A student asked me the following question the other day. "Isn't it true," she started, sounding like a lawyer, "that when you covered for cops that committed minor offenses or broke some rule of conduct, that you promoted the code of silence as their supervisor?" I had to admit that it could be seen that way. I went on to explain that I didn't let the conduct slide, I just dealt with the officer on a one to one basis and made it clear that I didn't expect to see the conduct repeated. As a supervisor that was usually enough to get their attention, and no, I didn't take every violation or improper use of force to IA. I had to admit that there were times when I thought that a two by four between the eyes would have been a lot more effective than my comments. She wasn't satisfied with my answer and pressed on by saying that she thought I was as guilty as the officer committing the offense if I didn't report the conduct to Internal Affairs or Civilian Review for discipline, as required by the police manual.
This was a smart but very young woman, and even though I thought her comment was insightful, it showed a lack of life experience. I didn't have all night to explain the different theories on first line supervision or police discretion, so I took another tack. I told her that all cops buy into the code of silence at one time or another, and that the important thing is that they understand what it is they are doing to themselves. There are times in every cop's career when they will protect their partner or friend, and if they do it knowing the consequences and they are willing to live with that, then there is nothing I am going to say or do to change their mind.
She came back with the comment that it sounded to her like I, meaning me, talked a good game of ethics but that it didn't sound like I was willing to really be ethical. I thought about the price I'd paid for not reporting everything I witnessed, and the even bigger price I had paid in terms of friendships for trying to promote good ethics. I was reminded at that point about a Rodney Dangerfield joke I'd heard a long time ago.
A man approaches a beautiful woman in a bar, and without any small talk, asks her "If I give you a dollar will you sleep with me?" The woman is instantly angry and tells the man "Absolutely not!" Before she can get away from the man he asks her a second question. "Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?" Now the woman pauses and after some thought says "Yes, I will." The man responds "How about for twenty dollars?" Again the woman looks indignant and says "Of course not. What kind of a woman do you think I am?" The man replies "I thought we just settled that. I was just negotiating the price." Ba Da Boom!
It's a funny joke, but there is a lot of truth in there. Most of us have a price, there will always be a code of silence, and cops will always find some justification for using it to protect another cop or themselves. But the fact that they are willing to pay the price doesn't make it right. The code of silence is sort of like smoking. With all the available information out there about the damage smoking does to the smoker, to the fetus in pregnant women, and to those who are forced to inhale second-hand smoke, there is no reason why anyone should smoke, but they do.
They can deny the damage all they want and they can come up with some very creative and justifiable reasons for why they do it. That doesn't change the act and it doesn't make it right. If you do it for a million dollars, for twenty dollars, or just because you can, you still do it. The only question is "What are you willing to give up for your act?" That is the real bottom line.