[Get Answer] the police code of silence

The Police Code of Silence


Police code of silence is a normative admonition but an unwritten and unspoken act embedded within the police culture. On a positive light, such injunction induces the feelings of loyalty and brotherhood, promoting a high facilitating policing and the protection of police officers against the danger they encounter during operations (Kleinig, 2000 cited in Sarre & Das, 2005). Yet, the same code of silence formed within the officers’ loyalty and brotherhood also establishes and sustains an oppositional criminal subculture that more often than not protects the interests of police officers who violate the criminal law, allowing them to escape due punishment (Sarre & Das, 2005).

For the new officers admitted to the job, such perspective is an underlying difficulty that they have to deal with in order to become a part of the brotherhood while fighting off their desire to act on their own autonomy, most especially if they witnessed misconduct. If this is the case, police code of silence as a form of injunction challenges the ethical responsibilities police officers took oath. As such, it is an imperative to analyze the role of police code of silence and the challenges it posit for newly recruited police officers (rookies).

In relation to the given issue, identifying the police responsibilities and culture are significant points that will provide depth to further understanding the values that police officers adhere to which pave the way for the existence of police code of silence. The knowledge of the said points is also a ground for shedding light on the struggles being faced by new police officers in dealing with the specified injunction.

Police Responsibilities

The police play a significant role in the maintenance of a society’s security, and because of this role, they are subject to adhere to high ethical standards as set by the society they serve. Police officers must serve the society by protecting citizen rights, yet they must also assure that they restrict the rights of the suspects for the betterment of the society. They are also responsible for the routine detain, search, and arrest of crime inducing citizens, and if the situation dictates, they are entitled to apply physical force lawfully in order to carry out the said responsibilities. Apart from these, they are also relied upon by the court of law to give out testimonies for the jurors to weigh the deliberations heavily whenever they determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant (Barry, 1999).

            The maintenance of public trust is one of the most crucial factors that police officers would have to deal with in an ethical manner. Before entering the profession, they take an oath and adhere to the code of ethics, swearing that they are to maintain high ethical standards and provide security to the society as a part of the condition of their responsibility. For the foregoing reason, majority of the citizens in any society understand the importance of police in maintaining and enforcing public order. Hence, many people are open about granting police officers much authority in order to have an orderly community. The only line that draws the reciprocation in such form of relationship is police misconduct (Barry, 1999).

Understanding the Police Culture

Aside from his or her professional obligation, an officer’s relationship with another officer is one of the primary factors that affect his or her working environment. The loyalty, alongside all its ethical implications, is an element for the establishment of proper working conditions for the police departments. In this regard, the adherence to a particular occupational culture is an imperative factor that marks the acceptance of one with all the regulating body within the organization, whether it is openly imposed or silently enacted. Although there is no universal definition for culture, there are certain characteristics that shape such perspective. The members of a certain culture share beliefs, norms, attitudes, behaviors, and values. Placed in an occupational view, culture varies in accordance to the size of the agency, organization structure, management style, and regional differences, and this applies to the organizational culture existing in most of the police departments. However, though there are some points of police culture similar to other organizations, theirs is intensely defined than any other occupation (Pollock, 2007 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007).

During the time when individuals are undergoing academy and field training to become police officers, they are taught with subjects concerning criminal law, defensive tactics, and the likes. One of the most important subjects brushed upon during the training is their capability to survive the police culture. Unlike any other subjects that require written examination, such subject is learned outside the book and is considered as an imperative knowledge to succeed in the chosen field and an integral part of achieving police character (Barry, 1999).

As new officers come into law enforcement with varying background and value systems, the authoritarian system existing within the police department may come too strong for them. However, as they feel the power of the police culture, the profession and its values become a strong influence on the officers’ behavior. They begin to embrace certain values that are incorporated within the culture they are moving in as reflected with their acceptance to the “brotherhood” or the “police family.”

