>Users:   login   |  register       > email     > people    

The Anatomy of the Code of Silence
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 09/26/2011

Silence Ordinary Workplace Happening Develop into a Phenomenon

This piece of writing is an informal attempt to put together an organized and truthful impression into the symptoms of the Code of Silence. Digging for the facts inside law enforcement and how it impacts those who participate in this type of conduct either willingly or under duress is a task that is most difficult to understand. One important fact to remember is that the code will vary from agency to agency but shares many commonalities. This critique is a rational explanation of the culture that exists with the injection of twenty five years of personal experiences of law enforcement and a very thorough research project conducted by the Institute of Ethics as presented in report format by Director Neal Trautman on the web for all to read. It is important to illustrate how officers, supervisors and administrators handle the risks associated with hostilities and challenges in the profession as it has recently become recognized that there are significant numbers of administrators who endorse the code of silence through passive enforcement and lack the character to change it.

First distress sign for the rookie officer is the feeling of vulnerability or needing help fresh out of the law enforcement academy. Strange enough, it is here, in a learning environment, where their judgment has already been prepared or conditioned, to react to the expectations of the Code of Silence. About 4 out of 5 cadets will acknowledge that such a code exists within their agency and that some of its reasoning is both logical and comprehensible as 50 per cent have indicated it won't bother them to work within such a customs. Through the natural process of being involved with the team concept from the beginning, they learn how to follow the culture from within. Quickly, they will be acquainted with good ethical conduct versus bad ethical conduct and many other performance issues. It is most likely that in their early contact with such events, they will remain silent and studiously listen to their mentors or training officers. Many react in the manner trained as officers must act on impulse and act quickly. Overcoming this rookie feeling of vulnerability first will require them to accept feedback from the supervisors and peers. Based on their academy training, they must identify the events as justifiable incidents and show how it could not have been handled different. Explaining their role as a public servant, they are there to help each other and identify perpetrators who demonstrate anti-social or disruptive behavioral problems. Second, whether a participant or a bystander, they must understand the rationale for the action taken based on the potential risks of the violent event occurring.

Distinguishing between verbal and physical harassment and translating that into imminent danger or possible threats to inflict injuries, the officer must take into consideration substantial information or data before acting. This has to be a lightening quick process. Watching another officer being assaulted requires a transformation from bystander to active participant. Abrupt or sudden action on an observed threat requires taking risks in doing the right thing to help the involved officer and requires acting out the compulsory response. A response that has a two-fold consequence as their actions will indicate the ability to respond and protect; the willingness to engage in the encounter. In addition, there is a social expectation and the legal option to consider in every such case. This sometimes creates a loyalty versus ethical situation that is often decided on loyalty. In the effort to prevent further violence, the officers focus on controlling the situation and use the tools available as issued. Almost immediately after the incident is under control, there is a pivotal moment of doubt whether or not the actions taken were either sufficient or too much.

Because it's likely the event took place either in front of another officer or a supervisor, the violent encounter is psychologically scrutinized and evaluated by all involved. At times, this presence of others actually stabilizes the environment for chances of de-escalating the threat. However, whenever such an event is isolated and nobody is present, your ability to control the environment is very limited when confronted with potential violent situations. Thus de-escalation might not be a viable solution at that moment. Taught not to allow the ego to get in the way, officers are taught to stand up for their authority and defend in place, protecting the public. When successful in preventing an escalation of violence, the officer pauses to reflect the action taken and looks at the entire event to see if there was anything that could have been done differently. This entire psychological chain of events contributes to specific an element that leads officers not to talk about the matters at hand for many reasons. The officer will anticipate an administrative review of the actions as the perpetrator or their families will claim allegations that inappropriate action was used and imply that the act by the officer(s) was unnecessary and excessive. This mode of Monday morning quarterbacking situations can lead to poor morale yet it is done in almost every incident recorded.

Rather than focusing on ethical conduct, some supervisors judge these events by loyalty rather than ethics. Whistle blowers are not accepted within this culture and pay a high price if identified as one. In fact, many administrators will deny there are any ethical issues within their command and encourage others to cast whistle blowers out of their ranks from within. In addition to their denial, officers are often secretly or subversively ostracized and "black balled" from promotion or other career assignments or leadership decision thus adding to the incentive to remain silent. In the end, they justify their silence through the "root cause" of feeling alienation by others as they feel they are being victimized by other people in their own workplace.

