Breaking the blue code
A cop-turned-ethicist says it's possible to do away with the "blue code of silence."
Doing away with the "blue code of silence" may seem impossible. But it can done, according to Neal Trautman, executive director of the National Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit organization that conducts training to combat employee misconduct and improve integrity.
The Orlando-based institute recently released a national study — the first of its kind — that not only examines the blue code, but makes practical suggestions on how to abolish it.
"The key," says Trautman, "is to encourage officers to have loyalty to principles, not to each other."
He cites the Idaho State Police Department as one that has successfully extinguished the blue code of silence.
"Officers told me how they would attack new officers with peer pressure if they thought the new officers were committing minor infractions of policy," says Trautman, who taught several ethics courses to the Idaho department. "In other words, it is the reverse of the code of silence. You are the bad guy if you commit an offense in their organization."
Trautman says that over the years he has studied hundreds of departments — their scandals and corrupt officers included — and taught thousands of officers. A 16-year police veteran from Florida, he founded the institute in 1991.
For his report "Police Code of Silence: Startling Truth Revealed," he surveyed about 2,000 participants in ethics training programs.
"About a thousand officers chose not to participate though the survey was absolutely confidential, which says something about the code," says Trautman
About 530 officers said they had witnessed misconduct by another officer and did not report it .
According to the study, excessive use of force was the most frequent act of misconduct shielded by the code of silence; about half of the 530 officers stated that they witnessed this and did not report it. "The reason excessive use of force frequently prompts the code," says Trautman, "is officers have experienced the same thing that caused another officer to lose their temper; they felt sympathy or empathy."
He recalls being spit on by someone he arrested and how his temper flared.
"You take so much grief as an officer, you can understand why someone loses their temper," he says.
Successfully abolishing the code, Trautman says, requires starting with the top brass. When an officer sees that his chief, sergeant — or anyone in a position of authority — condones misconduct that officer will be more likely to tolerate it.
According to the survey, 73 percent of those pressuring officers to keep quiet about misconduct were those with a higher rank, says Trautman.
"That statistic is the most disheartening for me of all the facts we gathered," he says. As long as those in positions of power encourage the blue code, it won’t go away, he adds.
After securing a commitment from top brass to break the code, Trautman lists four additional necessary steps.
• Top brass have to look within their department and determine what created the code. That could be such things as a lowering of hiring and promotion standards, lack of accountability or supervisors who treat officers disrespectfully.
• There has to be positive role modeling: Officers need to see leaders who are ethical;
• Supervisors must look at why officers don’t communicate with them or report misconduct and must create honest, open communication.
• The department must gauge integrity by tracking citizen complaints, abuse of overtime, internal grievances and allegations within civil suits. Tracking these will help determine whether integrity in the department is increasing or not.
Trautman says that many officers across the country made similar suggestions to his surveys when asked how they would do away with the blue code.
"They said they need better communication in their departments; they need to be able to report misconduct without being labeled a rat for the rest of their careers," he says. Officers also said they need "better role models and ethics training," according to Trautman. "They are right on target."
Trautman says that of the 17,000 police officers he has taught, only one has reported feeling far more stress from department leaders than from doing police work.
Trautman is optimistic about law enforcement despite the problems he sees in his training — not to mention racial profiling, the Los Angeles Police Department scandals, the New York Police shooting of Amadou Diallo and other bad publicity for police.
"Law enforcement is ahead of every other profession in America in enhancing integrity," he says. "Our organization began by studying what other professions are doing. And no profession in America has created the training tools, conducted the number of leadership seminars to show leaders how to prevent misconduct and none have future plans to prevent it like law enforcement has."
Trautman says when he founded the institute, he "literally could not give ethics training away." But in the last nine years the organization has created an ethics chapter in every state, hired 22 instructors and still can’t keep up with the demand for ethics training in police departments; it is the largest provider of police ethics training in the country, he said.
"The good news is that serious corruption is totally predictable and absolutely preventable," says Trautman.