The son of two NYPD cops, Joseph Crystal was put in charge of his police academy cadet class on day one.
“Being a cop was all I ever wanted to do,” Crystal said in an email interview with Photography is Not a Crime. “A dream come true.”
In November 2012, Detective Crystal found a dead rat placed under his car’s windshield wiper.
Three months earlier, Crystal came forward and told prosecutors he had observed a fellow officer brutally beating a man who had already been detained.
Crystal resigned from the Baltimore police force last August after two years of harassment from fellow officers and his own supervisors.
During an October 2011 arrest, officers chased a man suspected of carrying drugs and found him after he kicked in the back door of a woman’s house to hide. The woman called the police, and her boyfriend, an off-duty officer named Anthony Williams. After the police had already apprehended the suspect and put him in a van, the police drove the suspect back to the house when Williams arrived. The suspect was then dragged back into the house.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘What the hell?’” Crystal said. “I was baffled…I can hear the assault, I hear the banging. I hear the guy hit the floor. A couple minutes later, they bring the guy out, his shirt’s ripped, he’s having trouble standing. Later on, I found out his ankle was broken. It was obvious not just to any cop but to any person that saw it what had just transpired.”
When Crystal called his sergeant and explained what happened, the sergeant told Crystal, “If you snitch, your career is done. Nobody’s going to work with you.”
That sergeant was correct. Crystal met with prosecutors, and just days later a sergeant called him “a snitch” and left a hand-drawn picture of a rat and cheese on his desk. The officers in Crystal’s unit refused to ride with him, calling him a rat and a snitch to his face. On the streets when Crystal called for backup, twice nobody showed up. On one occasion Crystal’s supervisor called his cellphone and “gave him a direct order to return back to the district and that he would not be given backup.”
Crystal was also demoted from chasing drug kingpins and gun traffickers and working with the FBI. Instead, his security clearance was revoked, he was put on a midnight-shift burglary detail, and he was eventually told to clean out his office without any instruction of where to go. The day after Thanksgiving 2012, Crystal and his wife returned home to find a dead rat on the windshield of his car.
Crystal testified anyway, and Williams was convicted of assault and obstruction of justice for the incident. He was sentenced only to 45 days in jail even after telling the court he’d do it all over again. Williams no longer works for the Baltimore police department. A year and a half later, in June 2014, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts finally created a team of four investigators from outside Baltimore to conduct an investigation into who put the dead rat on Crystal’s car.
The abuse of Crystal continued unabated, as someone created a fake Twitter account in Crystal’s name and tweeted to reporters that he cheated on his wife. To combat a potential lawsuit, BPD initiated an investigation of Crystal using a police car to drive his wife home, and tried to convice Crystal to sign an agreement promising not to sue or speak out against the BPD in exchange for dropping their investigation. Crystal refused and resigned from the Baltimore Police Department in September.
On Dec. 22, he filed suit against Batts, his former supervisor Sgt. Robert Amador, and the BPD for $2.5 million. Crystal’s lawsuit contains pages worth of additional accounts of BPD’s attempted cover-ups and harassment of Crystal for telling the truth.
The story of Joe Crystal is bigger than Crystal himself, or even the Baltimore Police Department. The cover-up of crimes committed by police officers and banishment of officers with the integrity to stand up against criminal behavior has led to police departments across the country where every officer is viewed as a criminal or an accomplice. Crystal’s story is far from unique, and the weight of the multiple accounts of police cover-ups stacked together has created an atmosphere of extreme distrust of American law enforcement.
In Arkansas, a police officer was recently fired after reporting to his superiors that an “undercover” officer had sex with a prostitute and then arrested her. Don Paul Bales, formerly a sergeant for the Fort Smith Police Department, is now suing the department to get his job back after being fired for supposedly breaking eight department rules, including not being truthful, giving false testimony, revealing confidential information, releasing a confidential report and not respecting his superiors.
Bales had received an affidavit and a photo exposing his fellow officer’s conduct, and was fired after reporting the misconduct to his superiors and consulting with a lawyer to protect himself. The undercover officer, who claimed that his actions were “necessary to gather the proof needed to convict the person for violating the prostitution statute,” was not disciplined.
In October of 2009, Adrian Schoolcraft of the NYPD was involuntarily committed to a hospital by fellow officers, who handcuffed him tightly to a bed for six days and prevented him from using a telephone. Schoolcraft had recorded conversations inside his precinct that highlighted the department’s commitment to making arrests, regardless of whether they were justified, in order to fill a quota.
In one recording, precinct commander Steven Mauriello ordered a raid on a public street, saying, “Everybody goes. I don’t care. You’re on 120 Chauncey and they’re popping champagne? Yoke ’em. Put them through the system. They got bandanas on, arrest them. Everybody goes tonight. They’re underage? Fuck it. Bring ’em in. Lodge them. You’re going to go back out and process it later on.”
This policy had led to a nine-fold increase in illegal police “stop-and-frisks,” hundreds of arrests without charges or on trivial charges, and an effective 8:30 curfew in neighborhoods being targeted. Days after Schoolcraft spoke about his concerns with NYPD investigators, twelve high-ranking officers gained access to Schoolcraft’s apartment by telling his landlord that he was suicidal and then involuntarily committed Schoolcraft to a psychiatric ward of Jamaica Hospital. Schoolcraft was suspended from the force and stopped receiving a paycheck. Schoolcraft sued the NYPD in August 2010 for $50 million in a lawsuit that has yet to be decided.
