What is “The Blue Wall of Silence”?



Written by a staff member of SelfDefenseFund.com

One of the SDF’s goals is to keep our members informed with knowledge that others will not talk about.  The SDF supports law enforcement and encourages our members to first be polite and communicate, however knowledge of police tactics and history can keep you out of jail if you are armed with knowledge.

The term “Blue Wall of Silence” also known as the, ‘Blue Code” or “Blue Shield,” was first triggered in New York. It is an unwritten code which is generally defined as: “A rule among police officers not to report on another officer’s errors, misconducts, and or crimes when questioned about an incident of misconduct involving another colleague, during a course of an inquiry.”

Every state and city has a police force to enforce its laws and ensure that public peace is maintained overall. In a democratic republic system of government, the police are expected to maintain public order without violating a citizen’s civil or human rights.

It has been our experience, by testimony of police officers on the witness stand, that the idea of the police upholding a person’s civil liberties and that they do not violate human rights is not necessarily accurate. The Blue Wall of Silence can be one of many contributing factors that help police officers uphold the deviance involved in their department.

The Blue Wall of Silence symbolizes the loyalty among police officers within the force. To maintain this loyalty an officer may be forced to neglect the presence of police brutality which can hurt the victims by preventing them from getting justice. Moreover, the Blue Wall of Silence and police brutality have been and continue to be, protected and facilitated by the police culture.

There is evidence supporting a link that can be made between police culture and police corruption, which makes this topic significantly interesting.

According to Maurice Punch[1], corruption in policing generally refers to: an officer perceptively doing or not doing something that is contrary to his/her duty for some form of financial or material gain. In most cases, it is geared largely in the direction of bribery and individual gain in return for favors.

Research has been collected through previous cases involving police misconduct that caught the media’s attention and went global, for example the New York Police Department. In New York City, some police officers have been associated with the Blue Wall of Silence that led to the Mollen Commission [2]  mandate established to examine and investigate “the nature and extent of corruption in the NYPD; evaluate the departments procedures for preventing and detecting that corruption; and recommend changes and improvements to those procedures”.

The Commission found that officers falsified documents such as arrest reports, warrants and evidence for an illegal arrest or search and they justified themselves by believing that this was not corruption but yet another way to “get the job done”. The Mollen Commission concluded by saying “The pervasiveness of the code of silence is itself alarming.”

The code and police corruption stems from the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency was known for using police officers to violently end strikes. Many members of the Ku Klux Klan were police officers who protected each other when conducting racist acts. This later gave rise to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which gave new protections to the victims who had long suffered discriminatory policing.

Additionally, a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions during the era gave new force both to individual privacy rights as well as to curbs upon Police Power: highly influential cases resulted in the strengthening of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable Search and Seizure, evidentiary rules forbidding the use at trial of evidence tainted by unconstitutional police actions, and the establishment of the so-called Miranda Warning requiring officers to advise detained suspects of their constitutional rights.

This criminalized officers who did not have the necessary paperwork to conduct a search or who were involved in falsifying documents or committing perjury.

Police culture or “cop culture,” as it is sometimes called by police officers, has resulted in a barrier against stopping corrupt officers. Police culture involves a set of values and rules that have evolved through the experiences of officers and which are affected by the environment in which they work. From the beginning of their career at their academies, police are brought into this “cop culture.”

Police officers are more likely to cover up certain kinds of errors by colleagues. One study showed that excessive use of force was the crime most commonly shielded by the code.[3] Two studies suggest that some police feel that the code is applicable in cases of “illegal brutality or bending of the rules in order to protect colleagues from criminal proceedings,” but not those of illegal actions with an “acquisitive motive.”[4]

Cases such as the Rampart scandal and many other police corruption cases demonstrate that blue code culture can extend to cover-ups of other levels of crime, acquisitive or not. The code has been called “America’s Most Successful Stop Snitchin’ Campaign,” referring to cases where police covered up the misdeeds of fellow officers and where whistleblowers were harassed, professionally sanctioned, or forced into retirement.[5]

One method of preventing the code from penetrating the police force is exposure. Many states have taken measures in police academies to promote the exposure of the blue code. In most cities, before being admitted into the academy one must pass a criminal background check. Through additional background checks, polygraph testing, and psychological evaluations, certain departments are better able to select individuals who are less likely to condone wrongdoing. In these departments, police are exposed to a basic training curriculum that instructs on ethical behavior; this instruction is reinforced in seminars and classes annually in some cases.

Several campaigns against the blue code or for making the blue code more visible in the public eye have taken place.  One of the first of these campaigns was the Knapp Commission in New York (officially known as the Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption) which was headed by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1970. Over 20 years after the Knapp Commission the Mollen Commission was established in 1992 by New York City Mayor David Dinkins to investigate the nature and extent of corruption in the New York City Police Department NYPD, and to recommend changes to improve these procedures.  These and other investigations have revealed details of the inner workings of the NYPD.

[1]. Maurice Punch studied at Cambridge and Essex (MA 1966 and PhD 1972) and has worked in universities in the UK, USA and The Netherlands – where he has lived since 1975.  After 20 years in Dutch universities he became an independent researcher / consultant in 1994 and in 1999 was appointed Visiting Professor at the Mannheim Centre at LSE: he is also Visiting Professor at King’s College London in the Dickson Poon School of Law.

[2]. Mollen Commission- formed in 1994 to investigate allegations of corruption within NYPD. Charge was to analyze effectiveness of anticorruption mechanisms and offer recommendation for improvement. Key findings included: corruption closely tied to illegal drug market and use of excessive force and acts perpetrated by officers working with one another and up to as many as 15 complaints.

[3] Ann Mullen. “Breaking the blue code.” Metro Times.

[4] Louise Westmarland . “Police Ethics and Integrity: Breaking the Blue Code of Silence.”

[5] Radley Balko. “America’s Most Successful Stop Snitchin’ Campaign: The failure to protect whistle-blowing cops is inexcusable.”

In this newsletter the SDF focused only on the New York police department because of the numerous published case history.  The SDF has in in our own files and trial cases representing members that police have massaged and/or manipulated their reports to justify their actions even to the point of lies and giving false testimony on the witness stand.

Disclaimer: This information is provided as a general overview of citizen rights, which vary in scope and strength across the state, tribal, and federal criminal justice systems. It is not intended to serve as legal advice or statutory interpretation for any given jurisdiction.

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