Ethics & Education In Law Enforcement: The James ''Whitey'' Bulger Case

Friday, August 19, 2011
Colonel Thomas J. Foley (ret), Massachusetts State Police

In the mid to late 1960s our country went through some very turbulent times that would have a deep and influential impact on the path of our democracy. The Vietnam War was raging and civil rights was a volatile topic that demanded to be heard. In particular, these two issues, often interrelated, caused deep divides amongst Americans. These events also put extreme pressures on our criminal justice communities calling for and requiring that law enforcement officers become more than men in uniform responding with tear gas and billy clubs. Mistakes and abuse by law enforcement officers started to receive national attention on the nightly news. There was a desperate need for professionals to not only maintain public peace but to also provide true justice.

There soon was a demand that our law enforcement officers become more professional through training and education. In the early seventies, law enforcement and criminal justice programs started to appear at colleges and universities throughout our country. College degree programs were built not just around criminal justice courses but also including sociology, psychology, ethics, foreign language and education courses. This trend grew and it became clear that we had a much more efficient and effective way of providing public safety and justice through highly trained and educated law enforcement officials.

I have lived through the years that created this change and the years that have followed, participating in the training and educating of our criminal justice professionals.Southern New Hampshire University has a quality Justice Studies program that serves not only those aspiring to become professionals in the field but also the community that we serve. The foundation for these programs has to be a strong emphasis on ethics. The ethical demands and requirements put on the law enforcement community daily are often misunderstood by the public and those aspiring to make a career in this field. High ethical standards are absolutely, without question, the most important quality an individual can bring to the profession. It builds and maintains the public trust.

Early in my career, I was assigned to the organized crime unit of the Massachusetts State Police. My assignment was to work closely with the organized crime unit of the FBI. During these years, it became clear that something was wrong with how organized crime was being investigated in Boston. The most prolific and dangerous organized crime figures in Massachusetts and New England were not targets of the FBI and in fact each time other law enforcement agencies attempted to target them their efforts were compromised. It became clear within the law enforcement community that despite FBI denials that James "Whitey" Bulger and Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi were being protected by the FBI. They were "TE"; top echelon informants. The protection of Bulger and Flemmi by the FBI was incomprehensible by other law enforcement agencies. They operated freely, without much concern, committing numerous serious crimes up to and including murder. Their informant status with the FBI, even though the FBI continued to deny it, caused huge divides in the law enforcement community and eventually with the community in whole. The credibility of not only the FBI but all of the law enforcement community soon came into question by the public. The goal to provide public safety took a backseat to providing protection to Bulger and Flemmi. Many dedicated law enforcement professionals unsuccessfully launched investigations to bring Bulger and Flemmi to justice. Each time they would walk away disillusioned and disgusted.

In the early 1990s, a small group of Massachusetts State Troopers, a DEA agent and a couple of brave and dedicated assistant United States Attorneys teamed up and quietly set out to bring Bulger and Flemmi to justice. After the team endured years of deceit, personal attacks, innuendo, sabotage and criminal conspiracy to stop the investigation; enough evidence was gathered to indict Bulger and Flemmi on racketeering charges. It was the beginning of the end of Bulger and Flemmi even though Bulger was allowed to flee by the FBI. The investigation continued resulting in the cooperation of numerous individuals including codefendants of Bulger and Flemmi. Over 40 murders had been solved and the remains of six victims were recovered including two young women who had gotten in the way of Bulger and Flemmi. Superceding indictments were returned charging Bulger and Flemmi with multiple murders. The FBI had to finally admit to the TE informant status of Bulger and Flemmi and come under fierce scrutiny for them allowing Bulger and Flemmi's murderous reign. A retired FBI agent was charged and convicted in federal and state court for his participation in aiding Bulger and Flemmi. Finally, after sixteen years on the run, Bulger was captured in California.

A lot can be learned from this investigation. A lot can and should be done to change how we operate within our criminal justice system. It is a story about a lot of things gone wrong over the years. A story about corruption, unbridled ambition, and loss of perspective. But we cannot forget. There are still dedicated, honest professionals who know how the justice system should operate and even though there were failures throughout the Bulger/Flemmi reign; there were still others that made the justice system work.

It is critical to emphasize the ethical requirements of and demands to our aspiring law enforcement professionals. It will be the most necessary quality they will need to rely on, and at the same time it will be the quality most tested. In times of budget crisis and fiscal chaos it is sometimes easy to lose perspective and difficult to set priorities, but it is crucial to our way of life to have our law enforcement professionals highly educated, highly trained and ethically sound.

Former Massachusetts State Police Colonel and Superintendent Thomas J. Foley was the lead supervisor of the investigation that led to the indictment of James "Whitey" Bulger. Foley, a native of Worcester, Mass., has served for more than 26 years in law enforcement and has been assigned to numerous areas throughout Massachusetts, including Brookfield, Sturbridge, Holden and Leominster. He received the coveted and prestigious United States Attorney General's Award for Exceptional Service from Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004. Foley joined the faculty of SNHU in 2006 as part of the Justice Studies program. He is writing an insider's account on his 20-year pursuit of Bulger, including the discovery of Bulger's alliance with the FBI. "Most Wanted"  is due to be published in the spring of 2012.

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