Article by Serena
“I've always spoke up against things I thought was wrong within the department. But like you said, this culture right now, a lot of officers don't feel as though they can speak up because there's no real, true mechanism that protects us from retaliation from our superiors.” (NPR)
-Sgt. Isaac Lambert, Chicago Police Department
What is the Blue Wall of Silence?
The blue wall of silence, or “the blue curtain of secrecy”, “the blue code” or “the blue shield”, is an informal code of silence among police officers to not testify against fellow officers in cases of misconduct, including police brutality. Whistleblowers, officers who report the crimes committed, often are placed on leave or fired. In extreme cases, murders have occurred as a result of these reports —such as that of Baltimore detective Sean Suiter, who was shot the day before he testified against a group of officers on federal racketeering charges (racketeering refers to when an organized group conducts illegal business—it is an umbrella term for 35 charges including kidnapping, bribery, and extortion).
Taken from Bureau of Justice Statistics National Police Misconduct Reporting Project
As per the graphic above, around 68% of criminal defendants (people accused of committing crimes) in the general population are convicted, and 48% are incarcerated, whereas only 33% of criminal defendants in law enforcement (i.e. police) are convicted, and only 12% are incarcerated. The percentage of incarcerated police versus those in the general population is, to say the least, totally out of proportion.
The blue wall of silence originated during the mid-to-late nineteenth century when privately owned police-for-hire groups were more prevalent. Many Ku Klux Klan members would join these police forces and abuse their power, which led to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, or the Second Ku Klux Klan Act, which served as a set of protections for Black individuals.
Several Supreme Court decisions in the twentieth century provided checks on police power: the reinforcement of one’s Fourth Amendment rights against groundless search and seizure, evidentiary rules regarding the usage of evidence tainted by police, and the installation of the Miranda Warning which requires officers to read the suspects their constitutional rights. Although these checks were enacted, public scandals started to reshape the public’s view of the law enforcement system, adopting the “good cop versus bad cop” mindset. Because of this, New York City established the Knapp Commission to root out the so-called “bad cops”. The Knapp Commission not only uncovered the systemic corruption, but also the fraternal understanding between officers where “snitching” on other officers was regarded as betrayal.
The Blue Wall of Silence Today
Today, many police officers hesitate to stand up in cases of injustice because doing so challenges corrupt traditions within the police community. Officers fear the repercussions despite whistleblower protection laws, which prevent them from losing their jobs, demotion, blacklisting, and harassment. The whistleblower protection laws in question are a set of programs enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which protect whistleblowers from workplace retaliation. Even though these protections exist, the consequences are still very real: officers who manage to keep their positions are refused backup from their colleagues in dangerous situations, receive threats, etc. The wall of silence is a corrupt mockery of what at its core is supposed to be a noble profession.
The blue wall of silence is supposedly a representation of police officers’ loyalty to one another, which is justifiable—policing is a dangerous profession. However, those who work in law enforcement should be serving the law, not their colleagues. One of the major consequences of the blue code we are already seeing today is the loss in the public’s trust. Take “copoganda”, for example, where the media purposely highlights certain actions (purposeful or otherwise) to flatter the police or sway the public opinion into their favor. The blue code also silences and invalidates “good cops” - for instance, the "good cops” who notice these injustices choose to remain complacent when faced with the consequences. This allows the cycle of corruption to continue.
Today, the blue wall of silence is more prevalent than ever. Understanding it and its origins are a crucial part in ensuring that the police’s first priority is serving the people, not each other.
The blue wall of silence is just one example of corruption in our law enforcement system. It is a direct violation of everything the police stand for because police officers are not and should not be above the law. Because it is such a deeply rooted tradition within the policing brotherhood, the only way to truly get rid of the blue code is to reform and rebuild the system.
Kleinig,, John. (2001). The Blue Wall of Silence. International Journal of Applied Philosophy. 15. 1-23. 10.5840/ijap20011515.