Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Code of Silence
The Christopher Commission, writing on the LAPD, found that "perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaintsis the officers' unwritten `code of silence'....[the principle that] an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer."120 The commission concluded:
[P]olice officers are given special powers, unique in our society, to use force, even deadly force, in the furtherance of their duties. Along with that power, however, must come the responsibility of loyalty first to the public the officers serve. That requires that the code of silence not be used as a shield to hide misconduct.121
In its first report, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners' Office of the Inspector General (IG) found a decrease in the number of code-of-silence administrative actions - brought against officers who failed to provide information on alleged violations. These had dropped from fourteen in 1993, to twelve in 1994, ten in 1995, and none, at the time of the report, in 1996. Only four of the cases related to excessive force allegations. The IG was unable to ascertain whether the decrease related to a decline in the use of the informal code of silence to protect themselves or other officers, or lax enforcement of prohibitions on the code.122
The New York police force is also notorious for its officers' silence when misconduct occurs. As the Mollen Commission noted: "The pervasiveness of the code of silence is itself alarming."123 The commission found that the code of silence is strongest in the most crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhoods and is considered essential to prove loyalty to other officers in those areas of the city. One policeman who admits to corrupt and brutal practices, former NYPD officer Bernard Cawley, testified that he never feared another officer would turn him in because there was a "Blue Wall of Silence. Cops don't tell on cops....[I]f a cop decided to tell on me, his career's ruined....[H]e's going to be labeled as a rat."124 Other officers who testified concurred with Cawley, including one who kept his identity hidden during the Mollen Commission hearings precisely because of the code, and whostated that officers first learn of the code in the Police Academy, with instructors telling them never to be a "rat."125 He explained, "[S]ee, we're all blue...we have to protect each other no matter what."126
There is even a name for the way officers cover for each other and cover their own misconduct in court. It is called "testilying," offering false testimony in court. In justifying his inability to find NYPD Officer Francis X. Livoti guilty beyond a reasonable doubt for the "negligent homicide" of Anthony Baez, Acting New York Supreme Court Justice Gerald Sheindlin asserted that officers had committed perjury during the trial.127
Repercussions for breaking the code of silence include ostracism, threats, and the fear that officers will not "back up" or protect an officer who breaks the code.128 In Officer Livoti's trial, for example, one officer's account differed in important ways from those of fellow officers who supported Livoti's claim that Baez had resisted arrest.129 After her testimony at Livoti's trial, she asked for an administrative assignment because she reportedly feared she would not get back-up in dangerous situations from fellow officers.
In an unprecedented move in Philadelphia, eight officers were ordered suspended for ten days without pay in May 1996 for their silence in the citizen review board's hearings on a high-profile death in custody. Police Commissioner Richard Neal said that the suspensions were necessary because the officers had shown a "lack of candor."130 The officers' punishment was somewhat ironicbecause, during hearings on the case, Commissioner Neal did not require the officers to comply with the board's requests for information, and the department was known for its strong code of silence. Fraternal Order of Police lawyer Jeffrey Kolansky told a reporter that he rejected the notion that there is a code of silence, but then refused to answer a reporter's questions on the subject.131 To its credit, and in response to growing corruption and abuse scandals in the Philadelphia force, the black officers' Guardian Civic League called on fellow officers to turn in corrupt colleagues and report misconduct.132
In a 1993 study of the New Orleans police force, the city's Advisory Committee on Human Relations found a relatively small percentage of bad officers. One of the report's authors stated: "[T]he police department itself helps to cover up such people through the code of silence, and anyone who rats on another guy will find himself never promoted. Those signals come from the top and work their way down."133
In Boston, the police force's claims of reform were brought into serious question after a black plainclothes officer, Michael Cox, was allegedly beaten severely by fellow officers, who apparently believed he was a suspect.134 Following the January 1995 incident, the officers accused of the beating gave wildly inconsistent accounts of it, initially contending that Cox was either not at the scene at all or that he was not hurt. The two dozen other officers present at the end of the chase denied seeing Cox at all, or claimed they were not near him at the time of the beating. Because of the code of silence, the officers identified by Cox as the assailants have not been disciplined by police officials or charged criminally more than three years after the incident. (Federal and local prosecutors intervened in 1997, and brought obstruction of justice and perjury charges against one of the officers present during the Cox beating who gave a particularly unbelievable account of the incident.)
In all the cities we examined, and particularly in those like Philadelphia or New Orleans where police abuse and corruption have been visibly rampant, the code of silence is not limited to the street officers who witness abuses and fail to report them, or who lie when asked about reported incidents. In these cases, responsibility for the "blue wall of silence" extends to supervisors and ultimately police commissioners and chiefs. Furthermore, local district attorneys, when they prosecute criminal suspects based on officers' patently fabricated justifications of searches or suspects' injuries, and who continue to cooperate with officers who commit human rights abuses rather than attempt to prosecute them on criminal charges, join in complicity.
In the end, the code of silence all but assures impunity for officers who commit human rights violations since, without information about brutal incidents from fellow officers, administrative and criminal penalties are much less likely. In such a climate, officers who commit abuses flourish.
122 Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioner's Office of the Inspector General report, January 1997, p. 41.
123 Mollen Commission report, p. 53.
127 Michael Cooper, "Revenge cited in shooting of a captain," New York Times, January 8, 1997. In September 1997, the Bronx District Attorney's office announced it would reopen its perjury inquiry involving fifteen officers of the 46th Precinct.
128 Mollen Commission report, p. 53.
129 The officer had also filed a sexual harassment suit about the treatment she and other policewomen received at the 46th Precinct. Joyce Purnick, "The Blue Line Between Rat and Right," New York Times, October 10, 1996.
130 Jeff Gammage, Mark Fazlollah and Richard Jones, "8 City officers suspended in DeJesus case," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 30, 1996. The commissioner also stated he would "disregard" the findings of the Police Advisory Commission, which found that one of the officers had used excessive force, and was responsible for the death; the PAC also found that five officers had shown a "lack of candor." PAC report on DeJesus case,December 19, 1995, PAC. NO. 94-0015.
131 Jeff Gammage, "Code of silence: a barrier to truth in investigations of police," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 1996.
132 Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 1995.
133 Susan Finch, "NOPD told to put stop to brutality," Times-Picayune, May 20, 1993.
134 Dick Lehr, "Department unwilling to face brutal facts," Boston Globe, December 8, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch