The ‘Blue Wall of Silence’: How can cops get better at policing themselves?
The 'blue wall of silence' is a phrase coined to describe what happens when cops collaborate to shield bad cop behavior from the public
It’s been 25 years since the Rodney King incident and the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’ still prevails; cops continue to struggle with transparency and restraint
While the vast majority of law enforcers are dutifully fulfilling the “protect and serve” motto, we are still astounded at the number of people victimized at the hands of our protectors.
Some say what is driving our recent national discourse on the subject is not an increase in the number of incidents, but an increase in the number of incidents caught on camera.
The truth is out there – on video
We’ve watched a man shot in the back while fleeing (and the officer tampering with crime scene evidence). We’ve witnessed an already wounded teenager being shot multiple times while laying on the ground posing a non-threat. We’ve seen video documenting cops piling on to “asphyxiate” – choke the life out of – an unarmed petty criminal. There is dash cam video of an officer violently assaulting an unarmed, submissive suspect. Another dash cam shows a man pulled over for a seat-belt violation, shot while complying with the officer’s request for license and registration.
Body camera footage reveals a university police officer unjustly shooting a man in the head during a traffic stop; an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy is accidentally shot by his partner, then blames the shooting on the man they are restraining, with one of the deputies ultimately firing three shots into the detainee’s back while restrained on the ground, handcuffed.
A police officer in Gardena, Calif. fatally shoots an unarmed man. The city then settles out of court with the man’s family in an attempt to avoid releasing the dash cam video of the encounter.
Cell phone video captures a San Francisco man being gunned down by what one elected official called “an ethnically diverse firing squad.”
In Florida, surveillance camera footage surfaces that refutes claims by deputies (and the fakery staged for their body cameras) that a suspect was resisting arrest. In the video, the suspect is seen laying down with arms outstretched before the deputies beat, kick, and knee him for a full 30 seconds.
In 2015, the beating two Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies delivered upon a car theft suspect – with body cameras turned off – was caught on video. The report filed by the deputies contradicts the video.
In several of the incidents, elaborate false testimonies and stonewalling by police and other authorities clouded the actual circumstances until video released to the public cast doubt on the official reports.
The scary part is, these are just a few of the incidents that have made it through the noise of today’s media frenzy – only a smattering of the official police video evidence sequestered from public view; unaccounted- for cell phone videos shot by citizen journalists who have been threatened with arrest or other retribution if their video is revealed to the public. Or, cell phones confiscated by officers on scene of questionable incidents. Security camera video evidence erased by police investigators.
When justice prevails
Victims of some gross negligence committed by law enforcement have had their day in court thanks to video evidence that made it impossible for any conspiracy to take hold.
San Bernadino County deputies piled on to administer a beating that was caught on video by a news helicopter. The county settled with the victim less than a week after the video went viral. A few months later another incident by the same department was videotaped from above.
A cell phone video by a passing motorist captured a California Highway Patrol officer repeatedly punching a 51-year-old great-grandmother. She received a settlement and the officer resigned.
A school resource officer is fired after the world watches him apply “muscling techniques” to a female student.
Even in the absence of video, justice prevailed in the case of women heinously victimized because they were on the beat of a serial sexual predator wearing a badge and a gun. How could any of us go missing from work long enough to commit multiple crimes over a seven-month period, unless co-workers or supervisors looked the other way?
People suffering abuse at the hands of jailhouse officers are finding justice. Recently, deputies who handcuffed then viciously tortured a visitor to the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail were sent to prison.
New York state prison officials are now tracking how many times guards are named in abuse complaints. The mysterious deaths of people in police custody attributed to suicides are being questioned in greater numbers.
Social media is shining its light on police in a small town who may have framed hundreds of Black men in drug arrests. It is alleged that the cops’ activities were condoned by police executives and prosecutors.
Tip of the iceberg
There are certainly other incidents every day that fail to break through the ice cold “blue wall of silence.” This is the phrase coined to describe what happens when cops collaborate to shield bad-cop behavior from the public. What goes on in law enforcement agencies, stays in law enforcement agencies, by any means necessary. There are many current and former cops that have given sworn testimony about the virulent anti-snitching culture that is at the foundation of policing. People have retired from stellar law enforcement careers, overwhelmed by the stigma and harassment associated with reporting a fellow officer.