Setting aside the preliminary questioning and constitutional issues at hand, the officer is taught the confidentiality of such events and issues. Maintaining silence has become a tool of the trade to protect both the innocent and the guilty. Minimizing their involvement creates a buffer for the facts while it enhances the officer's credibility to work closely with coworkers. Proactively seeking resolve on these matters through silence, the officer knows that unless there is other evidence out there that contradicts the events are reported, this matter will pass. Hence, the presence of dashboard and surveillance cameras, recordings and other technology has expanded the administrator's role in the investigation and places more emphasis on finding the answers and the truth. In the study of the National Institute of Ethics, the writer explains that the "rotten apple" theory that some administrators propose as the cause of their downfall has frequently been nothing more than a self-serving, superficial facade, intended to draw attention away from their own failures."

To summarize the code of silence, it has long been an acceptable practice to shield and protect the innocent as well as those few who are guilty. The threshold issues of custodial responsibilities are heavy burdens and handled the best way by the majority of officer most the time. The American criminal justice system and in particular law enforcement, has been negligent by not attempting to resolve the negative impact the code as it has been found to nurture other unethical conduct. Realizing the reality that such a custom or practice is difficult to measure; the only ramification for combating such a culture is to conduct intensive training on the subject. In a "silence" culture, whistle-blowers or snitches are not supported by the administration for the main reason is hypocrisy and fear dominates this culture. Identified to be much more destructive than the support from field supervisors, administrators must encourage positive role modeling and demonstrate strong moral courage to openly acknowledge such misconduct when it is identified. To ignore such a priority would to allow other ethical misconduct to occur. Historically, it is the people outside such law enforcement circles that divulge the ethical issues rather than its own employees

Action needed to be taken:
  • Administrative Commitment '" a commitment to put ethics before loyalty
  • Recruitment Recommendations '" honest open screening of applicants
  • Hiring Recommendations '"thorough background checks
  • Academy Training Recommendations- press ethical conduct versus loyalty issues
  • Field Training Officers Recommendations '" conduct ethical dilemma situational training
  • Internal Training Recommendations '" more emphasis on ethics

Additional Leadership Recommendations:
  1. Open, honest communication must be established and maintained.
  2. It is imperative that all supervisors role model mission statement values.
  3. Employees must receive fair and consistent discipline when deserved, along with recognition and positive reinforcement for behavior consistent with sustaining a positive culture
  4. Administrators must hold everyone accountable for having the courage to do what is honorable. A "whistleblower" policy that adequately supports and protects employees must be established.
  5. Employee Assistance '" address the feeling of being victimized
  6. Organizational Culture - leadership, role modeling and training


Special thanks to the National Institute of Ethics -POLICE CODE OF SILENCE FACTS REVEALED Legal Officers Section Annual Conference International Association of Chiefs of Police By Neal Trautman Director The National Institute of Ethics

Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


  1. lawman004 on 09/28/2011:

    I enjoyed reading your article and found it factual, organized, and very well written. Over my career, I can attest to many instances where I have knowledge of the code of silence within our profession. As I progressed from line staff to senior management over my career, I was very aware of the mindset of my colleagues; I was surprised to find that the ethical culture actually manifested itself within the upper ranks. Without getting into any examples, the engine that drives this dilemma in upper leadership is concern over various events that threaten public exposure and opinion, thus creating the culture that promotes don’t tell. Your suggestions for corrective action are undoubtedly the correct route to take; I believe the resolution would have a positive interim affect. However, I also believe over the long term, even with continued training, it would revert back to acceptance of the undesirable ethical behavioral(s). I have partaken in training efforts to facilitate major organizational change at both the administrative and line staff level. Unfortunately, even using known models for successful organizational change, our efforts over the long term failed. The organizational culture reverted back over time through my experiences. I believe no long term change can occur without radical change to the organizational structure to include senior management, and all upper command staff. Old ideologies are a closely organized system of guarded and practiced beliefs, values, and ideas forming the basis of an institutional culture. These ideologies tend to resurface, and they do not die easily. I believe to facilitate real long term change in organizational behavior; one must start with changing the entire leadership and senior management team in combination with firm policies and procedures, and ongoing ethical training at every level within the organization to affectively make changes in a culture. Michael

Login to let us know what you think

User Name:   


Forgot password?

correctsource logo

Use of this web site constitutes acceptance of The Corrections Connection User Agreement
The Corrections Connection ©. Copyright 1996 - 2018 © . All Rights Reserved | 15 Mill Wharf Plaza Scituate Mass. 02066 (617) 471 4445 Fax: (617) 608 9015