Physical manifestations of the said culture are evident through their weapons, police vehicles, rank insignias, and other common artifacts associated with policing. Obviously, these physical manifestations create police officers an identifiable group. Yet, there are set of values and beliefs that are not perceived physically but become indoctrinated in the minds of the new police officers, growing within them and becoming an important element all throughout their career lives. When this occurs, they then lose sight of the concepts they learned from the academy. As they become absorbed with the brotherhood, they are as well expected to observe a certain way of living that, for many police officers, will give them their emotional identity (Constant, 2009).

Police Code of Silence Breeding Ground: Loyalty, Solidarity and Conformity

            Within the police culture, two of the most inherent values are loyalty and solidarity among fellow officers. The notion of loyalty and solidarity are first encountered by the police officers during their time in the academy, and such values are carried out and reinforced throughout their career. This is not surprising though because the norms of loyalty and solidarity are also evident among other occupational groups like lawyers, doctors and other office workers. However, it should be well understood that police works are sometimes done in the most violent environment and dangerous circumstances. Likewise, they are subject to unique demands that more often than not place them in danger and public scrutiny. Given the chance of putting their lives in line coupled with their authority to apply force in order to overcome resistance, the police establish a closely knitted subculture that are subject to their own demands and expectations. It is normal for them to generate a working environment that is conducive for the development of loyalty and solidarity (Sarre & Das, 2005).

            Conformity is another factor that is considered to be an essential part for the “brotherhood” to function. In order for an officer to be fully claimed as a member of the police force, he or she needs to act in accordance to the system mandated by the police culture rather than his or her own personal values dictate. Hence, a police officer who is consistent on acting according to his or her own values and outside the norms practiced by the group is at risk of being tagged as the “problem child.” For instance, a new officer writes a parking ticket to a restaurant owner familiar to his fellow officers. The said owner would always allow the fellow officers of the police that ticketed him to dine in his restaurant without any charges. In return, the said officers would always let the restaurant owner to engage in his parking transgression. However, the new officer feels that what the restaurant owner is doing is incorrect; thus, he issues him a citation because it is the right thing to do. Because of the citation that the restaurant owner received from the new officer, he now requires all the other officers to pay the price of their meals whenever they dine. As for the new officer, his action resulted in his trashed reputation within the department (Barry, 1999).

            For this reason, it may be apprehended that conformity is something of great necessity for the success of a police mission. Tactical situations require unity, and the same thing goes with handling on-the-spot crime incidents. Once a sworn officer, that person is never alone. During the time of duty, a call for “officer in trouble” is an indication that officers within the vicinity of the incident will normally leave whatever they are doing in order to attend to the other officers, even from a distance (Reiser, 1974, p. 158 cited in Barry, 1999). If an officer acts in accordance to his or her own autonomy, it is most likely that the response is ineffective, and this is not what the society expects from police officers. Just like loyalty and solidarity, conformity becomes an inherent value within the organization. To quote New York Police Department (NYPD) officers in a 1960’s survey: “The police department is really a large brotherhood in which a patrolman does his best to help other patrolmen” (McNamara, 1967, p. 246 cited in Ivković, 2005, p. 79).

The abovementioned information suggests that the said set of intense values embraced by the police officers serves as an avenue for them to develop a sense of isolation which is further sustained by their recognition of “us versus them mentality.” Such mentality is derived from the perception that nobody understands their situation, that only few people have the capability to relate with their experiences (Sparrow, et al., 1990, p. 144 cited in Ivković, 2005), and they cannot put their fate among other community members because the only people they feel comfortable with are their fellow officers (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993, p. 82 cited in Ivković, 2005). As this perception intensifies, officers would then view themselves to be isolated from the public. Hence, their solidarity, loyalty, and conformity with the police culture are the only things that they tend to keep in order to maintain their integrity to the department to the extent that they have to lie in order to protect the brotherhood.

The Police Code of Silence

Working in a paramilitary environment where there are extensive rules and performance measures like numbers of arrest is stressed in order to achieve success, the potent combination of solidarity, loyalty, conformity and mutual trust among the officers in line are important elements that culminate the police code of silence (Ivković, 2005).

