It wasn’t the dead rat on the windshield of his car. It wasn’t the mocking offers of cheese. It wasn’t the shunning. His only regret — the one consequence of reporting outrageous misconduct by a fellow officer that troubled Joe Crystal the most — was that it pulled him away from his mother as she faced a losing battle with cancer.
Crystal was an accomplished Baltimore police detective. His mother, Madeline, was a former New York City police officer. She lived in New Jersey. When, as Crystal puts it, “my situation happened,” he ended up in Florida, having to restart his career in law enforcement. The move made it hundreds of miles more difficult for Crystal to visit his mother after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I’ve never regretted this,” Crystal says about his decision in 2011 to report an officer who had brutalized a suspect. "But there came a time when my mom died, and I had mixed feelings — not [about whether] I had made the right decision, but [because] I had missed out on time with my mom that I could have had, if I hadn’t moved. You know, instead of being two hours away by car, I was two flights away [in Florida].
“It’s not a second guessing of whether I would have [reported misconduct]. That’s my personality; I’m built that way. But this is something I missed out on.”
His mother died in March 2019.
Of course, Crystal had no way of knowing the future, or what would happen to him for being a whistleblower, though he had been warned.
One night in October 2011, Crystal, a sergeant and another officer were in an unmarked car in East Baltimore when they spotted a man toss a bag of what they suspected to be drugs over a fence. The officers chased the man and found him hiding in a house on Prentiss Place off N. Patterson Park Ave. The suspect surrendered. The officers handcuffed him. A police van took him away.
But then an off-duty officer, Anthony Williams, showed up and spoke to the sergeant. The van came back to the scene of the arrest. The suspect was led out of the van and back into the house. Crystal told BuzzFeed News in 2015 that he did not understand what was happening “until he heard banging, crashing, guttural grunts and shouts.”
Williams was there to beat the suspect, Antoine Green, who had apparently picked the wrong house to bust into to evade police. “[Crystal] heard the beating go on for minutes,” BuzzFeed reported. “He watched Williams drag Green back out of the house. Green’s shirt and jeans were torn and he was limping. Later, Crystal learned that Green’s ankle had been broken. He learned that the woman who lived in this house was a girlfriend of Williams.'”
Crystal’s decision to blow the whistle on Williams, who was later convicted of assault, changed his life. After it became known that he had reported the incident to prosecutors, he was harassed as a snitch. When he found a rat on the windshield of his car outside his home, Crystal decided to resign and look for a job elsewhere.
He landed with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a unit in Miami investigating guns, drugs and gangs. He’s already received commendations.
Crystal sued Baltimore for not protecting him from retaliation. He later settled the lawsuit and signed a nondisclosure agreement. So, when we spoke recently, it was not about the “situation” that changed his life, but about what happened before and after that. To some of his colleagues in blue, Crystal will always be the “rat cop.” But to many others, he’s a stand-up guy celebrated in a frequently-posted Facebook meme about good cops.
Crystal had gone through the police academy in 2009. Did he ever have ethics training? Ever have a class in peer intervention?
“To be honest, I know there must have been, I don’t remember specifics,” he said. “It wasn’t something they heavily focused on.”
I asked Crystal about that because, after the Gun Trace Task Force corruption scandal and, with the Baltimore Police Department instituting reforms under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, it would seem appropriate to train officers specifically in ethical conduct and not assume they all know right from wrong.
But, of course, the cops have to be open to the lesson, and they don’t appear to be. Consider, as a fresh example, the pathetic level of officer participation in an anonymous survey to determine how they feel about corruption and the handling of disciplinary matters within the department.
Fewer than 10% of officers answered questions posed by the Commission to Restore Trust in Policing, also known as the GTTF commission. The police union refused to participate in the survey, and claimed in a tweet Tuesday morning that its members “don’t trust [Police Commissioner Michael Harrison] and the upper command.” And isn’t that just dandy?
What little was gleaned from the survey included this: Cops don’t want to end up like Joe Crystal. They’ll report misconduct if they see it, but fear retaliation.
Which is why Harrison is instituting a peer intervention program known as EPIC. That stands for Ethical Policing is Courageous; it was established in New Orleans when Harrison was there as police superintendent. It’s about training officers and supervisors to identify danger signs and intervene to keep a colleague from ethical breaches. It’s police policing themselves. “The goal is to change the culture without fear of retaliation,” Harrison says.
“It’s fundamental to a culture change,” adds Danny Murphy, also from New Orleans, and Harrison’s deputy for consent decree compliance. “It’s making sure we’re stepping in to do the right thing to prevent misconduct or complaints of excessive force.”
It’s meant to keep stand-up guys like Joe Crystal from feeling they have to move a thousand miles away if they report misconduct.
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EPIC training in Baltimore starts in November, and better late than never.