There are definite social consequences for an officer who refuses to comply with the “blue wall” mentality. In the hypothetical, an officer who refused to back up his partner’s story in criminal and civil court regarding the excessive use of force on a suspect has been branded a “rat” by his fellow officers. The officer in question has faced a variety of repercussions as a result of his actions, ranging in severity from social ostracization to serious work safety repercussions, such as other officers refusing to ride along with the officer in question.
In this particular case, the officer in question is known as a “rat” as a result of his ethical response to a situation regarding his partner. During an interrogation, his partner hit a restrained suspect several times, causing severe brain trauma in the suspect, and causing him to become a paraplegic. The officer’s partner claimed that the suspect continued to struggle, but the officer that is now branded as a “rat” did not back up his partner in court. This has drawn the ire of his fellow officers.
In this hypothetical, the “rat” officer’s tires have been slashed by his fellow officers, and I, as another officer, am aware of the culprits. Every member of the squad is being called into the captain’s office and interrogated regarding the incident, which leads to a variety of questions with ethical, moral, and professional implications.
First: The officer who is the victim of harassment has done nothing ethically, morally, or professionally wrong;
Second: The officer that is a victim has suffered consequences in his workplace since that incident;
Third: These consequences are escalating in severity and do not seem to be abating;
Fourth: The most recent incident is one where the officer’s tires have been slashed;
Fifth: You are aware of the perpetrators of the most recent incident, and must make a decision about whether or not to inform on them, since they are your coworkers, squadmates, and friends.
The dilemma here lies in the circular nature of the problem. The victim here is being victimized because of his perceived inability to be part of a team; if the perpetrators of the most recent incident are turned in, then the person who turns them in is also likely to be victimized for the same reason.
The code of silence that police officers are expected to keep is well-known and well-documented. The Mollen Commission, an investigation into corruption in police forces around the United States concluded that, “Today's corruption is not the corruption of Knapp Commission days. Corruption then was largely a corruption of accommodation, of criminals and police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection Today's corruption is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality” (New York and Mollen, 1994). Essentially, this investigation discovered that police are not only highly likely to cover for their fellow officers, but that the ones that do not are also very likely to face repercussions in their personal and social lives for not falling into line.
The ethical problem should be a simple one, but human psychology muddies the waters a bit. In organizations such as police forces and other military and paramilitary organizations, certain techniques are used during boot camps and academies to increase team solidarity (Nuwer, 2004). In some ways, team solidarity in these organizations is very important; police officers regularly trust their partners with their lives. However, it can also have negative consequences-- namely the “blue wall” or “blue shield” that protects police officers from allegations of wrongdoing.
Speaking out against corruption in the police force, or whistleblowing as it is sometimes called, is very rare. Most people understand intellectually that the “right” thing to do in a certain situation is to blow the whistle and inform on a fellow officer, but in reality, the world is not so black-and-white. Because the nature of the police force is such that an officer must be able to trust his or her fellow officers implicitly, often in life-or-death situations, the officer that blows the whistle on other officers is seen as an individual outside the team, and someone who cannot be trusted.
The pressure is not only from fellow officers; according to one study, “73 percent of those pressuring officers to keep quiet about misconduct were those with a higher rank” (Mullen, 2000). It takes an individual incredibly dedicated to his or her own ethical standards to break from such a strict, albeit unspoken, code of behavior.
If the witness turns in the perpetrators of the most recent incident, it is likely that he or she will face similar ostracization and also be branded as a “rat.” However, given the statistics regarding the chain of command, it is also unlikely that the higher-ups in the police force will mete out any severe punishment for the incident. In a purely economic, logical evaluation of the situation, it seems unlikely that turning in the perpetrators would lead to any positive outcomes for the victim or the individual who turned in the perpetrators. The situation changes, however, when ethical concerns are brought into consideration.
It is common to tell children to stand up to the schoolyard bully. Parents will often remind their children that a show of force, however small, will indicate to the bully that the child is not going to be a willing, easy target. The same type of human psychology is essentially at work here: the other officers are making attempts at bullying the “rat” officer-- and by extension, the officer that witnessed the tires being slashed-- into silence, at the cost of their moral and ethical code.
This is unacceptable behavior, and the officer who witnessed the escalation against the victim should express what he or she saw to the higher-ups in the police force. The law enforcement system is made up of human beings and will therefore forever be flawed. However, just because corruption has always existed (and will probably always exist) does not give individual officers an excuse to shy away from trying to make the system a cleaner, less corrupt one.
It seems as though the system is designed in such a way that it encourages corruption, but some professionals believe this is not so. According to Neal Trautman, a professional in ethics, specializing in ethics in law enforcement, “The key is to encourage officers to have loyalty to principles, not to each other” (Mullen 2000). The only way to break out of the loop that this particular law enforcement office finds itself in, according to professionals, is for officers to stand up and make waves when something happens that is against company policy.
The first officer did so when he refused to back up his partner at the trial. The victim of his partner’s attack was seriously injured, and although a conviction cannot reverse the damage done to that particular victim, it can protect future suspects from his ex-partner’s excessive use of force. This is the logical disconnect of the “blue wall;” the officers that are actively ostracizing this officer have ignored the danger of keeping a violent, ruthless individual on their police force.
Police officers should be aware that individuals who have violence in their pasts are more likely than anyone else to re-offend. The officer that used excessive force was dead weight on the department; he committed an ethical, legal, and moral wrong, and his partner was unable to live with the weight of that wrong. Instead of ostracising the officer, the police force should be praising his strength and courage-- it could not have been easy to testify against a partner.
If the witness does choose to inform on the officers who slashed the victim’s tires, it could very well have an effect on the dynamic of the squad. Instead of relying on the blue wall, officers may begin to rely on the ethical and moral code of law enforcement. It may be adherence as a result of fear, but even adherence from fear is better than no adherence at all.
Mullen, A. (2000). Breaking the blue code . Metro Times, 8th November.
New York (N.Y.)., & Mollen, M. (1994). Commission report. New York, N.Y.: The Commission.
Nuwer, H. (2004). The hazing reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.