Many instances of police violence may genuinely be perpetrated by just a few unrepresentative officers. But often, other officers witness inappropriate violence or recognize would‐be “problem officers” but are unable or unable to do or say anything about it.
Why would people who dedicate their lives to fighting injustice tolerate it among themselves?
The code of silence, also known as the “Blue Wall of Silence,” is an unofficial method of discipline that operates among police officers all over the country. Violation of the code may result in quasi‐official sanction such as being passed‐over for promotion. It can also lead to harassment, such as toy rats or even dead rats being placed in the violator’s police locker, or worse.
Fear of retribution for violating the informal but pervasive code not only applies to personal indiscretions, but allegations of serious wrongdoing, including violence. Possible retribution can be severe, such as termination or mass refusal to come for back‐up in a dangerous situation.
In his book, Police Corruption: Exploring Police Deviance and Crime, author Maurice Punch explains that police culture, like military culture, is tight‐knit and typically demands a deep level of trust among its members. This is due to the sometimes extraordinary dangers associated with the job. A rookie officer often must demonstrate his loyalty to his comrades, either through some hazing ritual or another unofficial test. This test may be minor rule‐breaking, such as accepting free food or drinks on duty, or may involve actual law breaking, such as skimming cash from a drug suspect. Thus, from jump, some officers are initiated into a police culture which maintains, from day one, the loyalty‐above‐all method of operation.
The late professor and Broken Windows policing progenitor James Q. Wilson, in his book Bureaucracy, explained how a rookie officer is greeted by veterans on his first day on the streets: “Forget what you learned in the Academy. I’ll show you what police work is really all about.” Much like official training for any structured or corporate job, there are the ways things are supposed to be done, and the ways things actually are done.
Taken together—a brotherhood based on loyalty that is governed by informal practice and internal, secretive discipline—it’s hard to square this with each officer’s oath to his constitutional duties. Put another way, when loyalty to one another trumps dedication to justice and individual rights in the minds of officers, abuse will not only happen, it will be tolerated and thus implicitly encouraged.
To be sure, such systems do not turn everyone into “bad cops.” There’s no inherent contradiction in believing that most officers are trying to do the right thing while also recognizing that the way many departments operate is less‐than‐ideal. Systemic problems like the Blue Wall have been entrenched in many police departments for quite some time.
After a spate of corruption in New York City in the early 1990s, Judge Milton Mollen headed a commission (Mollen Commission) to investigate the causes of the corruption within the NYPD. The Mollen Commission described the widespread perversion of justice well in its summary of its investigation: