Remember how we played pranks in school, and refused to rat on our friends to the teacher? Well, that was our version of the Blue Code of Silence... The same rules apply here, which applied in school. The partners in crime, meaning your friends, are the 'colleagues', and teachers are the 'enemy'. And everyone knows better than to go behind their colleague's back and mingle with the enemy, right? Unless, of course, you have ulterior motives of your own. A similar law, applied on a bigger platform, with more serious motives and graver consequences, in the police force is termed as the 'Blue Code of Silence'. Let's find out how this code works and how to get rid of it.
How does Blue Code of Silence Work?
If a police officer witnesses his colleague's misconduct (under the pretext of carrying out his duty), then he can use this 'code of silence' as a shield to protect his fellow officer. It is analogous to the 'Omerta' in the mafia, and breaking this code can be fatal to a cop's career (the 'rats' are forced into retirement, or professionally sanctioned), and in case the stakes are piled high, even to his life (they are mentally and physically harassed and sometimes even 'taken care of'). When a cop breaks this code of silence, he is 'discarded' by other officers and left to fend for himself, while the others gang up against him (meaning, refusal to provide backup in critical situations, to the aforementioned cop). It is the perfect cover up, in case of illegal activities going on under the table, or in case of falsifying documents, where there is lack of evidence, to arrest people who the police think are guilty (termed as discriminatory arrests), illegal brutality against civilians, etc.
Using this code of silence, the officers can avoid testifying against their colleagues in a court of law, to save them from criminal proceedings. The term for this is testilying, giving false testimony, in favor of your colleague. Following the code is also a way of staying in the good books of your colleagues, and enjoying the privileges of being part of the 'brotherhood' that exists between all the officers who follow this code. When you turn a blind eye to your colleague's mistakes, they have to do the same for your mistakes, because if they expose you, you can do the same to them. A classic case of, "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours."
Taking Care of the Code of Silence
The 'blue code of silence' falls under the category of misconduct/corruption in the police force. The main reasons why an officer follows a code of silence, are to avoid threats to his life, to avoid being branded a 'rat' or a 'traitor', keep his career safe, avoid being ostracized, losing the back-up and protection of other officers, and sometimes to avoid being exposed himself. One of the main duties of a police officer being that he has to protect the people, the code of silence is a display of grossly misplaced loyalties. Misplaced because their loyalties lie with corrupt colleagues, instead of with the law and the people they have been assigned to protect. They feel that they are more answerable to their colleagues than to any court of law, or to the civilians whom they have vowed to protect at the cost of their lives if need be.
One of the best ways to get rid of the code of silence, is to encourage officers to expose it when they see it in action. Promoting polygraph tests in case of suspicious testimony by officers, stressing the importance of ethics and code of conduct in a profession, where the best interests of the people they are supposed to take care of should be their top priority, by having new recruits undergo psychological evaluations to find out the sense of right and wrong in them, etc., are a few other ways. Addressing the root cause of the problem will help in elimination from the grass-root levels. Completely eliminating the Code of Silence will take a very long time, and will need active participation of the citizens and of the police themselves.
Is There any Help to Tackle This Code?
It is a question of debate, as to how much leeway you can give to officers, to protect their colleagues. One thing that can be done in case of mistreatment by an officer, is to find out if the department the officer belongs to, has a 'code of conduct'. If it does, you can report the officer to higher authorities so that he can be questioned and suitable action can be taken against him. There are also Federal Laws which are in place to curb the Blue Code of Silence in action, wherein only the federal government can issue a complaint/ file a suit against the accused/ offending officer. The department doesn't have much say in this, and once convicted, the guilty officer can be imprisoned or charged with a suitable fine.
To convict any officer is no easy task, because no one is going to talk or offer you help, and you need really strong evidence that the Code was indeed in action. Convicting an officer is also very difficult because of something called 'Defense of Immunity' that they are cushioned by. Defense of Immunity means that the officers are waived of the penalties which the citizens are subject to according to the laws currently in place. In short, special privileges are allotted to them. They do not have to account for all the things normal citizens have to account for, or follow the exact rules that normal citizens have to follow. So the plaintiff has to have really strong proof of the misconduct meted out to him by an officer, if he wants to bring him to court.
The Other Side of the Coin
One important factor to be considered while talking about the Code of Silence is, whether it is always a bad/ unethical thing to resort to? What if you have more than enough glaring evidence to convict a person of the crime, but your hands are tied, simply because the accused has all the right contacts? In such a case, what would be more unethical - to let him go because of 'pressure from higher levels' or to construe the evidence in a way that his contacts are rendered useless, even if it means skirting the law a little, or working around it or even against it? How many times has a famous/ influential person been let off for similar reasons? It makes us ordinary citizens wonder if there are different laws for rich powerful people, politicians, celebrities and a whole other (stricter) set of laws for us. Isn't the Blue Code of Silence a boon in such a case? Such cases throw a whole new light on the phrase "the end justifies the means"... And so, there arises an endless ethical debate on the topic. Unfortunately, it cannot always be black and white. So if the Blue Code is not eliminated, there will be instances when it is abused for entirely wrong purposes, whereas if it is eliminated completely, there will be criminal offenders who can get off scot-free because of their 'contacts'.
One of the main responsibilities or duties of a police officer, is to ensure that the citizens in their jurisdiction are not harmed in any way - physically, mentally, etc. But when the savior becomes the perpetrator, where are the citizens supposed to look for justice, and who can they trust? When a citizen is brutally assaulted by an officer, and the other officers who witnessed the incident refuse to testify against the offending officer, then the citizen in question is left only with resignation and a feeling of betrayal and distrust. On the other hand, if used for the right reasons, it can be a heaven-sent, and can make all the difference between the just outcome of a case. Only, unfortunately, cases where it is used for the right reasons are never highlighted, CANNOT be highlighted, and hence only the wrong incidents come to the attention of the public. A few rotten cops can give a bad name to a noble profession, and can negate the effect of the millions of good officers out there, who are ready to give their lives to protect the citizens and carry out their duties unflinchingly.