The blue wall of silence, also called the code of silence, among law enforcement officers refers to the unspoken rule that police officers will not report fellow officers’ errors, misconducts, or crimes. This practice of officers covering for others’ misconduct makes it difficult to prosecute police misconduct cases, impossible to root out “bad apples,” and dangerous for officers to come forward to speak truthfully about behavior they have witnessed. While a code of silence may exist in other professions, it is much more worrisome among law enforcement because of officers’ role in society and the great amount of trust and responsibility placed in them. As one commentator has noted, “Cops protect the state. They also are the state. We revere them for the first part. We fear them for the second” (Timothy Egan, The Blue Wall of Silence Is Starting to Crack, N.Y. Times (Apr. 16, 2021)).
But recently, there have been some hopeful signs that the blue wall has started to crumble. For example, not one but several Minneapolis police officers—including Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo—took the stand against Derek Chauvin in the trial over his role in the death of George Floyd. In stunning testimony, Chief Arradondo said that Chauvin’s pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck long after Floyd was subdued, on the ground, and cuffed with his hands behind his back violated department policies, training, ethics, and values (Ben Crump & Antonio Romanucci, At Derek Chauvin’s Trial, a Dangerous Code of Silence Is Crumbling, Wash. Post (Apr. 8, 2021)). Fourteen of these same officers also signed an open letter in which they strongly condemned the actions of Chauvin in Floyd’s death and said that Chauvin had “failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life” (Jim Salter, “Blue Wall of Silence” Takes Hit in Chauvin’s Murder Trial, AP (Apr. 9, 2021)). The condemnation by Chauvin’s fellow officers sent a powerful message to law enforcement nationwide, signaling to officers of lesser rank the importance of speaking out against a fellow officer’s wrongful conduct. The officers’ choice to stand up against injustice is a stark contrast from past practice and provides hope that we are turning a corner in police accountability.
What Is the Blue Wall?
Insularity, mutual protections, and refusal to turn against members of one’s own group are not phenomena unique to police. The blue wall of silence is, in a sense, built from common brick. It is prevalent in other professions—for example, the whistleblower doctor who exposed the forcible sterilization of an untold number of Mexican immigrant mothers in the 1960s and 1970s bravely faced the medical “code of silence” (No Más Bebés: ICE Hysterectomy Scandal Recalls 1970s LA, When a Hospital Sterilized Chicana Patients, Democracy Now! (Sept. 23, 2020); see also Pilar Mercado, The Same Code of Silence Haunts Law Enforcement and Medicine, Chi. Trib. (Nov. 12, 2018); Libby Lewis, Exposing the Medical “Code of Silence,” CNN (Sept. 21, 2012)).
Whether it is doctors, taxi drivers, or government workers, people have a natural tendency not to report the crimes of those who share the same profession. Those of us on the law enforcement side also encounter this same code among defendants who refuse to “snitch” against one another (see, e.g., Morgan Dunn, The Truth about Omertà, the Mafia’s Sacred Code of Silence That Hid Their Crimes for Generations, All That’s Interesting (Aug. 15, 2022); Karl Penhaul, Brave Few Break Mexico Drug War’s Code of Silence, CNN (June 21, 2010)), as well as with victims of crime refusing to cooperate with officers to find and bring their aggressor to justice (The Stop Snitching Phenomenon: Breaking the Code of Silence, U.S. Dep’t of Just. (Feb. 2009)).
Some may opine that a certain level of police fraternity is necessary for effective policing. That is, that the antagonistic relationship between the police and the public necessitates a trust between police officers; in turn, this trust between police officers requires loyalty to one another, and it is this loyalty to one another that creates the blue wall. The problem with this thinking is that the more law enforcement feels attacked, the higher the blue wall grows. Research demonstrates that police officers report higher levels of social isolation when they perceive greater public antipathy (Christopher J. Marier & Richard K. Moule Jr., Feeling Blue: Officer Perceptions of Public Antipathy Predict Police Occupational Norms, 44 Am. J. Crim. Just. 836 (2019)). The push for “defunding the police” and the attacks on qualified immunity, for instance, serve to perpetuate the “us versus them” groupthink mentality among police officers. This pressure for change also sustains officers’ beliefs that the media and public serve their own agenda by distorting police actions.
The true impact of the blue wall of silence is suffered by many. There is harm to the police officers themselves, who are forced to decide between speaking out and remaining quiet, knowing that they must work with these offenders and that breaking the code could negatively impact their careers. Prosecutors already struggle to convict rogue police officers, particularly in deadly shootings and on serious counts, and that struggle is greater without the cooperation of officers who have witnessed the wrongful conduct. Community cooperation also suffers, as individuals no longer trust the process of providing information to law enforcement because they do not see the people who are responsible for their circumstances being held accountable (Kandace Redd, The Code of Silence: If You Know Something, Should You Say Something?, ABC (Apr. 4, 2022)). Taxpayers also pay the cost, footing the litigation bill often to the tune of millions of dollars. Many civil lawsuits across the country have been linked to the police code of silence, from suits brought over corrupt officers running housing projects like a criminal enterprise and stealing proceeds from illegal drug sales to suits brought over their dissuading eyewitnesses from coming forward so that officers could create a narrative that justified the shooting of a Black teenager (Police Code of Silence: Is Chicago Liable for Injuries?, Ankin Law (Apr. 10, 2023)).
Future of the Blue Wall
The Chauvin trial represented a very public and unprecedented scaling of the blue wall. The image of so many officers testifying in open court against one of their own provides hope that courageous officers who speak the truth about other officers’ wrongdoing will be heard and supported instead of ostracized, removed from the force, or worse. The blue code of silence that has vexed the pursuit of safe, effective, and constitutional policing has finally shown signs of cracking—but more still needs to be done.
