Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Captain Sarvis' dilemma

Capt. Ed Sarvis, who heads up internal affairs and professional standards at the Durham Police Department, is in a difficult position. If he says there was wrongdoing by the police, he is being insubordinate to his chief who, judging by the official report, appears to want to sweep all problems under the rug. However, if he does not say this, I believe he is failing in his duty to make sure the Durham Police Force is honest. I thought it would be interesting to look at other people who have faced similar dilemmas but chosen to speak up.

Sherron Watkins of Enron was willing to write a letter to CEO Ken Lay that the company's accounting was not right. At the time, her acts surely brought her a chilly reception from Mr. Lay and from other people she worked with. But later, Time Magazine named her
Person of the Week, and she was able to write a book about her experiences. She was also criticized because, although she did bring up her concerns internally, she failed to take them public until after the Enron scandal broke. The publicity associated with her letter to Mr. Lay did give her many speaking engagements. And her fate was far better than that of Mr. Lay, who was convicted of six counts of fraud and conspiracy for his role in the scandal, but died of a heart attack before he could begin serving his sentence.

Former Detroit deputy chief Gary Brown investigated alleged wrongdoing by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his security detail. For doing his job, Brown's reward was that he was fired. Brown sued, charging wrongful termination, and is now locked in a lengthy court battle with the Mayor.

History's most famous whistleblower was Winston Churchill. Almost alone among his contemporaries, he recognized the threat of Nazi Germany as early as 1933. He fought tirelessly for higher British military spending, and was rewarded by political isolation. However, shortly after history proved Churchill to be alarmingly correct about Hitler, Churchill became Prime Minister, and oversaw the British efforts for the rest of the war.

It is clear that in each of these cases, the whistleblower's life initially became more difficult as a result of his or her whistleblowing. I imagine these type of considerations are driving Capt. Sarvis' decision to support his chief. However, in two of the above cases, the whistleblower's efforts were rewarded in the long run. The exception is Gary Brown, who may be rewarded eventually, but for the time being is locked in a doubtless difficult and frustrating court battle.

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