“You have the right to remain silent!”
This is the beginning phrase from the warning a criminal suspect usually hears when they are being read their Miranda rights from a member of law enforcement, and prior to them saying anything that could harm them in any way and lead to a self-incriminating result.
For many current and former Houston Police Department (HPD) officers, many believe that they have had to work in an environment where they have been the victim of a work environment built upon a foundation of retaliation and an unwritten “code of silence” that has proven problematic for them.
HPD RETALIATION RULING
For the second time in one year, a federal jury has determined that the Houston Police Department (HPD) retaliated against one of their own.
After more than three weeks of testimony and jury deliberation, HPD Officer Christopher Zamora was awarded $150,000 for compensatory damages which include emotional distress and damage to his professional reputation and standing in the law enforcement community. On December 2012, another federal jury also ruled in favor of Officer Zamora against HPD for the same allegations, but a U.S. Supreme Court ruling necessitated a new trial.
Officer Zamora is the son of a retired HPD Lieutenant who, along with 23 other Hispanic police officers, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination within HPD against Hispanics in the promotions process.
According to the jury ruling, Officer Chris Zamora, who was not involved in the original case, was subjected to a hostile work environment and labeled “UNTRUTHFUL” by the HPD Internal Affairs Division and HPD command staff. Meanwhile, during the five-year pendency of the federal lawsuit against HPD, Officer Chris Zamora received the 2008 South Patrol Officer of the Year Award within HPD and was also named Officer of the Year by “The 100 Club,” a popular non-profit organization that supports families of officers killed in the line of duty.
“I am proud that Officer Chris Zamora’s name has finally been cleared,” said Kim Ogg, Zamora’s attorney. “Chris Zamora was wrongfully branded a ‘liar’ when his father and he broke the “code of silence” by speaking out against must change and the ‘good old boy’ system of turning a blind eye to wrongdoing within must stop now.”
BLUE CODE OF SILENCE
The Blue Code of Silence is an unwritten rule among police officers in the U.S. not to report on the errors, misconducts or crimes of one of their fellow officers. According to the unwritten code, if an officer is questioned about an incident of misconduct involving another officer, the officer being questioned will claim to be unaware of another officer’s wrongdoing.
The term “whistleblower” comes to mind, when being used to describe someone who breaks the unwritten blue code, similar to a referee blowing their whistle to indicate an illegal or foul play. Federal laws strongly prohibit officer misconduct, including officers who follow the blue code by neglecting to report any officer who is participating in corruption. If an officer is in violation of any of the officer misconduct federal laws, only the federal government can issue a suit. The police department is only responsible for preventing corruption among officers.
If an officer is convicted, they may be forced to pay high fines or be imprisoned. To be convicted, however, the plaintiffs must prove that the officer was following the blue code or was participating in negligent and unlawful conduct. It is often hard to convict an officer of following the blue code or other forms of corruption because officers are protected by defense of immunity, which is an exemption from penalties and burdens that the law generally places on regular citizens.
Many officers fail to challenge the blue code, because doing so could mean they are challenging long-standing traditions and feelings of brotherhood within the law enforcement family. “They are blackballing good police officers to cover up discrimination,” said long-time community activist Johnny Mata. “Instead of addressing claims of discrimination by police officers fairly, HPD retaliates and we have noticed a pattern of Internal Affairs Division sham investigations ultimately used to compromise the complaining officers’ credibility.”
One of the other primary reasons that officers choose to follow the blue code and keep their mouths shut, is because they fear facing the consequences that come as a result of it; such as being shunned, losing friends, losing back-up, receiving threats, having one’s own misconduct exposed and more importantly, being terminated.
Being shunned, receiving threats and being terminated are attributes of breaking the blue code of silence that former HPD Officer Katherine Swilley knows all too well.
Katherine Swilley was a well-respected and dedicated HPD officer, who served the City of Houston for over 20+ years. Swilley received numerous “Outstanding” performance ratings and commendations from the public, her superiors and from two City of Houston Mayors. Her star was definitely on the rise.
Swilley was also an outstanding public citizen and public servant. Swilley started a nonprofit organization in 2000 called “Texas Cops & Kids”-Cops Giving Kids Quality Time...Not Jail Time. Using most of her own funds to support the program, Swilley started the juvenile delinquency prevention program based on the concerns she had with the lack of options that disadvantaged youth had in some of Houston’s poorest neighborhoods.
Swilley’s community service work led to City of Houston Mayor Bill White awarding her with the City of Houston’s prestigious Bravo Award in September 2005. Upon receipt of this prestigious award, she was both publicly and privately praised by her supervisors.
