Good Essay On The Blue Wall Of Silence And Police Culture
The Blue Wall of Silence, also known as the Blue Shield or Blue Code, refers to the unwritten rule existing among the US police officers about not to report a misdemeanor, crimes or infractions committed by a colleague. During an official enquiry, if a police officer is questioned about the misconduct of another police officer, the officer being questioned, in conformity with the blue code, pretends ignorance of the wrongdoing of another officer. The Blue Wall of Silence is an epitome of loyalty and brotherhood among the police officers, which, if used positively, may facilitate policing and protect a police officer against the threats to his well-being and safety (Skolnick, 2002). However, the same blue code of silence may contribute to police corruption by developing a police culture in which the interests of the corrupt law-breaking police officials are protected. Therefore, the Blue Wall of Silence has repeatedly been associated with the fostering of police corruption. For instance, many major investigations conducted on police corruption in the USA, including the Christopher Commission in Los Angeles (1991), and the Knapp Commission (1973) and the Mollen Commission (1994) in New York, have all cited the blue code as an impediment to the official inquiry into police corruption (Skolnick, 2002). The Blue Wall of Silence has not only plagued the police platoons of the USA, it has also been observed among the police officers of other countries, including Australia and the UK. This paper would discuss the Blue Wall of Silence and how it helps foster the police culture of corruption and violence in the USA.
The existence of blue code is not a new phenomenon in the police force. The evidence of its existence is found as early as mid-to late 19th century when the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had used police officers to end strikes using illegal and violent means. Even many members of the Klu Klux Klan were police officers and used their power to do racist acts and then protect each other. In order to protect the minority groups from this kind of racial behavior, Civil Rights acts were passed in 1964 to stop discriminatory action by police (Conway and Walsh, 2010). During the 1960s, a landmark Supreme Court decision extended more individual rights to common people curtailing the powers of the police. Before the 1960s, police search and seizure without warrant and reason were a common practice. The Supreme Court rulings put an end to this kind of police behavior. However, all these rulings combined made the Blue Wall of Silence within the police force stronger. In many parts of the country, police corruption and their unreasonable application of brutality continued and due to the blue code, fellow police officers remained silent never reporting the illegal behavior. Some of the landmark cases of such behavior were observed in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. A major ring of corruption surfaced in New York when one honest police officer (Serpico) reported the corruption and wrongdoing of his fellow officers (Conway and Walsh, 2010). It took almost two decades to trace the culprit police officers who were involved in the corruption. Starting from the top level police officers to judges, all knew about the corrupt practices, but yet stayed silent. Similar type of investigation again revealed a high level corruption in New York Police Department (NYPD) in the 1990s (Conway and Walsh, 2010). Chicago police is also known for its involvement in drug dealing, helping the mafia and unreasonable brutality to the civilians. Similar kind of police misdoings were found in many other parts of the country in subsequent decades.
The Emergence of the Blue Wall of Silence and Its Continued Existence
Louise Westmarland, in his analysis in the article “Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence”, suggested that police officers do not think that brutality or bending the rules in order to protect colleagues from criminal trial is bad (Westmarland, 2005). In fact, it is much better than accepting bribe or stealing money. They feel that they are doing a greater service to the society only by saving each other so that the entire police force can contribute to the well-being of the society more effectively. The survey conducted by Westmarland showed that most of police officers view taking bribes or stealing goods or property as a big offense and they report this kind of crime if committed by a fellow officer (Westmarland, 2005). However, they do not consider the action of a fellow police officer who engaged in misconduct under the influence of alcohol as a serious offence.
Maurice Punch in his article “Police Corruption, Deviance, Accountability, and Reform in Policing” states that at the time of joining the police force, the police officers remain uncorrupt (Punch, 1996). However, while staying in the service, many of them gradually turn corrupt because of the prevalence of corrupt police culture, stressful work environment and institutional context. The Blue Wall of Silence has a big role to play in this process. When police officers begin corrupt activities, they slowly grow confidence as and when their misdeeds go unreported by the fellow colleagues who, in fact, protect them in conformity with the Blue Wall of Silence (Punch, 1996).
Thomas Nolan, in his essay “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence” in 2009, stated that the police construct is mainly characterized “by regimentation and ritualistic hegemony and a hidebound tradition of heterosexist and homophobia” (Nolan, 2009). The police culture is mainly masculine, and in the 20th century, police view themselves as the warriors in the battlefields of the streets of the US cities in a modern version of warfare. They are the main protectors of civilians in the war against drug, notorious underworld gangs, terrorism and other criminal activities. Owing to the predominance of this thought, they develop the perception that they are the most powerful string in the human society and because of the absolute power vested in them, they slowly become corrupt without realizing it (Nolan, 2009).
Why the Blue Code A Threat to the Society
Police officers work in unpredictable and occasionally violent conditions. Owing to danger being a part of their profession, which, coupled with their authority to implement force, when needed, to overcome resistance, has given rise to a close-knit subculture within the police force. Loyalty to fellow colleagues is regarded as a fundamental feature of the police culture, which can be comparable with the existence of loyalty and mutual support in various other occupational groups, including lawyers, doctors and office workers (Skolnick, 2002).
