Police Reform Never Ends

Why the blue wall of silence will always be with us.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

Civilian deaths by police have put police reform center stage. Across the country, governments have responded by promising sweeping changes within police departments.

Demands for better police practices aren’t new. In 1895, for example, Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt instituted reforms against corruption within his New York City department. And one of his last acts as Governor of New York was to reform police departments throughout the state.  

Yet here we are today demanding reforms once again. While many changes have been instituted, there is still a long way to go. There is a cycle to police reforms—calls for change, reform, pushback, problems again, renewed demands for change.

Why is this?

One answer is that no system is perfect. New problems arise, and old ways don’t work. New policies need to be adopted to keep up with changing times. Another reason is that entropy is part of every system. Things naturally fall apart.

But perhaps the most important reason is the so-called blue wall of silence. Codes of silence are a deeply-seated psychological phenomenon. It also has a less negative name: loyalty.

Loyalty is the obligation that individuals have to a group. It tends to be strongest in families but can be found in varying degrees in many relationships. Being loyal includes self-sacrifice and vigilance against betrayal, according to Johnathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics). It is what we owe a group because of what it has given us.

Loyalty serves a vital purpose in human survival. We get our sustenance from others, as well as physical and emotional support. We are born into a group, take our identity from groups, and live by and within groups. Loyalty is reciprocity. Sociologist Nicholas Christakis, in Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, points out that “we are innately equipped to cooperate, and living in cooperative groups favors certain genetic predispositions related to kindness and reciprocity.”

But what happens when a group or individuals within a group act badly?  

In a lab study, NYU psychologists Heather Barry and Tom Tyler found that the students who were initially most devoted to their university were the ones who remained most loyal when confronted with the school’s failures. They conclude that “among people who are highly identified with a group, learning about the group’s injustice leads to short-term in group-serving behavior.” 

Devoted group members often cover up bad behavior to outsiders. This is especially true in dangerous jobs that also require a high degree of teamwork. This is a good thing, as they sometimes need to count on each for their very survival.

So soldiers form "bands of brothers," and cops erect "codes of silence." To turn against the group is no different from being disloyal to one’s family. And just as families, even dysfunctional ones, would rather deal with difficult members on their own, cops prefer to take care of "bad" cops by themselves. Cops aren’t merely co-workers; they are family. They must watch out for one another. Therefore, many cops argue, bad cops are best handled internally, not by civilian oversight.

As long as there are cops, there will be codes of silence. Loyalty is part of human nature. Loyalty to other cops must come with the profession. But there are at least two ways to address the downside to cops’ blue wall.

The first is to create review boards composed of civilians and police that have the power to bring bad cops to justice. No one is above the law. In the final analysis, cops are public servants and, therefore, are ultimately accountable to the people.

The second is to pass legislation that protects whistleblowers who are cops. It is hard enough for any worker to go public against an employer. So much more so a cop. Unfortunately, whistleblowing amongst the police is extremely difficult.

Clearly, police whistleblowers need legal protection.

The blue wall is never going away. But we can make it work for the sake of the police and the public, a necessary compromise in a democracy where the police are public servants.