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Rod Watson: Whistleblower fund could shatter cops’ ‘blue wall of silence’

External efforts – including a federal court lawsuit and the formation of a new citizen advisory committee – may well prompt better policing in Buffalo and the exposure of officers who need to be retrained or ousted.

But those initiatives also need to be accompanied by an internal effort among cops to tear down the "blue wall of silence" and put the citizenry ahead of any misplaced sense of loyalty to rogue colleagues.

But what officer would take that chance after what happened to Cariol Horne? She was the Buffalo cop fired in 2008 after intervening to save a suspect she thought was being choked by a fellow officer.

Horne’s ouster sent a definite message.

Now the Western New York Peace Center wants to send a counter message.

The center has established the Cariol Horne Whistleblower Fund to assist any officer in Erie County who steps up like she did and suffers repercussions – suspension with loss of pay, lawyer’s fees, etc. – because of it.

Right now, the fund contains a modest $1,640, raised mostly through a GoFundMe page that was active earlier in the year, said Heron Simmonds-Price, chairman of the center’s Racial Justice Task Force. But the center now plans a more aggressive fund-raising push online and in social media, including restarting the GoFundMe page and linking it to other groups, he said. The center also plans to reach out to churches to partner in what could rightly be called a social justice effort.

Officers who want to access the fund would go before the Peace Center’s board to explain the circumstances of their case, and the board would decide. The goal, said Simmonds-Price, is to encourage good behavior among honest cops, even if it might not be popular with other officers.

"I don’t know if this is going to make a difference, but we have to try something," he said.

He’s right. While Western New York has avoided the type of abuses that have garnered national attention in other cities, we have had our share of incidents. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that two of the cops most responsible for Horne’s ouster – Gregory Kwiatkowski and Ann Vanyo – are cops no more, having been forced out or fired years later for their own misdeeds.

Kwiatkowski, in fact, is due to testify against two other officers in an upcoming federal trial after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in that case. The three were accused of using excessive force in the 2009 arrest of four Buffalo teenagers.

That continues a litany of rogue cops who’ve been ferreted out by the Police Department and/or prosecutors in recent years.

But cleaning up the department would go a lot faster if more good cops could be motivated to step up like Horne, who paid a heavy price, losing her pension and her livelihood while raising a family.

Report criticizes actions by fired police officer Cariol Horne as unprofessional

The whistleblower fund may never fully replace lost wages, but it can make a difference in a courageous cop’s life if it gets enough support. That support should come not just from churches, but from any organization, business or individual concerned about police abuse and how to stop it. Honest officers need to know that the community has their back.

At the same time, a fund like this, widely backed by the public, will send police departments a message so that officers like Horne might not be scapegoated in the first place when they do the right thing.


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