As a matter of fact, the City of Houston’s Bravo Award website still lists her accomplishment, as well as lists statements from her supervisors stating that “she is an incredible person with a true passion and mission in life.” In addition, the Mayor’s office extended a public “thank you” to Swilley “for being another example of what makes Houston Police Officers so special.”
After receiving the Bravo Award, Police Chief Harold Hurtt reassigned Swilley to the Public Affairs Division on special assignment in May 2006 to initiate his “Kids at Hope Program.” This is when Swilley says everything changed and went downhill for her at HPD.
In 2008, Swilley’s problems began when she reported what she believed was discrimination within the Houston Police Department’s Public Affairs Division, due to her supervisors’ lack of support for the inner city delinquency prevention program that served at risk youth. Swilley filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and she states that as soon as that happened, HPD opened up a criminal investigation on her for misappropriating funds with her non-profit; none of which was ever proven.
Swilley states that she was unlawfully retaliated against and terminated in March 2008, in direct connection to her filing an EEOC complaint, and after she revoked her willingness to be bound by a “Last-Chance” Compromise Waiver Agreement that required her to vacate and relinquish the rights guaranteed to her by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was unlawful retaliation.
Swilley states that officers who report police misconduct find themselves being investigated by HPD’s Internal Affairs Division on unsubstantiated allegations and trumped-up charges of untruthfulness and/or insubordination, and required to take some sort of deal in order to save their jobs.
She states that these deals include taking mental fitness tests and/ or program for officers with discipline problems, forced medical retirements and/ or sign “Last Chance” compromise waiver agreements to accept a lesser discipline and drop any and all discrimination complaints they may have filed with EEOC. “I did nothing wrong, so there was no need for me to sign anything” says Swilley. “Officers who refuse to accept these deals are terminated and removed from their careers in law enforcement followed by erroneous dishonorable discharges based on bogus charges, ending their law enforcement careers.”
Swilley states that she never would have imagined in a million years being framed on a baseless criminal investigation, as well as being bullied and forced out of a police career that she loved and was committed to for over 20 years. According to HPD Internal Affairs documents received by the Houston Forward Times, Swilley is shown to have been terminated based on the initial charges of “UNTRUTHFULNESS,” which is the same thing that prompted the lawsuit from Officer Christopher Zamora. Other documents reveal irrefutable evidence that the ‘UNTRUTFULNESS” charges related to Swilley’s termination letter were proven untrue and that Swilley received an improper dishonorable discharge. There are affidavits and documents from HPD Internal Affairs investigators that clearly state that they have no evidence or proof that Swilley committed any crime or deserved to be terminated.
FEAR OF HER LIFE
Swilley admits that she has been in fear for her life and simply wants HPD to do the right thing.
“For two years, I was under a protective order and ordered not to discuss my case, while atrocious lies were spread throughout the police department and the community about me,” says Swilley. “I have had my integrity and credibility attacked and I have even been threatened with dead animals on my yard and phone calls.”
Swilley says that she has been subjected to the harassment of having officers show up at her home, claiming that they were responding to alarm calls or calls for help at her home. She says that suspicious vehicles have been parked in front of her home; dead animals have been found in her yard, including a dead opossum in front of her home with its throat cut; her computer has been hacked; and random vehicles have driven by and fired shots in front of her home.
She goes further to say that since she filed complaints, the threats have escalated, with someone ringing her doorbell in the middle of the night and someone writing the words “F@#$ Y@%” with the “F” shaped as a Swastika sign on the sidewalk in front of her home.
Like Officer Zamora, Swilley is simply seeking redemption and restitution. Since her termination and fight for redemption, she lost her husband to cancer and has spent well over $100k in legal fees in order to clear her husband’s name. “Swilley is my married name and my husband fought bravely for this country in the military,” said Swilley. “My husband has a good name and before he died, I promised him that I would continue to fight to clear the Swilley name from these lies. I will not rest until his name is cleared and my reputation is restored.”
Swilley states that she has spoken before Houston City Council and has not gotten any help or assistance with her case.
“I am innocent and the facts show I am innocent, says Swilley. “I have all the proof and all the evidence to clear my name, I just need someone at City Hall to help me.”
Swilley is requesting that HPD:
- Clear her name of “UNTRUTHFULNESS” charges
- Reinstate her with back pay
- Replace funds in her retirement account
- Remove all false charges in her personnel file related to her complaints of discrimination, including remove the dishonorable discharge from her police file
- Perform an investigation of all officers who have been terminated and received dishonorable discharges, after reporting discrimination
- Immediately halt the use of any and all “Last Chance” compromise waiver agreements requiring protected classes of victims, namely African Americans and Mexican and Latin Americans officers or any officers involved in any Title VII investigations to drop any and all complaints they may have with EEOC in order to save their jobs.
The Houston Forward Times will continue to follow this story and update our readers on Katherine Swilley’s fight to clear her name.