            While there are laws and set of official rules that embody the secrecy in policing, code of silence, also known as the code of secrecy, the blue wall of silence, cocoon of silence, or the blue curtain, is the unwritten or unofficial rule within the police culture that prohibit officers from reporting the activities of fellow officers (Stansfeld, 1996 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007). Because of the secretive nature of such value, obtaining information about the pertained rules is difficult. Yet, based on various researchers, it has been observed that the unrecorded code is not only a notable feature in policing, but is also practiced in other business, occupational, and professional groups (Delattre, 1989; Barker, 1996 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007).One of the main reasons for recognizing the code of silence is to protect the activities of the police culture from outside scrutiny. Once the activities are exposed, this can lead to severe consequences, most especially if there is misconduct involved (Evans & McMillan, 2007).

Enforcement and Sanctions

            The existence of silence code is not limited in the law enforcement of the United States; it has also been documented in other police departments in westernized societies. To give furtherance to the given perspective, the report provided by Blair-Kerr during his appointment to investigate former Chief Superintendent Peter Godber’s participation in corrupt activities in Hong Kong during the 1970’s could suffice the vivid metaphors and severity of the blue curtain. The justification of the said code in Hong Kong is summarized in three sayings: (1) “Get on the bus, i.e. if you wish to accept corruption, join us;” (2) “Run alongside of the bus, i.e. if you do not wish to accept corruption, it matters not, but do not interfere;” (3) “Never stand in front of the bus, i.e., if you try to report corruption, the ‘bus’ will knock you down and you will be injured or even killed or your business will be ruined. We will get you, somehow” (Klitgaard, 1988, p.107-108 cited in Ivković, 2007, p. 80).

            Based on the said report, one can easily point out that the key elements of police code of silence, trust, solidarity, and conformity extend throughout all the aspects of policing, thereby promoting and serving as the breeding ground for misconduct. Two levels of cooperation can also be observed in carrying out the blue curtain. First is the active cooperation, as presented in the first saying, wherein the officers can accept and agree with other officers to be actively involved in the misconduct so as to avoid sanctions; and second, the passive cooperation, related to the second saying, wherein an officer may not be directly involved in the misconduct, but he or she is under the proposition of “see no evil, speak no evil” (Dantzker, 2005). In many cases, the passive behavior is much more reprehensible than the actual involvement with the misconduct (Dantzker, 2005). Then again, passive officers are those who rely more on the “code of silence” and are at a higher risk of being in the position of receiving sanctions in varying gravity as presented in the third saying.

It can then be argued that if the sanctions for the misconduct are higher, the strength of the code increases as well. Hence, if an officer breaks their silence, it is more likely that the police subculture will respond by giving out sanctions against the “whistle blower” in order to maintain the solidarity. With the given perspective, it is easy to assume that the degree of code is also influenced by the severity of the punishment for those who dare to break their silence. With the compliance to the code that is supportive to misconduct, informal sanctions for whistle blowers may range from unpleasant and humiliating yet not so dangerous ones such as placing dead rats on lockers to more serious sanctions such harassment, ostracism, or in some cases, the denial of support during critical situations (Stansfeld, 1996 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007). In a recent survey participated by police officers, it was reported by majority of the participants that police officers who “squealed” a misconduct are likely to receive the “cold shoulder” from their fellow officers (Weisburd & Greenspan, 2000, p.3). Other than these, although there were reports that police officers put their lives at risks by placing their loyalty to police culture, they need not to be shot dead in order to guarantee their loyalty to the system. Rather, the most common way to enact the code is to threaten the whistle blower of shunning and blowing his or her own wrongdoings (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993 cited in Samaha, 2005). In the event, they are likely to lose their profession and the trust of the society.