On the morning of March 3, 1991, George Holliday – the man credited by some as the pioneer of citizen journalism – caught the Rodney King police beating on tape.
The Christopher Commission (formed in April 1991 in the wake of the beating) report on the LAPD said: “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints is the officers’ unwritten ‘code of silence’ … where an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer.”
It has been 25 years since the incident and police are still grappling with how to be more transparent when lack of restraint and/or bad judgment by cops goes before the court of public opinion.
Bad apples don’t fall far from the tree
Many cases are perpetrated at the hands of lone police officers, “bad apples” who have gone astray of peace officer values. But, some violations of the public trust are made under the watchful eye of supervisors or the gaze of co-workers. Or both.
The rising visibility of police misconduct has revealed, in some cases, that bad cops often are managed by a phalanx of higher-ups skilled at deflecting the glare of internal and external scrutiny. The Christopher Commission report also revealed that the failure to control officers who persistently ignore the written guidelines of the department is “a management issue at the heart of the problem.”
Other bad cops are accompanied, abetted or encouraged by fellow officers. While you watch some of the videos described above – and others – notice whether partners and other responding officers step forward to stop the misconduct. Often, not.
Price of impunity
Internal investigations by a number of law enforcement agencies and studies conducted by police department watchdogs have revealed that turning a blind eye or failing to speak out about wrong-doing by co-workers can become a slow decline into, or product of routine, rank-and-file lawlessness. From shadowy administrative actions such as falsifying paperwork or fixing tickets, to blatant civil rights violations, crime scene tampering, brutality, and the absence of consequences begets more rule breaking.
Granted, there are many times when bad cops are prosecuted, convicted and punished. We all pay the hard cost of their misconduct – from the billions financed by taxpayers when civil liability is established, to the loss of public trust that hampers the ability of good cops who just want to do their jobs.
And then there is the human toll. The cost of the injury, trauma, and death visited upon the victims, their families and our society is immeasurable.
There is division – or denial – among police executives about whether a code of silence actually exists. There are civil rights/human rights advocates who tirelessly examine, document and attempt to chip away at the wall.
Now, in a era where every citizen has a camera and grassroots networks are organizing to “police” the police, and conduct “reverse surveillance,” law enforcers must learn to embrace transparency and accountability. A culture of “honesty by any means necessary” must be instilled in them.
Creating a culture of zero tolerance
The present culture will continue as long as a code of cover-up guides the conduct of even a few of our most trusted public servants. Achieving a meaningful reduction in such cases will happen:
• when fellow officers, supervisors, and police unions collectively agree that rogue behavior reflects badly on all officers, and therefore, the “bad apples” must be extracted, not tolerated or protected
• when more new recruits fail to advance in the hiring process when screening reveals sociopath tendencies that reveal the potential for rogue behaviors
• when cops are publicly, harshly, and consistently penalized for “blue wall of silence” behavior such as colluding on misleading group testimonies, and for participating in repercussions on officers who break the code of silence
• when better conduits are established for cops to report on cops without fear of retribution, isolation or worse
• when departmental leadership rewards cops who demonstrate they uphold a “zero bad apple” standard
• when elected officials demand greater accountability and more effective policing of the people they represent
Rewarding a spirit of reform
From a layman’s point-of-view, it seems common sense management philosophies such as these are just a few of the actions which can plant the seeds needed to grow a culture of zero tolerance. A combination of rewarding good behavior and increased penalties for bad behavior is “Management 101,” and just one step on the long, slow walk toward changing what goes on behind the scenes of law enforcement organizations large and small.
In an age of increased visibility, the “blue wall of silence” risks the reputation and lives of law enforcers everywhere. Getting more cops to expect – and demand – better of cops is an important modification that is part of reforming how law enforcement does business.
The views expressed in this commentary are not necessarily the opinion of the Compton Herald.
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