The Cost of Breaking the Code of Silence

Like most cops, I always found it insulting that our department thought they needed to hire an expert to tell me I needed to pay for my coffee. Don't get me wrong--cops should be taught the foundations of ethical decision making, but too many police ethics lectures try to create dilemmas out of conduct that has only one clear choice, and cops see right through that.

I think this sanitized version of police ethics training is popular because most departments are reluctant to tell their cops that doing the right thing can be disastrous for both the officer doing the telling and the accused. We know the truth, but we don't want to tell our cops that doing the right thing could mean losing the support of their peers, being labeled as a rat, or possibly even ending their career. We want happy endings. We want to support our cops, and we want to tell them how important it is to always be honest and forthright. We want them to believe that honesty is always the best policy, but in truth, it's not. For example, what do you do when a cop who's saved your life does something unethical or illegal right in front of you? Are you going to run to internal affairs or civilian review and report them? Probably not.

Two years ago, some off-duty Milwaukee cops beat and then arrested a man for theft. The arrested suspect had serious injuries. Two uniformed Milwaukee cops witnessed the acts of brutality as they arrived on the scene, and eventually they testified against three of the officers. The Milwaukee PD made life so miserable for one of the truthful officers that she eventually quit. So you had two honest cops, and everyone else stuck by the code of silence. In state court, the jury found the cops not guilty. Then the FBI got involved.

Now one cop has spilled his guts, three have pled guilty, and three more have been charged. It's a disaster for the cops being charged. It's a disaster for the truthful cops who testified against their brothers in blue. And I can only imagine how devastating it must be for the families of both.

My complaint about police ethics classes is that they do nothing to prepare cops to deal with a situation like that. Instead, we tell them, "Just say 'No.'" Or we write a Catch-22 policy that says, "You will immediately report all acts by fellow officers that constitute a violation of department policy." Like that will ever happen.

I have been involved in police training for a long time, and I understand that when we are trying to instill a positive value, we want to be able show the good it will do. We want to be able to show the new officer the positive outcomes if they make the right choice. But how do we do that with the Code of Silence, when telling the truth and lying can bring equally disastrous results?

I've been retired for seven years, but I still get ready to jump out and help when I drive by a cop on a traffic stop. When I see someone challenge a cop, I wait to see what is going to happen. I try to make eye contact with the challenger. I want him to know what the stakes are if he is going to play that game. And I still carry a gun.

I don't do these things for fun. I do it because I owe a life-debt. Over a 30 year career, many cops put their lives on the line for me. They didn't stop to ask if I was right or wrong. They just stepped in, and I wasn't always right. Like every cop, I made mistakes. Cops know that's part of the deal. Many of those willing life-savers didn't even know me. The mere fact that I carried a badge was enough for them, men and women willing to put their lives on the line for me just because I was a cop. What kind of loyalty does that buy? Simple--it buys unconditional loyalty. That's the kind of loyalty that gives meaning to the heroic acts cops do for the good of others; even when those acts come at a tremendous cost to the officer and his family. And it gives us a reason to be proud of the cops that have made the ultimate sacrifice.

On the other hand, Code of Silence loyalty is not something we should be proud of. Code of Silence loyalty, like we saw in Milwaukee, is about deception and lies, and there's nothing heroic or self-sacrificing about lying to cover for a criminal act. If you have a question about whether something you're about to do is right, take this simple test to determine if your loyalty is misplaced. If the event or act that you are being silent about was made public on your local news station, would you be calling your family to watch the news? Or would you be ashamed of the truth? We don't have to be ashamed of being loyal to other cops, but we should be able to brag about what we've done--not hide what we've done.