This unwritten code can generally be 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”.
In this post, I will discuss the idea proposed as far back as Max Weber, in the chapter “Bureaucracy,” in his work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), published after his death in 1920 where he writes:
Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of ‘secret sessions’ in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.
Weber describes an “ideal type” that in real life will vary from place to place and time to time. But nearly a century later, it can be agreed that the generalization holds, especially in a setting in which government chooses or is forced to be concerned about the loyalty of some portion of the citizenry.
For the concept of loyalty implied that there was much information within a bureaucracy which could be used to injure the Government or the national interest if revealed by disloyal persons to hostile nations or, for that matter, to internal elements hostile to our “way of life.”
In her article for the Max Weber Lecture Series, Deirdre M. Curtin, in “Keeping Government Secrecy Safe: Beyond Whack-A-Mole”, writes that scholars have struggled with the general concept of secrecy for centuries. Secrecy presupposes a separation, setting a part of the secret of the secret from the non-secret, and of keepers of a secret from the excluded targets. It establishes insiders and outsiders, groups of “us” and “them”. Having control over secrecy and openness gives power for influences what others know and plus what they choose to do. “Secrecy is a universal form which as such has nothing to do with moral valuations of its contents. On the one hand secrecy may embrace the highest values. On the other hand, secrecy is not in immediate interdependence with evil, but evil with secrecy”. This means, wrong doing, illegality, unethical behavior will in all likelihood be hidden from public gaze.
As G. Simmel in “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies” argues that secret keeping actually endows secrets with value. This value is based not on the content of the secrets, but rather on the fact that others are excluded from knowing about them. This is an ancient principal which transferred the aura of sacredness from the church and religious officials to secular leaders and was never more strongly invoked than in defense of seventeenth century absolutist monarchies. Kings and governments therefore, at certain times abused their subjects and citizens with the power they gained through the possession of information, and they used secrecy to cover up any wrong doing. Even the American President, Woodrow Wilson though speaking against secrecy in his 1912 election campaign, concluded “Government ought to be all outside and no inside”. But once elected to the US presidency adopted and applied the Espionage Act which was highly restrictive of free speech.
Secrecy by governments is enacted in the name of “National Security” which is a key justification traditionally given for classifying documents as secret and top secret. Where the “Blue Wall of Silence” comes in is that justification usually given for police actions or why investigations are kept secret is that it protects the investigation. This tendency for administration secrecy is one of the main reasons why freedoms of information laws are adopted in the first place. Such laws do not do away with administrative or government secrecy but they do provide access to documents or information in some cases that would otherwise have remained out of reach. Moreover, they give statutory and judicial support to the principle of openness.
However, the recent opening of Pandora’s box by Wikileaks brought, according to some, possible calamity to the US government, and international relations more generally, because of the unauthorized disclosure of classified military secrets. Leaking always had a symbiotic relationship with secrecy and is the classic way of outing possible abuse of power. Without secrecy, there would be no need to leak information. Wikileaks can in this context be understood as an example of a new way of challenging government power in information age by getting previous hidden information with possible evidence of power of abuse out into the open in a largely unstoppable and global fashion.
It could be said, that the information age on the one hand demands that secrecy is no longer a viable way to deal with the public, while at the same time emphasizing that public order organizations such as the police force feel a constraint to be secret in order to genuinely protect the work they do.
A key characteristic of the Blue Wall is the solidarity shown within the police force. Fellow officers are expected to back each other up in all circumstances. Aid one another when in trouble. An important feature in solidarity is inclusion. Everyone wants to be part of a group or a clique. This need to belong can result in officers remaining silent to other officer’s misconduct in order to protect their colleagues. This can lead them to feel included and cement their relationship with their fellow officers.
The second characteristic of the Rule of Silence, and which ties in with loyalty, is staying silent and even lying for another police officer. A consequence of this is that “by maintaining this loyalty an officer promotes presence of police deviance whether for a noble cause or not”.
We all are familiar with Robert Dzienkanski’s incident at the Vancouver International Airport. Where four Vancouver Police Officers tasered and killed Mr. Dzienkanski. This incident became publicised, and led to an investigation. The RCMP found it easy to cover up the incident at first by casting a favourable light on the four police officers involved for police officers share an understanding of what it takes to make decisions in the field of action. It is hard for the public to understand the decisions police officers make because they are not in a role of authority and do not have to make decisions objectively. RCMP officers in this case supported their fellow officers precisely because the decisions they made were done in the heat of the moment, and the same thing could have happened to any of them.
