The blue wall of silence perpetuates racist policing, wrongful convictions

Prosecutors chipped away at the blue wall of silence this month when they called current police officials to testify against former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd last May—an important step in normalizing the denouncement of police misconduct.

Some police officers openly engage in unethical, immoral, and even illegal behavior, but they are often protected by what is known as the blue wall of silence—an unofficial agreement between law enforcement not to challenge each other’s misconduct. Among other things, this code perpetuates bias-motivated policing and wrongful convictions.

What is the blue wall of silence?

The blue wall of silence is inspired and maintained by the strong subculture in policing. Former police lieutenant with the Boston Police Department, Tom Nolan, argues that the subculture promotes a “cult of masculinity” that enforces deliberate misrepresentation. In his essay, “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence,” he discusses how he was tasked with teaching officers “creative report writing” that told a rendition of the truth that was designed to hide an officer’s wrongdoings. He also discusses how the worst thing a police officer could do was not brutality or corruption but rather talking to the media. Nolan argues that secrecy is promoted and rewarded time and time again, and, beyond that, Nolan says mastering secrecy is seen as a representation of masculinity. Considering the value placed on concealing the truth in the subculture of policing, it makes sense that officers are reluctant to call each other out.

“Cops don’t rat on cops,” former FBI agent Philip Hayden wrote in an opinion column for USA Today. “That blue wall is one of many factors that further pushes the widening divide between the world as seen by law enforcement and the world experienced by the citizens whom officers are sworn to protect.”

Hayden testified against the officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black 15-year-old named Jordan Edwards in 2017. In the opinion column, Hayden describes the challenges he faced when breaking through the blue wall of silence to testify. He first considered the blue wall of silence when a friend asked him why he refused to work with prosecutors investigating law enforcement.

“At the time, the question seemed like a no-brainer,” Hayden wrote. “Use my expertise to testify against a police officer? That’s just not what ex-law enforcement agents did. My friend appealed directly to my sense of duty. My obligation, he pushed, was not to an individual or a group. It was to the law. And if someone hired to enforce that law violated the public’s trust, it was my obligation to speak up. I winced. It felt as if he had stuck my FBI lapel pin right into my heart.”

Hayden maintains that he “still believe(s) that it’s important for officers to be loyal to one another; it’s a dangerous profession. But our first loyalty is to the law. Bad officers make maintaining that loyalty unnecessarily tough for everyone.”

The blue wall of silence is strengthened when officers who do intervene with misconduct are punished for speaking out. This happened to former police officer Shannon Spalding who currently works for the Exoneration Project. She blew the whistle on former public housing officer Ronald Watts when she learned that he was framing residents of the Ida B. Wells public housing complex in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. In Spalding’s case, the blue wall of silence was so strong that her life was threatened by officers when she reported Watts to the FBI.

“When I signed up for this job, I knew I might have to lay my life down, but I never thought I’d have to worry about it being a fellow officer doing that to me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

The blue wall of silence cracked in the Chauvin trial

Chauvin was found guilty last Tuesday of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. The guilty verdict was in large part due to the use-of-force testimony from his fellow officers.

“I also think the state did a really good job of providing expert witness testimony in the form of medical evidence, as well as use-of-force testimony, and also helping to break what some may call the ‘blue wall of silence’ by having so many police officers testify in the prosecution’s case against [Derek Chauvin],” Levy Armstrong told Democracy Now. “We know that through one trial, that blue wall of silence is not going to crumble, but it is a start. And Chief Arradondo has been able to set the tone for the department in terms of his expectations and sending a signal to officers that they will not be allowed to get away with this kind of behavior.”

Levy Armstrong is referencing Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo’s testimony, which notably denounced Chauvin’s actions. 

“To continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back, that in no way, shape or form is anything that is by policy,” Chief Arradondo testified. “It is not part of our training, and it is certainly not part of our ethics or values.”

Other law enforcement who testified against Chauvin included Minneapolis Police Lt. Richard Zimmerman, a 36-year veteran of the force, who characterized Chauvin’s force as “totally unnecessary,” and Lt. Johnny Mercil, use-of-force training coordinator for the department, who called the neck restrained “unauthorized” and “active aggression.”

It is important to note the possibility that the officers broke through the blue wall of silence in the Chauvin trial because of the heightened publicity around the case.

“The spectacle of so many officers testifying against one of their own was unusual and a welcome break from the so-called blue wall of silence that has long enabled police misconduct,” the Washington Post’s Editorial Board wrote in an opinion column.  “However, the singling out of Mr. Chauvin doesn’t give a pass to Minneapolis or other cities for the systemic issues that have fueled brutality against people of color.” 

It is also important to note that breaking through the blue wall was not the only brave act at the Chauvin trial. Many Black residents of Minneapolis took the stand to testify against Chauvin despite the possibility of experiencing retaliation.

“The Black people who testified, they still live in that community,” Levy Armstrong told NowThis News. “They still have to walk down the street. They still may have to face retaliation from officers and others who saw them testify. The stakes are much higher for them.”

Implications of the blue wall of silence for innocence work

In addition to perpetuating police violence, the blue wall of silence contributes to wrongful convictions by allowing police misconduct, which was present in 37 percent of exonerations from 1989 to 2019, to go unchecked.

For example, earlier this month, more than 50 drug convictions that were based on the testimony from former NYPD detective Joseph Franco were vacated. Franco was charged two years ago with perjury in Manhattan. While there is no evidence of misconduct in the vacated Brooklyn cases, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office said it had lost confidence in the prosecutions.

By nature of the blue wall being a code of silence, it is hard to know whether it protected Franco without a whistleblower coming forward. However, in an article about Franco, the New York Times said concerns over New York City police officers making false or misleading statements is not new and that discipline is often rare. The Times points to their 2018 finding that of the 81 instances of police making false statements over an eight-year period identified by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau only upheld two, citing a lack of evidence in the other 79 instances.

The blue wall of silence has historically allowed law enforcement to act without consequences, taking people’s lives and freedom in the process. The Chauvin trial has inspired recent conversations about the blue wall, and the conversation must continue because allowing this abuse of power to persist could lead to more wrongful convictions and unjust killings.

“If that blue wall of silence had crumbled before this trial, George Floyd and many other people would still be alive,” said Levy Armstrong.