Faced with a potentially life-changing dilemma, Joseph Crystal asked his parents what to do. “Both my parents were NYPD police,” Crystal says by phone from a law office in New York City.
Both told him to report wrongdoing by fellow police officers, he says.
“Mom said I already knew what I had to do. Dad said the badge doesn’t mean anything if I’m not gonna do what’s right,” Crystal says. “Neither of them wavered.”
What Crystal did next cuts to the heart of police culture, in Baltimore and a lot of other cities. For turning in two officers who brutalized a drug suspect, Crystal was threatened and ostracized and eventually hounded out of the department. On Dec. 22, he filed a civil lawsuit demanding more than $10 million.
The police department has a policy of not commenting on lawsuits, Det. Ruganzu Howard, a department spokesman, says. He also declines to discuss the underlying issue: officers who give suspects a little extra punishment for disrespecting the badge, fleeing, or maybe just because the officer is having a stressful day.
“Cops don’t tell on cops,” Officer Bernard Cawley, who was known on the street as “The Mechanic” because of his penchant for “tuning up”—i.e. beating—criminal suspects, told the Mollen Commission in 1993. “And if they did tell on them, just say if a cop decided to tell on me, his career’s ruined. He’s going to be labeled as a rat.” That was in New York, where Crystal’s parents worked. Cawley went to prison for drug-and-gun dealing. Turned out that the brutal cops were often also the guys who stole drugs from dealers and sold them to other dealers who they protected.
Still, Crystal says he did not know what was coming. “The academy doesn’t prepare you for this,” he says. “They don’t necessarily talk about the blue wall.”
Crystal spent six years in the Coast Guard before joining the Baltimore Police Academy in 2008. He quickly distinguished himself, leading his class and receiving the Commissioner’s Award upon graduation.
He hit the streets and was promoted to detective within a year, assigned to the Eastern District Violent Crimes Impact Section, or VCIS. He caught a lot of drug dealers.
On the evening of Oct. 27, 2011, Crystal’s squad saw a suspected drug dealer, Antoine Green, throw down his package as he ran from them. Green kicked in the door of a house on Prentiss Place to hide, and that house turned out to be the home of a girlfriend of Officer Anthony Williams. Police arrested Green and put him in the van to go to jail. But then Williams, who was off duty, arrived on the scene. He spoke to Sgt. Marinos Gialamas, who called the van back. Then Gialamas stood by while Williams allegedly tuned Green up.
Crystal says he could hear what was happening in the back of the house. Green ended up with a broken ankle. In a report, police said he had charged them and hurt himself. Crystal’s conscience bothered him.
Crystal says his sergeant told him to forget the incident or face career ruin. So, Crystal says, he had to choose between keeping the respect of his parents and keeping the respect of his colleagues—and the career he’d always wanted.
Crystal reported the incident to the state’s attorney’s office. Soon, word got out and he was transferred to the west-side VCIS. “Something happens on the east, they say send him to the west like it’s a different state or something,” Crystal says.
The harassment was subtle at first, he says. But it got worse. He says he went to the Fraternal Order of Police for help, but then-President Bob Cherry, himself a homicide detective, told him the union was paying for Sgt. Gialama’s defense. He says Cherry told him that the department’s Organized Crime Division—the old name for the VCIS—was “blood in, blood out,” and that Crystal ought to find a job with another police agency.
“It was crushing,” Crystal says. “They’re throwing gang terminology around, and the union is more interested in protect[ing] a guy that did a wrong.”
Cherry, who ended up testifying for Gialama’s defense as a character witness, did not return a call seeking comment.
Crystal was told that no one wanted to ride with him. He was left without backup while chasing bad guys, he says. Green beat the charges related to the botched arrest and beating. Gialama and Williams were convicted; Gialama got probation, Williams got 45 days in jail for assaulting Green, after he told the judge he “did nothing wrong” and would do the same thing if he had to do it over again. They are no longer with the department.
Not everyone treated Crystal as a pariah, he says. “I had some friends that I had worked with . . . they supported me and kinda knew what I was going through. They did it in a kind of covert type of way.” He says Gialamas accosted one of these covert allies, who then had to be transferred from the Southeast district.
In November 2012 Crystal and his wife discovered a rat pinned under the windshield wiper of their car. He says he went to see Deputy Commissioner John Skinner a few days after that. “He told me we’re gonna do this. People are gonna go to jail. Lose their jobs. He said he wanted people like me in the department. That was the last thing I ever heard—until Jayne Miller did her interview.”
The WBAL reporter broke the story of Baltimore Police harassing their own. But even months later, as Gialama and Williams faced sentencing in the spring of 2014, “I had not even given an official statement” to the department’s Internal Affairs Division, Crystal says.
The investigation of Crystal’s harassment was lumped in with the investigation of Williams beating Green, Crystal says. Even as department spokespeople told the media that the investigation was ongoing and that the harassment would not be tolerated, there was no separate case file detailing the Blue Wall of Silence.
“I always knew there would be a certain level of blow-back,” Crystal says. “I just never anticipated how much and where it was gonna be coming from.”
Crystal says the harassment continued until he left the force last fall. His law suit says he was not even given his last paycheck.