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Silence in Policing | A Cultural Revolution

NOTE: Going back through articles I’ve written, this was and still is an important issue in the profession and use of social media by law enforcement.

Police Silence in Research

This post covers law enforcement’s “Code,” and the blue culture of police silence. I spent several years researching this culture during an anthropological ethnography for my doctorate degree.

Going back into my research, I decided to use that as my source for drawing information for this post about the influence of Police Silence; The Code & the Lamb. You be the judge for determining the influence or effect it has, or may have on the application of social media in policing.

Peter Manning describes the powerful mystification of policing as the “sacred canopy.” Stating that “the police role conveys a sense of sacredness or awesome power that lies at the root of political order, authority, and the claims a state makes upon its people for deference to rules, laws and norms.” These elements make policing unique to all other American occupations.

Operating in a Bubble

Operating in this vacuum, segregated from public accountability, fosters an environment for behavior outside of laws the institution is charged with enforcing.  The process of “fitting-in” with the cop culture ushers officers into a state of becoming blue, or the enculturation of expectant behavior and actions, ie “police silence.”

Outsider’s access into the cop culture is restricted due to several reasons including the covert nature of the assignments, the disengaged positioning from the public, secreted policing traditions and an impenetrable code of silence.

Past researchers like Klochars, Ivkovic and Britz have admitted difficulties penetrating the blue line.  Their research was forced to rely on assumptions, media portrayals, parallel literature and officer interviews offering limited insight.

“Traditional research in this area has suggested that the socialization process is so intense and the subculture so strong that individual characteristics are quickly overwhelmed” (Britz, 1997, p.01)

The Code of Police Silence in the US

A study by the United States Department of Justice reveals a culture of maintaining the police code of silence among agencies.  This study shows the historical limitation of valid data compilation from among the ranks of officers remaining a challenge for researchers.

The experiencing of negative effects associated with becoming blue is common.  One of the worse aspects of adopting this cultural ideal is the stigma of “weakness” in seeking professional assistance dealing with problems in their personal and professional lives.

Walker and Katz discuss the code of silence as an expectant mandate among officers to remain quiet about reporting or confronting other officers engaged in illicit, immoral or illegal activities. This discourages an environment of accountability and permeates the culture of policing.

They claim that officers are reluctant to report misconduct by fellow officers.  Officers making reports are often punished (formally or informally) by their peers for doing so.  An example of the strength of this code of silence was their case study of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) where officers were disciplined for reporting wrong doing by other officers.

An Officer’s Admission

Quinn, a former Minnesota police officer for more than twenty years experienced its destructive forces.  His autobiographical account of the organizational infusion of the code, and the negative impacts on the police culture was summarized in this statement:

“As terrible as it is, there is no escaping the Code.  It is as inevitable as your childhood disease and just as necessary.  Each stinging battle with the Code will either be an inoculation of the spirit and an opportunity to grow stronger or a crippling injury to your integrity. Regardless of the outcome there will be vivid images you can’t erase from your memory.  There will always be the mental and physical scars to remind you of your battles.”

Westwood reports the code of silence is passed down through the generations from veterans to rookie officers ensuring the continuation of the policing culture.  He defines police culture to include the “us versus them” philosophy, along with the powerful feelings of loyalty and solidarity with fellow officers.

Holding The Thin Blue Line

This not only perpetuates the corrupt activities, but destroys that silent witness’s integrity.  This code of silence protects the conceptual integrity of the thin blue line and supports an autonomous dark blue environment lacking of accountability and leading to a culture of deviance and violence.

The fraternity of policing, regardless of their concept of purpose, lives and dies to hold the thin blue line.  The code of silence is an abstract ideal that officers are socialized to comprehend. It is what protects the fraternity while they conceptually fight to maintain the thin blue line.

Has the Code of Police Silence affected you? Have you joined the cultural revolution by entering the world of social media for law enforcement? If so, please tell us how you are using social media at your agency.

To learn more about this article:

A Darker Shade of Blue

A Darker Shade of Blue

Coming in January ’14, Cop Culture: Why Good Cops Go Bad.

Britz, M. (1997).  The police subculture and occupational socialization: exploring individual and demographic characteristics. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 21(2)

Ivkovic, S. (2003).  To serve and collect: measuring police corruption.  The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 93(23), 57.

Klockars, C., Kutnjak-Ivkovich, S, Harver, W. and Habrfeld, M., (2000).  The Measurement of Police Integrity.  National Institute of Justice in Brief, 17.

Manning, P. (1980). Violence and the Police Role.  American Academy of Political and Social Science, 45(2), 19.

Quinn, M (Performer). (2004). Police work corrupted by culture of silence [Radio series episode].  Minnesota Public Radio.  Minneapolis: NPR.

Silverii, L, (2011) A Darker Shade of Blue From Public Servant to Professional Deviant:  Policing’s Special Operations Culture. Bright Blue Line; ISBN-13: 978-1481858373

Walker, S. and Katz, C., (2008).  The police in America: an introduction.  Sixth edition.  New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Incorporated.

Westwood, J. (2002).  Police Culture and the “Code of Silence.”  Police Act and Code of Professional Conduct, 8.

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