Legal Challenges Faced by Police Whistleblowers: An Overview of Police Whistleblower Protections
| Read Time: 4 minutes | Whistleblower

Proper use of public resources and policing with integrity are concerns on many people’s minds these days. If you are in law enforcement and have noticed legal violations committed by your colleagues or supervisors, what kind of police whistleblower protections do you have? Unfortunately, police officers often have fewer protections against whistleblowing than many other types of employees, but there are still ways for law enforcement professionals to shield themselves from some forms of retaliation. The first step you should take to protect yourself is to consult with an experienced whistleblower attorney about your plans and concerns. Our whistleblower attorneys at King & Siegel LLP can steer you in the right direction when you are contemplating being a law enforcement whistleblower.  

What Is Police Whistleblower Retaliation?

Whenever you report illegal or unethical activity that occurs at your workplace, you are a whistleblower. To chill the efforts of employees in a police department who try to expose corruption and to deter others from disclosing unlawful behavior, some law enforcement agencies seek to terminate or punish whistleblowers. Any attempt an employer makes to discipline or intimidate a whistleblower is workplace retaliation, and in some cases, that retaliation is illegal. 

Workplace retaliation includes the following employer behaviors after an employee reports or contemplates reporting unlawful activity:

  • Reduction in pay,
  • Job termination,
  • Unwanted job transfers,
  • Negative work evaluations, 
  • Harassment,
  • Termination of or reduction in benefits,
  • Exclusion from work opportunities, and 
  • Undesirable assignments. 

If you are considering coming forward with illegalities you notice at work, or you have recently experienced adverse treatment from your employer because you reported unlawful acts, contact one of our experienced whistleblower attorneys before you take any action. Whistleblowing and navigating a whistleblower claim is often more complex and challenging for employees in law enforcement. 

Common Unlawful Behavior in Policing

Law enforcement agencies in this nation are in place to protect and serve the public. But police are imbued with significant powers that can easily be abused. Common abuses of police power can include:

  • Tampering with evidence,
  • Police brutality,
  • Taking bribes,
  • Workplace harassment,
  • Misappropriating funds,
  • Witness tampering,
  • False charges or arrests, 
  • Racial profiling,
  • Sexual assault, 
  • Violating civil rights, and
  • Other legal violations.

Any attempt you make to expose this behavior is a great service to the public, but you need to be careful about how you do it.

Whistleblower Protections in Law Enforcement

There are several laws that shield whistleblowers from retaliation and entitle them to compensation if they suffer retaliation. As an employee in law enforcement, your access to legal protection depends on how you disclose legal violations and whether you work for the state or federal government. 

Federal Protection

Under 5 USC § 2302(b)(8), federal law enforcement agents have safeguards against retaliation for reporting certain unlawful behavior. The law prohibits punishment and intimidation against an employee who exposes:

  • A violation of the law, 
  • Waste, 
  • Mismanagement of funds,
  • Abuse of authority, or
  • Dangers to public safety or health.

Although the law shields federal employees from retaliatory discipline for disclosing illegal workplace activities, reporting a violation of the law is still a daunting undertaking. Also, depending on what you report and how you report it, you might be vulnerable to retaliation without legal recourse. But a skilled whistleblower attorney can safeguard you against pitfalls and help ensure you recover the maximum relief possible for any retaliatory actions you suffer. 

State Protection

The California Whistleblower Protection Act gives state employees an avenue to report workplace misconduct to the California State Auditor. If your employer punishes you for disclosing misconduct, you can file a written claim with the State Personnel Board to seek remedies for the mistreatment. 

Barriers to Protection

We cannot stress enough that reporting illegal conduct in policing is a vital undertaking that benefits everyone. However, you must be careful about how and what you choose to report. Under federal law, there is no protection for disclosures that:

  • Are prohibited by law, or 
  • Involve confidential information. 

And pursuant to the 2006 United States Supreme Court case Garcetti v. Ceballos, a public employee who makes a disclosure pursuant to their official duties has no protection under the First Amendment and no protection against retaliation. 

These obstacles do not mean you should avoid whistleblowing altogether or accept retaliation without remedy. But they do mean that you should speak to a skilled legal professional as soon as you contemplate complaining about unlawful behavior at work. 

What About Reporting Police Brutality?

In the United States, police brutality and abuses of police power are grave and extraordinary concerns. Rutgers University reports that in 2019, the rate of fatal police shootings in the United States was five times higher than the rate in Australia and 22 times higher than the rate in France. The reason for these extreme disparities are many, but the fear that keeps co-workers from reporting misconduct is likely a contributing factor.

So, if you witness excessive use of force in your agency, what can you do to protect the public and yourself? The following actions can prevent retaliation at work: 

  • Speaking to an experienced attorney about your options (do this first);
  • Collecting sufficient evidence that identifies the activity you want to report as unlawful;
  • Researching whether any confidentiality orders prevent you from revealing the information you plan to report; and
  • If you are a state employee, making sure that any disclosure is not made as part of your official duties so you can maintain your First Amendment rights. 

Please note that the above steps can be applied to any report of workplace misconduct.This process can be overwhelming, but our whistleblower lawyers have the skill to guide you. 

We Support You, and We Can Help Protect You

Having a strong legal advocate in your corner is essential when you embark on a whistleblower claim against a law enforcement agency. At King & Siegel, we have the following tools to help protect you throughout your claim:

  • We are highly experienced;
  • We are assertive and unafraid to take on any unethical employer, including a police department; 
  • Our attorneys have recovered millions for clients in high-stakes legal matters; 
  • We received our education from top-five law schools;
  • We trained at the biggest and best law firms in the nation; and 
  • We give each client the personalized attention necessary to help ensure they receive the type of relief they deserve.

If you are contemplating exposing illegalities in a law enforcement agency, we commend your bravery, and we want to protect you. Please call us or reach out to us online to schedule a free and confidential case review.  

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

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