Police Whistleblower Protection and the Blue Code of Silence

The death of George Floyd has brought the topics of excessive force and police brutality to the forefront of discussion in our society. However, incidents of police misconduct are nothing new. The incidents have just been covered up by the Blue Wall of Silence and complicit law enforcement agencies. 

Today, a lot of attention is placed on incidents involving police misconduct. Personal injury as a result of police brutality in an ongoing issue in the United States. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Shootings
  • Assaults
  • Chokeholds
  • Sexual assault
  • Broken bones
  • Brain injuries

Protests and calls for police reform continue each day in cities across the country. Even so, new stories about excessive force and police misconduct come forward. The sad truth is that many of these incidents could be avoided or prosecuted if whistleblower cops would report bad cops.

What is a Whistleblower?

A whistleblower is someone who exposes illegal acts. They may disclose government misconduct, employer misconduct, or corporate crimes. Whistleblowers are in every industry and all government agencies. 

Whistleblowers help bring illegal acts and wrongdoing to light. They prevent these acts from being covered up by coming forward to tell what they know. They ensure that wrongdoing and misconduct are not covered up by those involved in the acts. 

Whistleblowers are essential for enforcing ethics in many different organizations. Therefore, dozens of laws protect whistleblowers from employer retaliation for coming forward. Many of the laws protect the whistleblower’s identity and provide other resources to protect the whistleblower.

What is the Blue Code of Silence?

The Blue Code of Silence or Blue Wall of Silence is an unofficial oath of unity among police officers. Cops do not report other cops.

Police solidarity is important. Fellow cops protect each other each day as they perform their duties. They count on each other to have their backs in case things go terribly wrong.

However, the code of silence among police officers prevents whistleblower cops from coming forward to report wrongdoing, illegal acts, excessive force, and police misconduct. Even when a cop wants to report corrupt cops, police departments make it almost impossible because they do not provide police whistleblower protection. In most cases, the department is complicit in covering up the wrongdoing to avoid lawsuits and investigations. 

Problems with Police Culture

Some of the problems we are facing now as a country stem from problems with police culture. In a recent Brookings panel discussion about the state of American policing, panelists tackled the issue of police culture in America.

During the discussion, the panelists agreed that many of the problems have to do with the toxic culture created by the way police officers are recruited, trained, and led.

There is a significant focus during training on the officer’s safety. It is undisputed that being a police officer is dangerous. Police officers face life-and-death situations each day.

However, as one panelist pointed out, the “warrior mentality” that is a large part of police recruitment and training attracts people who are not always the best choice to handle the social work issues that come with policing. Practices like this can set officers against the community they serve.

Also, the culture of policing and the organization structure creates a lack of accountability and transparency. Internal cover-ups, including preventing whistleblower cops from filing complaints, allow officers to continue their patterns of misconduct. 

As discussed above, police solidarity strongly influences police culture. Police officers believe that they are protected if they use excessive force or are guilty of wrongdoing because their fellow officers respect the code of silence among police officers. They do not worry that another officer will “rat them out” if they are a little too rough with a suspect or plant evidence to cover up a wrongful shooting.

The toxic masculinity in most police departments is also a factor in police culture. Most police officers are male. That fact has a direct impact on the police culture in most departments.

Legal and Regulatory Issues

If a police officer breaks the law, he should be punished. While a victim of police brutality can independently bring an assault charge against an officer, there should be repercussions from within the law enforcement agency as well. Unfortunately, laws and regulatory issues work to protect bad cops.

The Blue Wall of Silence is not the only factor that prevents cops stopping other cops. There are legal and regulatory issues that can complicate the process of approaching supervisors or Internal Affairs to report corrupt cops.

Other issues that allow violence to go unchecked among law enforcement officers include biased oversight procedures, lack of appropriate avenues to report inappropriate activity, and legal restrictions.

Supervisors may not be open to listening to a whistleblower cop. They are a part of the Blue Wall of Silence. Therefore, they view a cop who is trying to report wrongdoing by another cop as a “rat.”

If supervisors and other superiors are biased against reports of any wrongdoing by fellow officers, there may not be another avenue to report the inappropriate activity. If the top person refuses to hold rank-and-file cops accountable for misconduct, a cop who wants to be a whistleblower has few options, other than seeking help from the Department of Justice.

Police unions also make it difficult to police the police. Police officers have a separate set of rights when accused of misconduct or wrongdoing. These rights must be followed precisely.

Unfortunately, even when police officers lose their jobs because of allegations of misconduct, they are often reinstated based on powerful arbitrator terms contained in the contract between the city and the police union. Police unions are often responsible for putting abusive cops back on the streets.

What Happens to Whistleblower Cops?

Sadly, most cops who try to step in to stop excessive force or blow the whistle on police misconduct are fired for their efforts. Some are successful in recovering damages by filing a wrongful termination, but not always. Most are labeled as “rats” and “snitches.”

For example, Former Detective Joe Crystal was labeled a “rat cop” after reporting two fellow cops for police brutality. He reported the incident to the State’s Attorney’s Office. They were all officers with the Baltimore Police Department. 

Crystal was subjected to numerous forms of intimidation and threats for years before he resigned and moved to Florida. Crystal later filed a whistleblower lawsuit that settled for $42,000.

Solutions to Toxic Police Solidarity

There are solutions to toxic policy solidarity and the Blue Wall of Silence. The same solutions that have been proposed repeatedly by many different sources to address police violence and misconduct. However, it seems that no one is listening because incidents of excessive force and police misconduct continue to occur with too much frequency.

Commonly proposed solutions to toxic policy solidarity include:

  • Unbiased checks and balances to ensure that complaints filed by cops are thoroughly investigated and not covered up, including establishing and implementing strict policies and procedures for reporting and investigating complaints. 
  • Set the right tone from the top by having the Chief of Police denounce misconduct and encourage all officers to report misconduct immediately. 
  • Additional oversight by outside sources to avoid allegations of bias and corruption within the department.
  • Anonymous reporting methods to encourage officers to report misconduct without fear of retaliation by other officers.
  • Communicate that reporting misconduct is not only expected, but it is required of all officers as part of their ethical and moral duty as a police officer.
  • Develop and implement a strong anti-retaliation policy that includes severe punishments for violators. 

Regular citizens can also combat this problem by reporting police misconduct. It is up to all of us to work together to fight injustice from all sources, including law enforcement agencies.