However, what stands apart the loyalty existing among the police officers from the one existing among other occupational groups is the threat of danger involved in the police profession and public scrutiny for a minor infraction (Skolnick, 2002). Besides, police being the medium of law enforcement, if the existence of peer loyalty or the blue code undermines the integrity of the justice system by protecting the police officers who commit crimes or violate laws, then it definitely snowballs into a matter of serious concern as it puts the well-being of the society under threat.
How the Blue Wall of Silence threatens the well-being of the society and the citizens living in it and how it makes a mockery of the justice system can be substantiated by a look into the cases involving the blue code of silence. One of such cases is Obrycka vs Chicago, in which a female bartender was physically as well as verbally abused by an off-duty Chicago police officer when she asked the officer to leave the bar (Conway and Walsh, 2010). The entire incident of the altercation between the bartender and the police officer was captured by the bar's surveillance cameras. When the bartender reported of the incident to the police, a fellow colleague and a friend of the officer attempted to bribe her for forgoing registering her complaint or filing a lawsuit. The friend of the officer even threatened her with dire consequences if she did not manage to get the surveillance tape. The bartender while filing a lawsuit complained of how the blue code of silence protects the corrupt police officials against the complaints of the citizens and thereby, encourages the police officers of Chicago to commit misconduct without any fear of official consequences. The court proceedings found the police officer guilty of misusing his position and assaulting the bartender (Conway and Walsh, 2010).
Although most of the police officers are honest trying hard to maintain the law and order, there are some police officers who are either highly corrupt or commit actions in violation of the ethical and legal boundaries of the police force. For example, in NYPD after Serpico’s revelation, it was found that hundreds of police officers and judges were involved in the corruption ring for decades (Conway and Walsh, 2010). Still none of the police officers reported any misdeed of their fellow colleagues. In fact, there are very few cases of whistleblowing. There are several reasons why the whistleblowing process is not easy for a police officer.
Sometimes police officers commit an action on the heat of the moment that they realize they should not have done. In such events, other police officers keep the misconduct confidential and personal. Since the police force works in stress-ridden situation, it is commonly believed by all those working in the police department that at times, it might happen for a police officer to let go of himself and cross the professional boundary, and therefore, the entire police unit tries to cover the misdeed following the blue code without feeling guilty.
Another big reason for none of the officers to go against the blue code is the threat of being cast away by others in the police fraternity. Sometimes, the act of whistleblowing may result in death threats for self as well as the family members. Even close friends stop interacting with the whistleblowers, who are, at times, even framed by other police officers into doing misconduct. It is also observed that whistleblowers often lose support in the field operation that increases their life risk. In fact, there are incidents where potential whistleblowers, also known as “rats”, are killed by other police officers in mock encounters (Skolnick, 2000).
However, in recent years, some actions are taken to improve the whistleblowing process. Special preference is given at the time of recruitment to potential candidates with high moral values and strong commitment towards law and order so that when they join the police force, they will not be afraid of opposing the blue code. Some of the police departments like Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), NYPD and the Chicago Police department use informants to gather information related to corruption within the police force (Skolnick, 2000). The administration also encourages whistleblowers by protecting them from the prosecution, even if they were involved in the corruption ring.
Different police departments have their own code of conduct. Each department has their own way of investigating officers through internal reports or on the basis of complaints received from the general public. Some states have strict laws to protect the civilians from corrupt police officers. For example, after the revelation of the corruption in NYPD in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, the New York State brought some significant changes to its state law against the law enforcement officers (Skolnick, 2000). Not only the police officers involved in brutality, murder, and drug dealing will be punished under this law, they will also be put on trial like a common civilian. Also, officers who had knowledge about the incident, yet kept mum will receive punishment, depending on the gravity of the situation. California too has strong law against police brutality, false arrest, imprisonment, wrongful death and malicious prosecution (Skolnick, 2000). However, the federal laws are more severe than most of the state laws. The police department is held responsible by the Supreme Court to reduce the blue code.
The Blue Wall of Silence is a police culture the prevalence of which is found in the US police force for more than a century. The profession of policing is by nature stressful and dangerous. As law enforcement officers, sometimes the police officers commit misconduct on the heat of the moment, crossing their professional boundary. However, because of the Blue Wall of Silence, the police brotherhood protects the fellow policemen from the official consequences of such misdeeds. They mainly do it by not reporting such incidents to the higher authority. There are several reasons contributing to the development of such police culture. The most predominant psychology observed is that the police officers feel that by saving their colleagues against brutality or small corruption, they are not doing anything wrong as they need to keep the integrity of the force intact to fight the miscreants of the society. Very few from within the force gather the courage to come out and report police corruption. In recent years, the laws are changed to promote whistleblowing and protect the whistleblowers from the threat to life and family members. The police departments have also modified the recruiting practices so that only candidates with high morale and integrity join the police force.
Skolnick, J. (2002). Corruption and the Blue Code of Silence. Police Practice and Research, 3(1), 7-19. doi:10.1080/15614260290011309
Conway, V., and Walsh, D. (2010). The blue wall of silence. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
Westmarland, L. (2005). Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence. Policing And Society, 15(2), 145-165. doi:10.1080/10439460500071721
Punch, M. (1996). Dirty Business. London: Sage Publications.
Nolan, T. (2009). Behind the Blue Wall of Silence: Essay. Men And Masculinities, 12(2), 250-257. doi:10.1177/1097184x09334700