Challenging Honest Cops

New recruits are familiarized with the existing police subculture through direct or indirect transmission of the norms observed within the department. Certainly, older police officers have the responsibility to screen the rookies. They are the ones who teach them the code, and they are tested. In this regard, since the value system occurring in the department may come too strong for the new officer, they then become either the active or reflective participants during the process (Chen, 2003 cited in Ivković, 2005). To prove such point, an Orlando-based institute released a study examining the code of silence. According to Neil Trautman (2000), the executive director of National Institute of Ethics, majority of the police officers already succumbed to the code attacks new officers with peer pressure if they feel that the rookie may be committing infraction to the unwritten policy. He noted that such action is “the reverse of the code of silence” wherein the informant turns out as the bad guy by committing an offense against the organization (Trautman, 2000 cited in Mullen, 2000, n.p.). True enough, the code of silence is legitimized with such premise as “a good cop never rats on another cop” (Barry, 1999, p. 33). Due to group pressure and the consequences at stake for reporting misconduct, the code of silence presents a dilemma to a rookie or to an honest cop (Ivković, 2005). For instance, a deputy sheriff from a large jail who has just completed his rookie status witnessed on several occasions his fellow deputies treating prisoners in manners that he knew are illegal and wrong. Because of this, he is more likely to experience a conflict within him. He would have trouble accepting what he has witnessed because he knows that such actions are contrary to his beliefs about criminal law and regarding what is wrong and right. Prior to entering the profession, his ethics were based on the value system of the society and law enforcement. However, as he was continuously exposed to the deputies, who they themselves were under hard circumstances, the rookie would have to deal with the conflict of his personal ethics and his desire to protect the brotherhood (Constant, 2009). In this regard, the most common challenge faced by the officer is either to report the misconduct and face the consequences or turn a blind eye on the behavior to protect the department.

Given the fact that an officer has the freedom to choose, it does not necessarily mean that the officer is already free from pressure and conflict of loyalty or obligation. Most of the time, the ethical dilemmas confronted by police officers involve three specific sets of values that concern appropriate behavior. The said values are (1) embedded in culture embraced by majority written and identified in the legislation, rules and regulations as well as policy statements; (2) inherent in the occupational culture; and (3) the personal values of the individual involved. If the pertained sets of values will end into a parallel resolution, then the action to be taken by the police officer will be straightforward without second thoughts, and there will be little discomfort to fret about. However, once the three sets of values conflict with each other, then there will be an issue with what course of action to be taken, which is more likely to produce high level of discomfort. Maximal discomfort is often the result of the lapses between personal values and the occupational values due to the likelihood of the sanctions being imposed by the members of the occupational culture in order to force the individual to abide to the values set within the said culture (Delattre, 1989 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007). Hence, between the two choices from the given example, it has been found that majority of the honest cops will choose the second option, as it is a means to escape the discomfort caused by the conflict in the occupational culture. Over time, the said police officers has gotten used to such behavior that they have learned to view reporting misconduct as a greater and much dangerous offense compared to the misconduct itself (Mollen Commission, 1994, p.57 cited in Ivković, 2005). To back up such claim, Trautman’s (2000) report entitled “Police Code of Silence: Startling Truth Revealed” surveyed 2,000 police officers. He stated that thousands of cops did not choose to participate in the survey although it was confidential. Hence, he perceived that such action has something to do with the blue curtain value. Among the participants, 530 officers claimed that they were able to witness misconduct by a fellow officer but did not report it. The study also reveals that the most frequent form of misconduct protected by the code of silence is the use of excessive force and that 73% of the officers who are pressuring other officers to abide to the silence code came from higher ranks (Trautman, 2000 cited in Mullen, 2000). From the given study, it is easy to assume that the honesty of police officers is being corrupted by the presence of the silence code.

Another dilemma faced by new recruits due to the existence of the code of silence is the inability to separate one’s collegial or personal loyalty to the loyalty to professional duties. As discussed earlier, loyalty to fellow officer is an imperative element in the full acquisition of the officer to the force and an essential value for the success of a mission. However, loyalty is the same concept, combined with solidarity and conformity, which ultimately culminates the police code of silence. In the workplace, the loyalty to one’s colleague with whom one has already established a strong working relationship and emotional tie can be strong enough in order to displace one’s loyalty to his or her sworn professional duties and obligations. Loyalty itself is not a virtue if its own merit is dependent on other objects’ or subject merits with which it is associated. Hence, loyalty would not be considered as virtue if its means to an end is subject for evil, whereas loyalty directed to the proper end can be considered as a virtue. While loyalty indeed has a place in policing, it is still primarily indebted to the trust that is given by the public (McMillan & Tinsley, 2006 cited in Evans & McMillan, 2007).

