Eleven years ago, Detective Investigator Jeff Baird thought the people in power would protect him.
His testimony exposing misconduct within the Internal Affairs Division was a key part of the Mollen Commission. Baird told city officials how officers within his division would create secret files designed to hide evidence that pointed to corruption and misconduct within the department.
“I was only interested in positive change,” said Baird, 49. “I didn’t think the retaliation would come.”
But the retribution that followed would last the rest of his career—and beyond. Baird was shunned by many of his fellow officers and harassed by others. Transfers to different units quickly stalled a once promising career, according to Baird, who also said there was even a warning that his life was in danger.
Baird was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by his psychologist and applied to receive a special accident disability pension. The police medical board disputed this, however. The case went to court, with city lawyers arguing that Baird only deserved ordinary benefits.
In April, a Manhattan judge sharply criticized the city for denying Baird’s claim, calling its arguments “pitiful.”
"In short, NYPD subjected [Baird] to an insidious 'death of a thousand cuts' in retaliation for his work on the Mollen Commission, with the Medical Board's refusal to even address the cause of his condition being the last gash. This the court will not condone.,” Judge Louis York reportedlysaid in his ruling in favor of Baird. The city is appealing.
Baird’s story is not unique, as other officers who have sought to expose misconduct within the police department have similar tales. Through the years there has been much talk about how to make police whistleblowers feel safe when coming forward to talk about misconduct and corruption. In a recent inquiry, however, a whistleblower has yet again come forward with claims of being subject to retribution rather than thanks.
The VIPER Division
Sgt. John Marchisotto, a supervisor in a Staten Island unit of the VIPER division, which is in charge of monitoring all surveillance within public housing, has said he began writing memos and letters to department leaders in January outlining how officers routinely watched movies or slept while on duty. During this time he also charged that a female supervisor sexually harassed him.
In April, it was reported that Internal Affairs was investigating how a recording of a March suicide taken by the VIPER division wound up on a website. Later that month, the City Council held hearings to examine VIPER, and Marchisotto spoke out against the division. He also spoke to television reporters and held a press conference outlining his allegations.
In City Council hearings, a housing supervisor admitted that many officers monitoring surveillance cameras in housing developments have pending criminal or administrative charges. Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields called for more stringent controls on the VIPER unit. The police department has since pledged to review its staffing policies.
Meanwhile, Marchisotto faces three departmental charges related to a WABC news report.
In that report, Marchisotto said he had already faced some retribution. Marchisotto said a group of officers angrily came to his home late at night, and that the department, claiming that he was mentally disturbed, has taken away his guns and placed him on restricted duty.
"You report misconduct, serious misconduct, or anything in the police department they will try to make you look like you're crazy. They will try to discredit you as a complainant and they're pretty good at that," Marchisotto told Channel 7. Police say Marchisotto abused his authority as a supervisor and shouldn’t have videotaped inside his unit. Several stories have cited anonymous and high-ranking police sources that call Marchisotto a chronic malcontent. But in a May press conference, Marchisotto stood with New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Manhattan), the chairman of the assembly's sub-committee on public housing. Wright said in a press conference that “on the surface of it” the charges against Marchisotto look “quite bogus.”
Also standing by Marchisotto is Lt. Eric Adams, spokesman for 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care.
“The police department did not bring or file any internal charges on any of the men John mentioned,” noted Adams. “No charges handed out against them—yet the discipline was taken against the whistleblower.”
Marchisotto could not be reached for this story. Police did not respond to a list of faxed questions.
Blue Wall of Silence
“We need to protect whistleblowers as best we can,”said Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney and former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Siegel has offered his services to Marchisotto.
The city has a whistleblower law on the books designed to protect those that expose wrongdoing, but, even if strengthened, such a law will not eliminate retaliation towards whistleblowers, said Siegel. He suggests a unit should be set up within the Public Advocate’s office to protect whistleblowers across all city departments (Siegel has run for the Public Advocate).
And 10 years after the Mollen Commission recommended it, Baird would like to see an independent agency with enough power to oversee the police department. The Commission to Combat Police Corruption was created as a result of the Mollen Commission, but that group has been criticized for being irrelevant. It went for more than a year-and-a-half in the Bloomberg administration without any board members.
Efforts to create a powerful agency with oversight authority failed largely due to staunch opposition from then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Occasionally, the police department has sought to take extra steps to protect whistleblowers and make the department more welcome to criticism. In 1998, then-Commissioner Howard Safir talked publicly about creating ways to reward whistleblowers. But Baird no longer trusts the police to police themselves.
“There’s never going to be any real reform within the police department because they crush people like myself who come forward,” said Baird.Â