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Thursday, June 5, 2008 03:39 pm

Reinforcing the blue wall of silence

Why recent court decisions involving two whistleblower cops should worry everyone

In 2002, this paper published a picture of Alva Busch using a blow dryer to remove decals from his work vehicle. At the time the snapshot was taken, in 2001, Busch was an Illinois State Police crime scene investigator working in the East St. Louis area. Why was he removing the emblems that identified his van as an ISP vehicle? Because his supervisors had taken away his inspector star, his service weapon, his ISP license plates, his identification cards, and his ability to arrest suspects. The decals were the last evidence that he was a cop.

Not that he had been fired, mind you. Busch was still employed by ISP, and still expected to drive his now-unmarked van through the Metro East to any fresh crime scene, wade through a crowd of witnesses, and do his job.

 “Here’s a balding old white guy, driving around in an unmarked van, no gun, no badge, at 3 a.m., in the most crime-ridden section of the highest-crime city — ya get the idea?” asks his attorney, John Baker.

Well, I know Busch, and I must interject that “balding old white guy” aren’t among the words I would choose to describe him, but yes, the idea was perfectly clear: Busch was being punished. What had he done to deserve such humiliation? He had testified before the Illinois Prisoner Review Board that Keith Harris — an East St. Louis man convicted in 1979 of armed robbery and attempted murder — was purely innocent and should be set free.

Busch based his testimony on firsthand knowledge of plentiful physical evidence linking two other men to the crime — plus one man’s voluntary confession and detailed description of the hold-up scene. The ISP officer who handled the original investigation appeared before the panel to counter Busch with the only evidence linking Harris to the crime: eyewitness identification. The fact that Keith Harris has an identical twin brother, who was not a suspect, is a tangent we’ll skip, but as Baker would say, “Ya get the idea.”

Harris was, eventually, exonerated and set free. Busch, though, paid for telling the truth. Three days after the Belleville News-Democrat published an article about his testimony, Busch received the order stripping him of his peace officer status. He sued ISP, survived a motion for summary judgment, and settled out of court.

So if everybody lived happily ever after, what’s the big deal? It’s that if the same thing happened today, ISP brass could get away scot-free with giving another outspoken officer the same shameful treatment they gave Busch.

That’s the message sent by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in its recent rulings on the retaliation claims brought by two other whistle-blowing cops — former Springfield Police Sgt. Ron Vose, and former ISP Lt. Michale Callahan, both now retired. Illinois Times readers already know their stories: Vose, who supervised SPD’s narcotics unit, alleged a long litany of misconduct by two homicide detectives. Callahan, assigned to review a 1986 double homicide, alleged that the case should be re-opened to investigate a Paris businessman because the two men convicted, Callahan insisted, had been framed.

As with Busch, the complaining cops eventually were heard: The SPD homicide detectives got fired, and the men Callahan said were framed were set free. But also like Busch, Vose and Callahan experienced an unwanted change in job status — transfers from long-held investigatory posts to less-prestigious street patrol. Both sued claiming retaliation, and both won initial rulings that were then reversed by the 7th Circuit citing a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos.

Richard Ceballos was a Los Angeles assistant prosecutor who discovered that a deputy sheriff had used a false affidavit to obtain a search warrant. Ceballos tried everything he could to get the case dropped, even testifying for the defendant in court. When he was subsequently denied a promotion, demoted and transferred, he sued.

When the Supreme Court first heard Ceballos’ retaliation case, in October 2005, the vote was 4-4, due to the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. When it was reheard in 2006, newly-appointed Justice Samuel Alito broke the tie, declaring that Ceballos’s complaints about the deputy’s falsehoods fell under his job duties, and thus outside the protection of the First Amendment.

The concept of depriving peace officers of free speech on any matter that touches their profession robs all of us of the information that only cops possess. As Vose’s attorney, Howard Feldman says, “They’ve created the perfect scenario that cannot be busted.”

 The implications for police officers — already muzzled by the “blue wall of silence” — are scary enough. The implications for the rest of us are even more troubling.

“What about people who are wrongfully convicted?” asks Baker, who represented both Busch and Callahan in court. “What hope do they now have for a police officer to come forward?

“If you were a cop, would you come forward?”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com
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