Revisiting the ‘Blue Code of Silence’ in Policing

Dr Sarah Charman

In May 2014, the then Home Secretary Theresa May demanded a “fundamental change in police culture” in response to a critical HMIC report on the police response to domestic violence and abuse. We can perhaps therefore add ‘changing police culture’ to a ‘Top 10’ list of things that Theresa May has not managed to personally influence in recent years.  However, whilst it is true that politicians can arguably do very little to influence cultural change within organisational and occupational cultures, that is not to say that cultural change isn’t happening.  Cultural memories might shift slowly but they do shift. I interviewed a sample of new police recruits to ‘Evermord Constabulary’ [fictional name] on four occasions during the first four years of their careers and considered how, and in which ways, they adapted to their new identity as police officers (Charman, 2017).  One feature of that identity which will be the focus of this blog, is the extent to which changes to both the formal and informal workings of policing have potentially altered officers’ relationship with colleagues and the extent of the bonds of solidarity between them.

Much of the early research on policing referred to the culture as all-encompassing. Skolnick (2008, p.35) has argued that “being a police officer is a defining identity”. Police culture was characterised in terms of high levels of solidarity and suspiciousness, isolation and a distinctive ‘us versus them’ mindset. The military-style rank structure, the promotion of discipline and obedience, the uniform and the 24-hour nature of the job, all fed into an institutionalised ideology of a unique organisation set apart from the public. By being ‘set apart’, the inevitable impact of that isolation was a promotion of the imagery of solidarity and communality amongst its members and an expectation of remaining a member of that organisation for life. That solidarity was considered to be a powerful bond which united police officers in their work, both in terms of the public and from external oversight via the ‘blue code of silence’ (see: Westmarland 2005; Westmarland and Rowe 2016; Chan 2003; Goldsmith 1990)

So are those bonds of solidarity between officers still as strong and is their isolation from the public still as pronounced?  The new police recruits in my research did not refer to the narrative of policing being ‘a job for life’, and indeed, some spoke of it rather more in terms of a ‘job for now’, framed in the language of policing being a ‘job’ rather than a ‘lifestyle’. Although the research found that comradeship is strong, it is importantly not unqualified, and there are limits to this solidarity (Charman, 2017). These limits appear to be especially related to the perceptions of a ‘blue code of silence’.

One of the questions asked of the new recruits was how far they agreed with the following statement:

Police Officers must Observe a Code of Secrecy amongst Themselves to Protect Fellow Officers (%)

  Time A Time B Time C Time D
Strongly Agree

Agree

Disagree

Strongly Disagree

17.4

52.2

30.4

9.1

50.0

40.9

4.5

54.5

40.9

41.2

58.8

The majority of respondents disagreed with this statement at each time point. However, it is the strength of this disagreement which changes over time. At TIME A (4 weeks in), 30.4% of respondents strongly disagreed but by TIME D (4 years in), this number had almost doubled to 58.8%, becoming the most common answer.

There are two opposing explanations for why this might be the case. On the one hand, it could be argued that police officers become more sophisticated in their self-reported behaviours and their ‘storytelling’ to ‘outsiders’; that they become more politically aware of the dangers of betraying the more negative aspects of policing cultures. This could be coupled with a growing alignment with other attitudes such as the importance of suspiciousness, the tendency of police officers to ‘lay low’ and ‘not to make waves’, and the advice given to the new recruits in terms of ‘covering themselves’. This is in addition to the high levels of cynicism that police officers believe are part of the nature of being a police officer.

However, there is an alternative explanation which also needs consideration. The discussions that took place between the new recruits and the interviewer revealed a very nuanced account of the intricacies of the notion of a ‘blue code of silence’. It is my argument that the changing ‘field’ and the changing ‘habitus’ of policing have both impacted in different ways upon this issue. The changing field of policing in relation to accountability means that there is now a heavy focus upon professional standards, the routine escalation of complaints, a fear of ‘doing the wrong thing’ and a fear of little to no management support when things do go wrong. This is exemplified by the following comments from respondents:

“if you succeed as a team, you fail on your own” (W10)

“you don’t really have any support from anyone if it goes wrong, it’s all like you’re totally accountable yourself if something goes wrong” (Z7)

“If I got into a fight right now and I hit my emergency button, I know that … everybody would come running to help me out … they’d have my back, which is great.  Conversely … if I went into the office over there and said something that was questionable, maybe quite seriously politically incorrect, a racist term or anything like that, then I would be very surprised if pretty much most of the people didn’t write a report” (D5)

“I think that’s the public’s perception that we all, kind of, group together and we’re all, you know, we’ve got each other’s back. But actually, this last two years I’ve realised that a lot of what you go through you go through on your own” (D8)

There is also the changing habitus of police officers to be considered – the attitudes, values and beliefs that shape officers’ behaviours. From my research, this was characterised by a lack of tolerance for unacceptable policing behaviours and a belief in integrity, which was mentioned frequently by the new recruits as a feature of a ‘good’ police officer, after communication, empathy and compassion. These views were expressed by the majority of research participants and this small selection of quotes are used by way of examples:

“There were quite a few officers I knew, both in [name of other force] and here, who have, sort of, retired or been pushed.  The view these days is very much more, we can’t afford to have anyone like that working for the police.  And again, the more accountable, the more transparent we are, the more those people stand out” (D6)

“they have this thing at [name of training school], you’re told, if you hear something that’s not PC, you’re supposed to stand there and challenge and you think that will never happen but it does. You go into the workplace and people do because they know they have a responsibility themselves to pick up on things like that … so it does happen … we are a different breed totally, definitely” (C8)

“we can’t like slap people’s heads off a desk and you can’t put stuff in their boot and then say they had it on them already and you can’t shine a light in people’s eyes and get answers out of them, but at the same time, you do a better job and people get…and if you do convict people then you’ve done it the right way and it’s not fudged and it’s not unlawful” (X10).

What this might suggest that the traditional ‘blue code of silence’ could be in the process of being superseded by what I have called ‘the blue code of self-protection’. According to Waddington (1999), the prime motivating factor for police officers when undertaking their duties on the street is not the enactment of the more expressive ‘backstage’ talk but the concern of ‘staying out of trouble’, or as I have termed it, the ‘blue code of self-protection’. Perhaps as Chan (2007, p. 343) has argued, the “old ‘stand by your mates’ framework is no longer sustainable”. Myhill and Bradford (2013) have argued for a more fluid understanding of the ‘code of silence’. That more fluid understanding can be seen through this suggestion of movement from silence towards self-protection. These are important and interesting changes to the perceptions of the occupational habitus of police officers. What we might need to consider therefore is that we are witnessing a subtle shift away from the ‘blue code of silence’ as a dominant paradigm and a movement towards a ‘blue code of self-protection’ which has been influenced by a more individualist, risk-averse but publicly accountable policing organisation.

Dr Sarah Charman is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Portsmouth. Email: sarah.charman@port.ac.uk Twitter: @sarahc2612

 

One thought on “Revisiting the ‘Blue Code of Silence’ in Policing

  1. Pingback: Blue code of self-protection | World Policing

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