1. We Must Change the Fraternal Police Culture That Views the Public as the Enemy
The public is demanding greater transparency and accountability, but while rogue officers bear ultimate responsibility for their actions and should be held accountable, we must recognize that they do not exist in a vacuum. A culture that primarily concerns itself with assigning blame misses the mark, but so does one that concerns itself with dodging responsibility and covering up wrongdoing. Police departments must be active participants in this effort, with officers recognizing that unlawful police behavior makes everyone less safe. Rogue officers are part of a system, and that system is ripe for change.
2. We Must Improve the Vetting of Officers During Recruitment
As mentioned above, it is imperative that police departments be active participants in dismantling the blue wall; to that extent, they should share in the reform philosophy and better represent the community they are in charge of policing. Overwhelmingly, it appears that officers are reform minded. According to one survey, about 72 percent of officers feel that poorly performing officers are not held accountable (Rich Morin et al., Behind the Badge, Pew Rsch. Ctr. (Jan. 11, 2017)). Roughly two-thirds favor the use of body cameras (id.). Fully 84 percent say officers should be required to intervene when they believe another officer is about to use unnecessary force (id.). And a majority (65 percent) of officers say that today in policing, it is very useful for departments to require officers to show respect, concern, and fairness when dealing with the public (id.).
Of course, public perception of law enforcement certainly limits interest in the profession and is a significant barrier to the effective recruitment of qualified candidates (Int’l Ass’n of Chiefs of Police, The State of Recruitment: A Crisis for Law Enforcement (2019)). A recent example is the January 7, 2023, beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of young Memphis police officers, which was caught on tape that showed no experienced supervisors on the scene. Memphis’s police chief acknowledged that a chronic shortage of officers (especially supervisors), an increasing number of police officers quitting, and a struggle to bring in qualified recruits all have plagued the department (Tyre Nichols Case Highlights U.S. Police Recruiting and Retention Crisis, AP (Feb. 8, 2023); see also Ryan Young & Devon M. Sayers, Why Police Forces Are Struggling to Recruit and Keep Officers, CNN (Feb. 3, 2022)). According to a 2017 survey, more than eight in ten officers (86 percent) say their work is harder today as a result of these high-profile incidents (Morin, supra). As community tensions are rising, so are the number of fatal attacks on officers (id.). All these factors coalesce and lead to difficulties in the recruitment of qualified candidates and the retention of experienced officers; as a result, a growing desperation to fill hundreds of slots in recent years is driving police departments to increase incentives and lower standards (Jason Johnson, “Defund the Police” Led to Lower Standards, Wall St. J. (Feb. 22, 2023)). Some police departments are taking the opportunity to work harder to attract candidates who better reflect the community they serve, with a concentrated effort on hiring more women, more people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community (James Brown Jr. et al., “It’s Changing”: As Officers Quit in Droves, Departments See an Opportunity for Police Reform, USA Today (Dec. 21, 2022)).
3. We Must Change the Culture of Officers’ Intervention and the Protection of Whistleblowers
For far too long, police departments have silenced internal whistleblowers to cover up misconduct. There has been little to no protection for officers who transgressed the blue wall and spoke up against fellow officers—to the contrary, officers have been suspended, fired, and, in at least one reported case, forcibly admitted to a psychiatric facility (Gina Barton et al., Behind the Blue Wall of Silence, USA Today (May 9, 2022)). Three examples: An internal affairs investigator in Colorado leaked video of an officer punching a handcuffed man in a wheelchair in the head; a Texas police officer reported a sergeant who planted drugs in his ex-wife’s car; and in Louisiana, a state trooper refused to participate in what he says was a cover-up in the case of Ronald Greene, who died in state custody after being beaten and stunned with a Taser (id.). After speaking out, all of them were forced out of their departments and branded traitors by fellow officers (id.). Almost universally, police officers who turn whistleblowers still have to confront systems that are hostile to the very allegations they are making.
Certain states and municipalities have been leading the charge for reform. In New Orleans, a mandatory police training program teaches officers to intervene when they see fellow officers on the verge of unethical behavior, no matter the circumstances (Campbell Robertson, New Orleans Program Teaches Officers to Police One Another, N.Y. Times (Aug. 28, 2016); see also Martin Kaste, New Orleans Police Program Aims to Stop Police Misconduct, Reduce Burnout, NPR (June 20, 2020)). After the beating of Rodney King in 1991 by Los Angeles police officers, California law enforcement officials proposed training strategies to encourage the police to practice “active bystandership”—intervening to prevent a bad thing from happening despite the impulse to look away (id.; see also Daniel Goleman, Scientist at Work: Ervin Staub, Studying the Pivotal Role of Bystanders, N.Y. Times (June 22, 1993)). Recent legislative changes in Maryland have also given police officers whistleblower protections (Michael Levenson & Bryan Pietsch, Maryland Passes Sweeping Reform Legislation, N.Y. Times (Apr. 10, 2021)). In Illinois, the state attorney general announced a sweeping investigation into the Joliet Police Department’s retaliation against a whistleblower who leaked a video showing police misconduct and was himself arrested on official misconduct charges (Daphne Duret, Illinois Attorney General Will Investigate Department That Retaliated Against Police Whistleblower, USA Today (Sept. 8, 2021)). Programs and protections like these shift the mindset of officers and allow them to recognize their responsibility for their fellow officers’ actions if they remain passive bystanders. Successful initiatives are able to do this in a way that does not undermine officers’ loyalty to each other but rather changes what loyalty means: stopping excess violence instead of hiding it behind a code of silence (Goleman, supra). Empowering everyone in law enforcement to speak up when encountering unlawful behavior should be the cornerstone of community safety initiatives.