Blue Wall of Silence Essay

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Throughout the history of American policing, there have been periodic accounts of official investigations of police misconduct abruptly terminated because uninvolved officers were aware of wrongful acts of peers but chose to remain silent. In effect, the unspoken code suggests that if they desire to do so police officers in the United States failing to report crimes or misconduct of peers may do so with little or no consequence.

Moreover, infamous cases such the Rodney King beating and Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and the horrific abuse of Abner Louima in New York City, which received national media coverage, are examples of scandals that alarmed citizens and resulted in a loss of respect for police within their respective communities. More recently the frenzied pursuit and death of former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Christopher Dorner, who had gone on a murder spree after being fired for what he alleged was departmental retaliation for his accusing another cop for kicking a mentally ill man, further eroded public respect for police officers.

While it seems incongruous that a man or woman who chooses a career out of respect for law and its enforcement would turn a blind eye when a colleague is suspected of violating it, the nuances of police culture are such that the consequences of informing on fellow officers involved in behaviors such as corruption, bribery, perjury, theft, entrapment, brutality, and evidence tampering can be severe. Some officers and detectives who have cooperated with investigators have found themselves ostracized, friendless, alone, or even fired. In a profession accustomed to dealing with hostility and violence, solidarity is crucial to survival, and ostracism leaves an officer more exposed in potentially dangerous situations. Equally important, but certainly not as frequent, physical attacks have resulted in the disfigurement or death of officers cooperating in investigations of misconduct. What is it about the challenges police face daily that may make them wary not only of dangers associated with routinely encountering criminals, but also of the same men and women on whom they rely for personal safety and protection?

Much has been written since Jerome Skolnick’s classic narrative on police culture, particularly preoccupation with danger as a cornerstone of the police officer’s working personality. Solidarity, loyalty, and suspicion are tools police use in allaying fear. Wanted persons, individuals previously arrested, known troublemakers, loiterers, and men or women in the vicinity of a recent crime are of natural concern to officers working a beat. Early on in an occupation where the potential for sudden violent death is always present, young officers develop a unique form of suspicion, that is, a perceptual shorthand method that ostensibly helps them detect individuals who may pose a possible threat. Regrettably, as the new recruit becomes more acclimated to the turbulence of police work, this heightened sense of suspicion may broaden to include the general public (us versus them), media personnel, internal affairs investigators, police supervisors, and any officer whose loyalty, including willingness to cover up or fail to report misconduct, is uncertain.

Central to the debate surrounding police silence in the midst of criminal or departmental rule violation are questions relative to rationale, ethics, and remedy: What factors/variables contribute to officer hesitancy to report or refuse to provide information when peers engage in unlawful behavior or exceed their authority in situations such as applying force in arrests or properly controlling informants? As visible symbols of governmental authority, what are the moral and ethical implications when police fail to act, look away, lie, or are complicit in actions proscribed by law or departmental policy? Are inducements available which might encourage officers to come forward and provide information in instances of wrongful conduct of peers without fear of reprisal, retaliation, or threat, and thereby set the stage for reducing the shroud of secrecy surrounding police action?

Culture of Silence as Process

Contemporary police agencies, especially those in or immediately surrounding urban areas utilize a number of screening techniques to select applicants for open positions. Typically, basic intelligence tests, background investigations, medical exams, criminal record checks, psychological tests, polygraph screening, and practical problem solving exercises are used in attracting qualified men and women. Yet to be invented, however, are methods for detecting the man or woman who when later faced with pressure to conform to the unstated demands for silence within the police culture will provide the critical information needed.

Police departments are often characterized as paramilitary. Viewed through the prism of military organizational structures, that is fundamentally true; chains of command exist for various sections, with rank ordering incrementally from police officer to chief, and official terms such as “unity of command” and “span of control” are as much part of the police vernacular as those used by the armed forces. Also typical in both types of organizations is the importance of maintaining confidentiality, or even secrecy.

