Breaking the Blue Code

Last month the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled sharply in favor of a cop who claimed that the Houston Police Department made her life miserable after she broke the department's code of silence.

Officer Patrice Sharp had been assigned to the department's mounted patrol. In her 1994 lawsuit, she held that she'd been repeatedly harassed, both verbally and physically, by other members of her unit. In the lawsuit, Sharp complained about two of her supervisors, Sergeant Edgar Bice and Lieutenant Wayne Hankins. Bice, she said in the suit, often compared her breasts to "headlights," and Hankins unzipped his trousers and made comments about oral sex.

Sharp said she was reluctant to come forward about her problems because of the department's unwritten code of silence. When she did speak out, the department ignored her complaints -- as well as what appeared to be retaliatory threats to her safety.

In March 1997 a federal jury found in Sharp's favor and awarded her more than $167,000. The city appealed the verdict.

The Fifth Circuit's three-judge panel voted unanimously to uphold the jury's decision. The strongly worded opinion was written by Justice Jerry Smith. As a former Houston city attorney, Smith might have been expected to be sympathetic to the city. Instead, he took former chief Sam Nuchia to task.

"The failure of Sharp's supervisors all the way up the chain of command, including Nuchia, to take any real action when made aware of the retaliation supports a conclusion by the jury that the HPD had a policy, custom, or practice of enforcing the code of silence," wrote Smith. "Nuchia warned Sharp that she would be subjected to retaliation and told her it was her 'destiny.' "

Other highlights of the Fifth Circuit opinion:
* "During her participation in the IAD investigation of Bice and Hankins, Sharp was subjected to retaliation by fellow officers for breaking the 'code of silence,' a custom within HPD of punishing officers who complain of other officers' misconduct or who truthfully corroborate allegations of misconduct."

* "We conclude that the jury was entitled to find that ... the retaliatory acts of members of the Mounted Patrol, including misdeeds such as tampering with Sharp's tack and failing to come quickly to her aid after [a] car accident, caused her reasonably to fear for her safety if she stayed in Mounted Patrol."

* "She presented ample evidence that a code of silence exists. No fewer than nine witnesses testified that it does, and, as one expert witness pointed out, Nuchia admitted to the code of silence. Furthermore, the code can be perpetuated only if there is retaliation for the violations of it."

* "Nuchia warned Sharp that she would be subjected to retaliation and told her it was her 'destiny.' He also told her he knew certain officers had lied in the recent IAD investigation, but he was not going to take any action against them. As two witnesses testified, several officers were so confident that they would not be punished for lying in the investigation that they made no secret of their intention to do so."

* "Based on this evidence, and on the unusual circumstances in which Sharp found herself, the jury could have decided that the city had placed her into a harassing situation with no way out. Thus, we uphold the verdict that the city, through the exercise of reasonable care, should have known about the harassment but failed to remedy it."

-- Steve McVicker

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