“Before I came forward I had never heard of any other officers coming forward to report crimes,” said Joe Crystal. “After I left the police department I had a group of police officers from Long Beach, California who contacted me to give support. They had been through something very similar in their department which the media there had called Lobstergate. Our stories had a lot of similarities. The thing that shocked me the most was Anthony Batts (Baltimore City Police Commissioner) was the Chief of Police there during that incident as well. This shocked me more than words can describe. The officers from Long Beach have been so supportive and I am so grateful they have reached out to me. When I was a kid my parents drove home what being a good cop meant and what the badge meant. My parents always said ‘Being a cop is not a right it’s a privilege.’ My mom always said as a cop I would face hard choices but to never compromise my integrity. I believe a large percentage of cops are great and do the right thing. I think if cops do not come forward it is because they are scared. There was recently a video posted in the media of a Baltimore City Police Officer beating a man at a bus stop in front of two other officers. The two officers did not stop the assault. In fact a female citizen had to get between the officer and the male citizen. The two officers did nothing but watch. I can not speak for the officers personally but I believe they were scared to act and scared of what would happen if they spoke up.”
In 1971, after testifying that fellow NYPD officers were involved in a wide-scale operation of shaking down drug dealers and pocketing millions of dollars, Frank Serpico was shot in the face during a drug bust in a Brooklyn apartment. His fellow officers provided him with no back-up and left him there to die. An elderly man in the building, not the other cops, called 911 to send an ambulance. The officers that left Serpico to die were later awarded medals for saving his life. Forty years later, Serpico still gets hate mail from active and retired police officers. Last October, Serpico spoke out on police culture and the steps needed to make a change. The whole piece is worth a read, but a few selected excerpts are posted below.
Law enforcement agencies need to eliminate those who use and abuse the power of the law as they see fit. As I said to the Knapp Commission 43 years ago, we must create an atmosphere where the crooked cop fears the honest cop, and not the other way around. An honest cop should be able to speak out against unjust or illegal behavior by fellow officers without fear of ridicule or reprisals. Those that speak out should be rewarded and respected by their superiors, not punished.
Every time I speak out on topics of police corruption and brutality, there are inevitably critics who say that I am out of touch and that I am old enough to be the grandfather of many of the cops who are currently on the force. But I’ve kept up the struggle, working with lamp lighters to provide them with encouragement and guidance; serving as an expert witness to describe the tactics that police bureaucracies use to wear them down psychologically; testifying in support of independent boards; developing educational guidance to young minority citizens on how to respond to police officers; working with the American Civil Liberties Union to expose the abuses of stun-gun technology in prisons; and lecturing in more high schools, colleges and reform schools than I can remember. A little over a decade ago, when I was a presenter at the Top Cops Award event hosted by TV host John Walsh, several police officers came up to me, hugged me and then whispered in my ear, ‘I gotta talk to you.’
The sum total of all that experience can be encapsulated in a few simple rules for the future:
1. Strengthen the selection process and psychological screening process for police recruits. Police departments are simply a microcosm of the greater society. If your screening standards encourage corrupt and forceful tendencies, you will end up with a larger concentration of these types of individuals;
2. Provide ongoing, examples-based training and simulations. Not only telling but showing police officers how they are expected to behave and react is critical;
3. Require community involvement from police officers so they know the districts and the individuals they are policing. This will encourage empathy and understanding;
4. Enforce the laws against everyone, including police officers. When police officers do wrong, use those individuals as examples of what not to do – so that others know that this behavior will not be tolerated. And tell the police unions and detective endowment associations they need to keep their noses out of the justice system;
5. Support the good guys. Honest cops who tell the truth and behave in exemplary fashion should be honored, promoted and held up as strong positive examples of what it means to be a cop;
6. Last but not least, police cannot police themselves. Develop permanent, independent boards to review incidents of police corruption and brutality—and then fund them well and support them publicly. Only this can change a culture that has existed since the beginnings of the modern police department.
For the burgeoning police reform movement throughout the country, the first action needed is protection for good cops who blow the whistle, or light the lamp, as Frank Serpico describes it.
As Serpico once said, “A policeman’s first obligation is to be responsible to the needs of the community he serves. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist in which an honest police officer can act without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers. We must create an atmosphere in which the honest officer fears the dishonest officer, and not the other way around.”
After his recent experience, Joe Crystal expressed the same need for protection of the officers who want to do good.
“I believe police departments need solid leadership and leaders at the top that have the same integrity that they want their officers to have,” Crystal told PINAC. “I believe all police departments need to have policies for whistleblowers and their respective local government should consider making legislature for this as well. Officers need to know they will be protected and they need to know that the departments have true integrity. Reform can only happen if the police departments are serious about supporting good cops and getting rid of cops that break the law.”
Change must start with people that want reform. For those that concur with the ideas in this article, now is the time to take action. Find and support the people in your community who want to clean up law enforcement and will back up their talk by running for mayor or city council. Share this story with those unsure as to why people are protesting the police. And please use your words only to encourage peaceful discourse.
For those who support the police and view this story from the officers’ side, yes there are criminals that police must interact with on a daily basis. But to treat suspects as guilty until proven innocent is to look at the world as if every person is a scumbag who deserves to be treated as such. The job of police is to create a safer world, but viewing the general public as dangerous criminals creates an environment that is unsafe for everyone, police officers included. To the people out there who would chant, “We support the blue!” – support yourselves with self-respect, and kindly extend that same respect to everyone in the community.