What is the cost of the code of silence?

A good reputation can be difficult for a police officer to develop, but extremely easy to lose


By John F. Hein and John Franklin

Since the latter part of the 20th century, the law enforcement profession has seen many changes in hiring, training, safety equipment, communications, and several technological advances. Officers are more educated, better trained and better equipped. This evolution should be celebrated, but there is still work to be done.

Officers must understand that protecting offending officers at almost all costs – known by many as the “code of silence” – must be eliminated. The cost of the code can destroy the career of an otherwise competent, uninvolved officer.

Lessons from Chicago
In October 2014, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald, an errant teenager reportedly under the influence of illegal drugs while carrying a knife. Van Dyke and other on-scene officers filed reports indicating McDonald was a threat to them. A Chicago police detective, who conducted an official investigation of the shooting, filed reports justifying the good shoot. The report was approved by several supervisors up the chain of command from a sergeant through a lieutenant to a commander.

This shooting was controversial from the beginning for many reasons. The victim was shot by one officer 16 times.  A dash cam video of the shooting was withheld for over a year during the re-election campaign of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After community outcry and a federal court order, the video was released. It showed a different story than what was told by on-scene officers. The video appeared to show many of the shots were fired while the victim was lying on the ground facing away from Van Dyke. No other officer on the scene fired a shot. The video also seemed to contradict officer reports that McDonald lunged threateningly in the officer’s direction. The county prosecutor waited over one year to take any action. Chicago Police Superintendent Gerry F. McCarthy was fired for what appeared to be political maneuvers by others over whom McCarthy had no control. In addition, because of this case and other suspected violations, the U.S. Department of Justice is currently investigating whether Chicago police have persistently violated the rights of citizens.

Although not yet made public, a recently released report by the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General substantiates the dash cam video, contradicts on-scene reports and recommends the firing of numerous officers. Since the release of the video, Van Dyke has been charged with murder. Since the release of the Inspector General report, the new police superintendent has recommended seven officers be fired. A lieutenant and a commander, who adjudicated the shooting one day after it occurred, have both retired.

Blue wall of silence
The two most important things that need constant attention and vigilance while enforcing the law and maintaining order is to protect yourself and your partner. But in some circumstances, your own reputation, livelihood and family welfare become more important than your partner’s well-being. A good reputation can be difficult to develop, but extremely easy to lose.

Frequent training and a more intensive understanding of society, along with better trained and more engaged supervisors, can help protect officers. The code does not. The cost of the code is too high.

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