When a new recruit joins a police force he is bursting with excitement and anticipation to fulfill all of the principles and standards that come with being a police officer: dedication, loyalty, trust and integrity. He has a high set of standards and a set of goals he wants to achieve as an officer of the law such as stopping crime, improving the moral of the neighborhoods and becoming a positive mentor to the youth of the community. He has a new sense of belonging; he is now a member of a team, a brotherhood, an official member of an elite club; he is an officer of the law.
What this new officer will soon discover is that there is an unwritten law amongst his fellow officers; a law that does not bode well with his fresh sense of principles and standards. This law is called the Blue Wall of Silence. It is an expectation that an officer will overlook or not speak about the misconduct violations of another officer.
Why Officers Keep Silent
One of the reasons a police officer might go against his own moral code is because of his internal dilemma of whether to be loyal to the officer code of conduct or to be loyal to his fellow officers who he has formed a friendship and a brotherly bond with. The dilemma might also be enforced when the corrupt officer is a supervisor or is superior in rank.
Another reason an officer might keep silent when there is misconduct present within the force is because he is afraid of retribution. When an officer “snitches” on a fellow officer there may be a whole plethora of concerns that come from the corrupt officer’s indiscretions. Will he be fired? Will his family be affected? Will there be negative impact on the precinct? Will there be further legal actions taken? The officer that is snitching also has to fear harassment from his fellow officers. He has to worry if his fellow brothers will continue to have his back and support him in the line of duty if he rats out a fellow officer.
There may also be scenarios where the officer will question his morals and what is the ethical path to take. There might be “Robin Hood” type situations where an officer is doing wrong to create a means to a positive end. An example would be of an officer falsifying documents to be sure that the serial rapist that he apprehended is held in custody. If an officer were to snitch that the arresting officer falsified the documents then a dangerous serial rapist may be set free to continue to commit harmful crimes against others.
The management and leaders in a department play a large part in the ethical behavior of that department. Leaders are mentors, role models, leading examples of what type of behavior is to be expected at that particular police station. How management reacts to misconduct will set the standard for what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Rookie officers look to their leaders and management to set the ethical guidelines for the station and to enforce the written code of conduct. When leadership and/or management are corrupt themselves, it is likely that they will not be held accountable for their unethical actions nor will they hold their fellow officers accountable for misconduct.
When the leaders and management of a force are a positive example and conduct themselves in an ethical manor then their subordinates will be more likely to follow suit and hold themselves to the standards of their leaders. When leaders enforce responsibility and accountability for unethical actions there is an understanding that misconduct will not be tolerated and neither will silence of other officers misconduct.
Breaking Down the Wall
Even though the Blue Wall of Silence is an ethical issue for nearly every police precinct around the world, there are steps that can be taken to help reduce misconduct and corruption by police officers. As stated before, a strong and ethical leadership and management system must be in place to be able to enforce ethical standards and accountability and set proper examples. Next, hiring practices need to include procedures that screen for critical thinking skills; these skills allow officers to think and react quickly and to be able to react in an ethical manner when in a stressful situation. This skill can also help officers think out of the box and come up with ways to perform their duties without stepping outside their moral boundaries. Psychological evaluations before hiring can help determine if an individual is likely to give into peer pressure or to choose solidarity with his peers over police integrity.
Training from the beginning of a police career and throughout on how to deal with moral dilemmas, ethical situations, and reporting the misconduct of fellow officers. Training and information must also be conducted to teach what is the expected behaviors and what the repercussions will be for misconduct. Management and leaders also need to be trained to identify early warning signs of unethical behavior. Citizen reports of misconduct and a high number of incidents involving excessive force are a couple of warning that management needs to intervene.
A written code of conduct and a discipline guide line should be set in place so that expectations are known and disciplinary actions for unethical behavior are also known. A disciplinary guideline gives management less discrimination on how to handle misconduct so that they will be less likely to be swayed or perform unethically themselves.
No matter how strong a police officer’s moral and ethical values are, there will always be a time in his career when he will have to question whether his loyalty to his fellow officer or the police code of conduct is more important. It is the officer that has had the good example and backup of ethical leadership and management, the training to deal with those difficult situations, and the resources to know how to deal with those situations that is going to make the right choice to not hide behind the blue wall of silence.