Tearing Down the Blue Wall of Silence

Unknown-3Will the transparency of social media and the Internet tend to make police more accountable to the higher values of policing and less accountable to the negative aspects of the police subculture?

Here are some excerpts concerning tearing down the Blue Wall of Silence from my book, “Arrested Development:”


“One of the more difficult areas of improving police is dealing with corruption when it is imbedded in the police subculture. I use the term corruption broadly to include acts such as: stealing things, receiving regular payoffs—enforcing or not enforcing the law, accepting gifts and favors not afforded the general public, disregarding departmental rules and orders, lying, issuing false reports, giving false testimony or committing other acts a person knows are dishonest or morally wrong. Corruption exists when police break the law, whether in pursuit of enforcing it or to enhance their own lives by accepting special favors like free food, liquor, or other things of value.

“On the other hand, proper professional police work involves scrupulous adherence to the law while enforcing it. It is being honest to a fault. Because of the disparity in power between police and citizens, the lack of transparency in most police organizations, and few public mechanisms to effectively regulate or control police behavior, the problem still exists as to how to effectively reduce and eliminate police corruption…

“The primary failure of most efforts to reduce or eliminate corruption and other misconduct in a police department is that they usually fail to acknowledge the power of the police subculture I have described. When dishonesty is a matter of common practice, and when it significantly supplements the income and lifestyle of those who practice it, it is very difficult to eliminate.

“However, an article in the July, 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review gives me encouragement that honest organizations can be developed[1]… According to O’Toole and Bennis (the authors of the article), the way out of the (corruption) mind-set… is the way of organizational transparency—as they call it, a culture of candor:

No organization can be honest with the public if it is not honest with itself…leaders need to make a conscious decision to support transparency and create a culture of candor… Organizations that fail to achieve transparency will have it forced upon them. There’s no way to keep a lot of secrets in the age of the Internet. [1]

“So how can this apply to the police?… Some secrecy, of course, is necessary for police, such as in the ongoing investigation of a crime. But for much of what police do, it isn’t. Police would benefit ethically by opening their practices up to public view…

“It’s not that bad people try to get into police departments or financial organizations, and then do bad things. In fact, the opposite is true: good people with good intentions are hired to work in organizations that unfortunately have poor systems in operation, or organizations in which the existing culture is harmful… Courses or discussions about ethical problems can’t eliminate deep- rooted issues and corrupt organizational practices. Instead, more must be done to create police organizations that encourage good people to continue to be good. And it starts when police seriously begin to police themselves.

“While there may not exist an empirical police personality, there are a number of qualitative studies existing which further describe the socialization process new police officers undergo which contribute to the development of a specific police subculture. [2]

“This socialization encourages a worldview that can override an individual’s upbringing, prior experience in life, and education. In many instances, police attitudes are very similar to those of white, blue-collar workers: experience, not education, is the finest teacher, racial and ethnic minorities are to be avoided, and the highest personal achievement is to be respected by those with whom you work.

“But police officers additionally see themselves as being up against a world that is hostile, and this affects how they behave toward others in that world. Understandably, along with being respected, bravery and courage are critical personal attributes to them as well. If an officer isn’t considered brave and courageous, how can other police depend on him or her?

“Combine this aggregate of personal attributes of police with the danger and secrecy of their work, their isolation, scarcity of their numbers, and the carrying of a firearm during and after working hours, and it is easy to see why police perceive themselves as the thin blue line….

Unknown-2“Christopher Cooper, an African-American, and former Washington, D.C. police officer, offers some glaring examples of the police subculture in operation…

Sadly, in our early tenure as cops, we are instructed on the “code” of the police subculture. These are norms that are almost always perverse… The first is that if a citizen runs from one of us, we are to beat him severely… And if that citizen has killed a cop, he shouldn’t make it to the station alive… Some police officers, fortunately, decide to resist such norms… A different perspective is held by people and academicians of color, as well as some whites. We recognize that American policing suffers from a perverse subculture, and that all too often, individual officers lack the courage to stand up to that code. The result is a too-frequent lack of integrity and respect for human life, a lack of respect that all too often exacerbates the racial tensions that still exist in our society. [3]

“What is needed is to develop policing systems that are essentially ethical in nature—systems that will lead to virtuous and transparent conduct, and reinforce the good most people try to accomplish in their lives; the culture of candor noted earlier.

“While it may be difficult to imagine a secretive, hierarchical organization like a police department being transparent and speaking openly with its community, it isn’t an impossibility. But to make it happen, police leaders, especially a department’s chief, must cultivate a culture in which it is permissible to speak truth to power, and an organizational culture that supports honest behaviors that are consistent with the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. [4]

“While codes of ethics are nice to post on the walls of a police station, it is far more crucial for them to be practiced on the street. For it is only within this kind of transparent and democratic organization that police will be able to reach their highest level of performance. It is only within this kind of organization that police will find the freedom to innovate, effectively solve problems, meet tomorrow’s challenges, and enjoy the respect and trust of the communities they serve.

“If a police department publicly articulates, supports, and practices such aims, willful misconduct will become few and far between. But if the department does not—its culture continues to be closed and secretive, and cannot learn to police itself—its community will one day suffer the negative effects, if it hasn’t already.”


[1] James O’Toole and Warren Bennis. “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor.” Harvard Business Review, July 2009.

[2] One of the first to write about the working personality of police was Jerome Skolnick, “A Sketch of a Policeman’s Working Personality.” A copy of this manuscript can be found at: http://cw.marianuniversity.edu/tpluzinski/SelectedR/Police%20Personality.pdf January 1, 2011, 1138 hrs. See also Jonathan Rubinstein’s chapter, “Cops Rules” in City Police. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1973. I would also suggest the reader be aware of the classic work by John Van Mannen on “The Asshole” in Policing: A View from the Street. Peter Manning and John Van Maanen, eds. New York: Random House. 1978.

[3] [You can see the two-minute video at: http://www.break.com/usercontent/2008/5/Police- Beating-Caught-By-News-Helicopter-505411. December 28, 2010; 1212 hrs.

[4] International Association of Chiefs of Police, 1957.


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