Code of Silence

Is there a code of silence on the Chicago Police Department? Absolutely yes. Police officers tend to protect their own in minor situations: so do doctors, mechanics, bankers, donut makers, attorneys and just about every profession known to mankind.

As I teach at a local college, I had the opportunity to ask my students, whose age’s range between 18 and 60 years old, what type of jobs they do. I asked the mechanic if he ever works on his personal automobile while in the shop and on company time. I asked the girl in the donut shop if she ever took donuts home without paying for them. I asked the clerk if he ever took office supplies home without paying for them. This went on for thirty minutes. All those questioned responded that they took things without paying for them and/or witnessed other workers taking things without paying for them. From my little experiment I concluded that the vast majority of people share a code of silence in their workplace.

I personally believe this code of silence is a positive virtue in police work. Police officers, unlike any other group of workers, must believe in and trust their fellow officers with, not only their lives, but with their futures. The only other profession on earth to equal that level of trust is the military.

Our dilemma is that there is no absolute response to any police scenario that can be taken as gospel. As such, officers with diverse personalities are inherently going to respond differently in different situations. Sometimes these responses are going to be physical and often seen as excessive. Some responses in certain situations are excessive, but if used under other circumstances, would be appropriate.

Faultfinders don’t take this perspective into consideration. Nor do they allow the officer to use his empirical knowledge and personal discretion in determining the correct course of action. Simply said, there is no manual or book of instructions that every officer can adhere to, so when an officer does overstep his boundaries, he should be reined in and corrected, not fired and sued.

A proactive police officer cannot go a year on the streets without inadvertently or accidentally violating another person’s civil rights. A slap or a kick is going to take place following a threat to the officer’s daughter from some druggy or after a high speed chase that puts innocent lives in jeopardy. These reactions are human and reactive, also provoked by the criminal. This is where I have the biggest problem. Politicians, news media and police bosses believe that officers should be robots without emotions. They think in terms of theory, not reasonableness or the real world.

Let’s look at other groups: The murder suspect you just arrested always says you have the wrong guy, the burglar or stick up guy always denies guilt, the corner dealer adamantly states those aren’t his drugs. These are all nefarious individuals so we understand why they lie. So let’s explore the famous and highly respected professions.

The surgeon leaves the dead patient on the operating table after a failed routine procedure. How often does he admit to the family that he inadvertently slipped and accidentally killed his patient? How about the defense attorney that repeatedly and knowingly lies to the judge about his client’s innocence. Let’s look at the accountant compiling his tax returns. How about the dentist describing his patient’s need for expensive dental work to the insurance company? And the ultimate prize, how about the politician seeking re-election and the intentional false promises made?

By no means am I trying to make any case for officers to violate the law. If a police officer steals money or drugs, he should be held fully accountable. What I am saying is if a police officer makes an honest mistake, treat him with fairness and reasonableness.

Also, often misinterpreted as lying, is when an officer on the scene of a traumatic incident gives a differing version of what occurred. When a police officer is confronted by a life changing scenario like a shooting, he goes through a phenomenon termed tunnel vision. This is when the officer’s line of vision reduces to a fraction of normal and their brain focuses on the immediate threat while ignoring other surrounding issues.

Secondary officers are often accused of filing false reports because their views don’t always accurately mimic what occurred. This phenomenon has been repeatedly explained by medical professionals and repeatedly ignored by police oversight professionals.

Police officers are human and sometimes overreact. This, by itself should not be grounds for any overzealous discipline. Police officers should be held to a higher standard but we are still human beings with a normal range of emotions. Officers that violate the civic trust by stealing from people and committing other deliberate criminal acts should be held accountable. Police officers cannot be judged by typical means, their jobs are much too complicated.

Is there a code of silence? Yes, in all professions and walks of life. Interestingly, the code of silence in police work is mostly an honorable one compared to all other professions. Should we ignore the code of silence in police work? No, but we should attempt to understand it further and while respecting the officer’s constitutional rights, we should determine the real right or wrong and never judge officers based on the normal man’s moral base. There is nothing normal about police work.

What are your views?

– Larry Casey, police sergeant (ret.), Chicago Police Department, professor of Criminal Justice, Wilbur Wright College