The Cops' Code of Silence

The tendency of police to protect one another is a natural response if people must meet unrealistic demands in extraordinary difficult situations

THE police "code of silence" may well be the year's most cited and least understood problem. Recent news articles, editorials, and commission reports concerned with police misconduct - especially misuse of force - in poor urban neighborhoods mistakenly treat the term as though it describes some immutable artifact of contemporary policing.

This error has led them to ignore the fact that the code of silence must itself be substantially weakened before the changes in police training, supervision, policies, procedures, and discipline they recommend can be effective.

The tendency of police to protect one another is a natural response by people who routinely try to meet unrealistic demands in extraordinarily difficult situations. But this tendency need not become the exaggerated code of silence often found among police in high-crime urban slums. These communities already suffer concentrated poverty, racism, and crime. Their burden is compounded when police are perceived as yet another potential source of danger.

If we could control the unreasonable expectations that allow officers to justify their failure to police one another, we might eliminate much of the actual and perceived police misconduct that cripples our ability to control crime in many urban slums.

Several factors enable the code to infect even the most well-intentioned officers. The way a law enforcement organization describes its mission can influence how much misbehavior officers will tolerate from peers. Many police managers and politicians portray officers as a thin line of warriors standing between civilization and the barbarian hordes.

This unrealistic expectation that cops, rather than communities, control crime increases the zeal with which many officers approach their job. When one participates in a crusade, it is easy to rationalize extreme measures.

The patrol environment is also important. We often have unrealistic expectations of patrol officers in high-crime areas, who regularly handle several adrenaline- pumping incidents a shift. Moreover, they often do so while exhausted from overtime assignments, off-duty court appearances, and job-related activities such as attending college. This combination of environmental stressors and fatigue magnifies perceptions of threats, degrades decisionmaking, and increases the tendency to overreact.

We limit the amount of time pilots, truck drivers, and medical interns work, yet tolerate chronically fatigued cops.

Repeated exposure to stressful and dangerous situations obviously increases the likelihood that patrol officers will eventually act improperly. Most officers spend from five to 15 years in patrol. For enthusiastic officers in high-crime areas, this can translate into thousands of arrests and tens of thousands of contacts with people who are intoxicated, belligerent, or irrational. Yet when the courts make their leisurely and meticulous assessment of an officer's use of force, each incident is evaluated i n isolation.

COMBINING institutionally fostered zealousness with unrealistic physical and emotional expectations is a recipe for misconduct.

Take the case of a normally diligent and professional officer who erupts and strikes that one person too many who screams in his face at the end of an arduous night. Acting out of anger rather than fear for his safety, he has committed a felony. If he is truthful, the career that defines him is over. He could go to prison. If he chooses to lie, he must obtain his partner's complicity. They both know he was wrong, but they also know that any person who repeatedly dealt with the same situation would blow i t eventually. Recognizing that the system makes impossible demands and offers impossible choices, they choose to submit a false report and, if necessary, perjure themselves.

The code of silence is reborn each time this decision is made.

Later, when his partner uses excessive force, our officer reciprocates. Eventually, even the most idealistic officers can be infected by the code. As this erodes an officer's moral fiber, self-interest and continued stress make future compromises easier. Since police agencies promote mostly from within, many supervisors and managers are tainted by past misdeeds. This hardly leaves them in a position to control the behavior of subordinates.

The code of silence can undermine even determined attempts at police reform. If we want to control the conduct of our police and strengthen their ability to work with communities to control crime, we need to inhibit the code. How? First, we should debunk the demagoguery of the "thin blue line" myth. Our inner cities need calm professional officers, not exhausted crusaders.

More fundamentally, we must ensure that officers are emotionally and physically fit for duty each time they hit the streets, just as the military must ensure the reliability of those who control nuclear weapons. For decades, the military has accomplished this via personnel reliability programs combining cooperative self-regulation with active monitoring by health-care professionals.

Exhausted or otherwise debilitated cops should be encouraged to excuse themselves from duty. Good cops protect one another. Supervisors and peers need to learn that protection includes convincing unfit officers to stay off the streets. As a final safety check, a trained professional should have the authority to immediately remove unfit officers from duty. Personnel reliability program costs would be offset by fewer lawsuits and accidents.

Steps such as these would neither condone nor excuse police misbehavior. But they would attack the source of the awful silence that allows it to persist.

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