Typically, once the screening process has ended, the recruit’s formal introduction to the hierarchical aspects of police training commence at the academy. What is not clear, however, is how the recruit is introduced to the less formal but equally important processes of learning the intricacies of institutional police culture. Within the first days, weeks, and months, the neophyte officer may be gradually introduced to a unique set of attitudes, norms, and beliefs that influence his or her feeling of alienation not only from the citizens being policed, but also, over time, from police executives, supervisors, and judges for whom the ritualistic compliance with rules, policies, procedures, and laws is expected.

During this initial orientation phase, as well as the field training period that follows, recruits are introduced to a wide array of instructors, most of whom are full-time academy staff or other senior officers or detectives brought in from the field with technical expertise. Invariably, “war stories” are added to lectures. Soon after, distinctions between formalized academy training and the shocking “reality of police work” become clearer. In a relatively short time, the new officer senses the beginning of an ethical quandary that may bedevil him or her for years. At issue is the conflict between the ethical ideals touted in academy training—the proper way to perform police work—and pragmatic street justice: what the job actually entails. As longevity on the job increases some officers become disillusioned with what they construe as pettiness in enforcement of policy, procedure, and law. As such, while personal integrity guides actions in most law enforcement organizations in which unit pride strengthens bonds essential to survival, excessive loyalty can have an adverse effect if burned-out senior officers are seen acting unethically. Not surprisingly then, as the individual officer’s tenure lengthens in organizations where lying, deception, and corruption are not judged as harshly, the fabric of law itself begins to unravel, contributing to increasing numbers of officers acting independently without regard to formal authority.

Combating Codes of Silence

Immediately following academy graduation, officers enter the field training phase of their indoctrination into police work. In many instances, the field training officer (FTO) becomes the single most critical individual in shaping the neophyte officer’s initial choices about compliance with law and policy. As alluded to above, during this period and the years that follow, officers may begin to realize that what they were taught at the academy may have been overstated, impractical, or utterly false. Later, direction from field or investigative supervisory personnel may be dismissed as irrelevant, punitive, and detrimental to mission accomplishment. As a consequence, productivity may dwindle as experienced officers lose interest in the job and focus on dodging citizen complaints.

This situation is made worse in dysfunctional departments where moral imperatives to do right are ignored or compromised; in fact, both relatively new and older officers may adopt a mind-set that demands silence when wrongdoing of peers is observed or suspected. Conversely, some practices that may encourage reporting of unlawful or improper behavior could include the following:

  • Reducing ethical ambiguity by clarifying acceptable and unacceptable behaviors
  • Mandating the reporting of misconduct and detailing penalties for not reporting
  • Limiting the amount of time detectives spend in internal affairs units and requiring supervisory personnel to rotate in and out of these units
  • Incorporating civilian oversight into wrongful action investigations
  • Utilizing polygraphs to support allegations of officers informing on peers

In conclusion, while corruption and other forms of police misconduct may be reduced through enhanced screening and the monitoring of problem officers, a more effective outcome may be achieved by creating and encouraging a culture in which ethical standards are not merely mandated by police executives but welcomed by rank and file officers willing to regulate their own behavior and provide information in instances of wrongdoing by peers.

Bibliography:

  1. Elliston, Frederick A. and Michael Feldberg. Moral Issues in Police Work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1985.
  2. Greene, Jack R. “Make Police Oversight Independent and Transparent.” Criminology and Public Policy, v.6/4 (2007).
  3. Harris, Christopher J. Pathways of Police Misconduct. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2010.
  4. Loftus, Bethan. Police Culture in a Changing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  5. Miller, Seumas. “Integrity Systems and Professional Reporting in Police Organizations.” Criminal Justice Ethics, v.29/3 (2010).
  6. Nolan, Thomas. “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence.” Men and Masculinities, v.12/2 (2009).
  7. Rothwell, Gary and J. Normon Baldwin. “Ethical Climate Theory, and the Code of Silence in the State of Georgia.” Journal of Business Ethics, v.70 (2007).
  8. Skolnick, Jerome. “Corruption and the Blue Code of Silence.” Police Practice and Research, v.3/1 (2002).
  9. Skolnick, Jerome. Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society. New York, Macmillan College Publishing, 1994.
  10. Westmarland, Louise. “Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence.” Policing and Society, v.15/2 (2005).

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