief, and all economic damages, including compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Blowing the Whistle Safely
In order to gain these protections, however, it is vitally important that you take some precautionary steps. Here is some practical guidance to help you do the right thing while keeping yourself safe:
Avoid internal reporting channels. Turning to the internal affairs or compliance department of your employer may seem like the logical first step to reporting violations, but such channels can be dangerous for whistleblowers. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that most internal disclosures of wrongdoing are not protected by the Constitution and section 1983. Moreover, employers often promise to protect anonymity or confidentiality but fail to do so. Remember that internal reporting channels exist to benefit the agency, not the whistleblower.
Do not use your employer’s technology. Using employer-issued computers and telephones to communicate about wrongdoing means that you are leaving all of those communications subject to monitoring by your employer. If your employer is committing to protecting the wrongdoer, providing your information directly to your employer would be a mistake.
Contact a knowledgeable civil rights or whistleblower lawyer. Because courts have taken differing positions on how a police officer or law enforcement official can blow the whistle, and to whom. Moreover, protections can differ depending on whether you bring a complaint against an officer directly, against an agency, or against a federal entity. Potential whistleblowers should therefore contact a knowledgeable whistleblower or civil right attorney before making any disclosures. Qualified attorneys understand the law and will help you build the strongest case. Whistleblowers can find qualified attorneys with no upfront cost, and with the obligation to pay the attorney’s fee only if they receive a reward from the government. Before you make a report about police brutality, always contact a knowledgeable lawyer first.
The National Whistleblower Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers in their efforts to expose and help prosecute corruption and other wrongdoing. We do this by educating whistleblowers about their rights under law, assisting in finding them legal assistance and providing support during high-impact whistleblower litigation. To learn more about NWC’s Legal Assistance Program and how we assist whistleblowers, please visit our Find an Attorney page here.