Another more insidious example of the Blue Wall of Silence at play is the experience of sexual harassment that Constable Catherine Gallagher had with the RCMP for number of years. Gallagher states that her senior officer in the Air India Task Force would use the pretext of telling the Air India families new information to lead her out of town so that he could try to have sexual relations with her. Although there was no new information no one came forward or said anything to the contrary. Other officers stayed quite therefore demonstrating deviance as they did not report these activities in trade for acceptance and to retain membership within the organization. Before Gallagher even became a police officer she had intercourse with a RCMP officer who claimed that if she didn’t he would ensure that she never made it to the RCMP. The powerful pull of officers wanting to belong to a group is the force that causes officers to remain silent in order to get that feeling of acceptance. Gallagher accepted and normalized this behaviour for 16 years. Her need to stay in the force and be a part of the RCMP is the cause of her remaining silent up to now. However, her coming out to the media and her 114 page report to the RCMP outlining how she was treated is a tremendous breakthrough.
The characteristics of the Blue Wall have become embedded and a part of the police sub-culture. It has become integrated into the actual backbone of the police organization in such a way that it has become an unofficial understanding on how justice is delivered. How can we change something that is instituted so deep?
The police may still be embedded with Weber’s idea that secrecy is part of a bureaucratic organization, but the society at large has changed with the age of information. As the media has proven again and again, it is perfectly capable of exposing the inner workings of organizations that work on the presumption of secrecy and modern laws, such as the Access to Information Act, aid the media in this quest. This is a game changer.
Added to this is the available technology of cell phones equipped with photo and video cameras which the general public now carries around with them. What use to be secret can no longer be secret because whatever takes place with witnesses around can easily be recorded and submitted as evidence for the public’s consumption.
The idea that organizations can keep their inner workings secret in order to maintain their superiority is dying a slow, but inevitable death given modern technology. The future as Gary Rothwell and J. Norman Baldwin’s research has unearthed is that the predictors of police willingness to blow the whistle are going to come into play more and more. The public demand for accountability, fueled by the media, is going to force the police force to implement the nine policy and structural variables which predict whistle-blowing. Again, these variables are:
- Capacity of the organization size;
- Number of police officers;
- Supervisory status;
- Agency tenure;
- Work group assignment;
- Existence of a policy manual;
- A policy mandating the reporting of misconduct;
- Presence of internal affairs unit; and
- Use of polygraphs.
Another unforeseen consequence, but as depicted by Constable Gallagher’s experience within the RCMP, is that the introduction of female police officers in the midst of what Thomas Nolan calls in his essay, “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence” in Men and Masculinities, a regimentated and ritualistic hegemony and a hidebound tradition of heterosexism and homophobia. Nolan means that the undercurrent in police culture is infused with a homosocial and homoerotic cast that sexualizes the construct in a way which is unique to policing. The police culture is mired in a form of masculinity that privileges tradition, ritual, hegemony and secrecy. Nolan suggests that that the so called “Blue Wall of Silence” is a component of a coherent and compelling construction of a sexual identity that is grounded in “a phallogocentric, masculinist form of domination and that is mired in a faux-heterosexual masquerade”. According to this understanding female police officers would be required to play the role of sexual objectification to titillate their male superiors. However, as the breakdown acknowledged by Constable Gallagher indicates, such pressure placed on a police officer’s psyche can only go so far. The Blue Wall of Silence worked as long as the officers participating in it saw themselves as a part of a brotherhood defending themselves against the outsiders, “the other”. The Wall, however, is going to crumble when those in power decide to victimize the institution’s own members. It is like feasting on the inside of your skin. All you are going to be left with is exposure to the elements.
In today’s world the elements are the information age; people’s expectation that those who are in position of power, or carry the ability to exercise power, need to be accountable for this exercise of power; and finally the attitudes which were prevalent within a male dominated work force now are undermined, for the better, by a greater representation of female participation in jobs traditionally held mostly by men. The world has changed, and continues to change, and institutions which could uphold secrecy in their inner workings before, are now increasing pressured to disclose in this age of information accessibility and record ability. When a person walking down the street can video police conduct on his/her cell phone and upload it to You Tube for the whole world to watch, how can secrecy be maintained, except by extreme prejudice.