Police Code of Silence: An Impediment to Police Misconduct Investigation

            The pervasiveness of the police code of silence extends itself until the investigation of the misconduct. Refusal to report a fellow’s misconduct to the proper authorities and claiming false knowledge about an illegal activity as well as falsification of statements in order to cover up and support misconduct of a colleague are just some of the common manifestation of the police code of silence (Mollen, 1994, p.36-43 cited in Sarre & Das, 2005). Since the police code of silence is not tangible in nature, it gives an opportunity for police executives to deny its presence, and they will act surprised if a complaint surfaces. During the course of the investigation, many administrators, in order to minimize the issue and avoid public scorn, use the “rotten apple excuse,” an action wherein incidents of misconduct surfacing are blamed to “rogue cops,” claiming that “certain rotten apples” acted in accordance to their own autonomy, thereby denying the existence of the code of silence, which often results to the survival of the police department and its administrators (Barry, 2009, p. 34).

            In some cases, when police officers are called in order to testify for the investigation of the illegal activity, the strong sanctions imposed by the police culture as discussed earlier in the study not only create a conflict for the ethical and legal obligation of police officers but also impede with the criminal laws of obstruction of justice and perjury. Although the weight of the law may be sufficient for officers to compel with the investigations by telling the truth, there are still many cases when officers are bound by their loyalty to the police culture resulting in the failure of telling the truth and the obstruction of due justice (Evans & McMillan, 2007).

            The “Police Office Bill of Rights” in Nevada, stipulates that officers are granted certain protections during the time of internal investigation. Any of the officers are not subject to any interview unless there are no written notice of the complaint, and they are also given time to sort things and have representations. They are also allowed to review documentations prior to interviews. Analyzed deeply, such bill serves as a catalyst for empowerment of the code of silence (Barry, 2009). Because of the nature of the police code of silence, it is considered as a threat to the justice system’s integrity, and is contemplated as a serious issue in different society.


            Based on the above discussion, it can be inferred that the police code of silence is a common feature in the police culture that is rooted from the values derived from such perspective. Although such code may have a positive light in terms of cooperation and success during tactical missions, it has long been considered as a means for officers to engage in misconduct. Due to the informal sanctions and various factors that are associated with the said unwritten rule, new police officers are pressured to conform to these rules, making the code of silence an extensive and strong element.

With the presence of the said code, honest and new officers are faced with different dilemmas, specifically with their freedom to choose between right and wrong as imposed by the majority culture, occupational culture, and personal values. Another issue posited by the code is the question of loyalty to the brotherhood. In order to reduce, the pervasiveness of the silence code, individual officers must learn to understand their priority which concerns their ethical obligation. Although the ethical choices that they are about to create will go against their interest group, it is important to know that the position they take is something that they owe to the public, and that they are held accountable for the actions that they take because such profession is widely scrutinized due to the conduct that they practice. In this regard, if the matters of conduct are the main elements to maintain a good working environment, then it would be best for police officers to align themselves with the public and not by contradicting the values that are culturally bound by majority.


Barry, D.P. (1999 December). Handling Police Misconduct in an Ethical Way. Las Vegas,

 Nevada: Department of Political Science College of Liberal Arts.

Constant, R.T. (2009). Police stress: Code of silence. Real Police. Retrieved March 11, 2009     from http://www.realpolice.net/police-stress-code-of-silence.shtml

Dantzker, M.L. (2005). Understanding Today’s Police. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

Evans, D.R. & McMillan, C.S. (2007). Ethical Issues in Law Enforcement. Toronto,                    Ontario:  Emond Montgomery Publication

Ivković, S.K. (2005). Fallen Blue Knights: Controlling Police Corruption. US: Oxford               University Press.

Mullen, A. (2000, November 8). Breaking the blue code. Metro Times. Retrieved March 11,

 2009, from http://www.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=869.

Samaha, J. (2005). Criminal Justice. Independence, KY: Cengage Learning.

Sarre, R. & Das, D.K. (2005). Policing Corruption: International Perspectives. Lanham,             MD: Lexington Books.


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