Finally Fracturing the Blue Wall of Silence?
"Brothers in blue" rarely ever testify against one another. That changed when Derek Chauvin was charged, chipping away a historic wall of silence.
A powerful, unwritten rule has dominated American policing for centuries: the unyielding commitment to upholding the blue wall of silence serves as a substantial barrier to public safety and police reform efforts. Historically, members of law enforcement facing allegations of impropriety have depended upon the impermeability of this blue wall to preserve their careers and reputations.
The blue wall of silence refers to the various methods that many police officers jointly adopt to obstruct accountability for police misconduct. These actions may include officers intentionally deactivating their body cameras in the field, declining to work with prosecutors after police wrongdoing accusations have been filed, suppressing internal investigative efforts, or even lying under oath to defend their colleagues’ actions in the courtroom.
However, the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has marked a stark deviation from this culture of silence as many members of law enforcement came forward to testify against Chauvin and openly denounce his actions. By refusing to act as another brick in the blue wall, people like Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, homicide detective Lieutenant Richard Zimmerman, and even Chauvin’s own former supervisor, retired Sergeant David Ploeger, have helped begin to rebuild public confidence in law enforcement nationwide.
Before the trial began, fourteen police officers signed an open letter in 2020 proclaiming that Chauvin, “failed as a human and stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life.” They jointly declared, “This is not who we are.” This bold statement left many Americans eager for them to prove it. In the second week of the trial, Chief Arradondo took the stand to assert that Derek Chauvin’s decision to kneel on the neck of handcuffed George Floyd was “in no way, shape or form” in accordance with the Minneapolis Police Department’s official policy or training practices. Sergeant Ploeger also testified that Chauvin utilized excessive force and unequivocally should have relented once Floyd was handcuffed and subdued.
In the wake of a tumultuous summer of mistrust between communities of color and local police forces, many Americans are wondering whether this trial has forged a lasting rift in the blue wall of silence, or if it merely serves as a temporary glimpse of hope into a turning point in American policing.
The Finch Podcast spoke with John Rappaport, a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago and an expert on police brutality, and Brian Williams, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia and expert on race relations, last summer.
In 2015, The Washington Post discovered that since 2005, fifty-four police officers in the United States were criminally charged with murder or manslaughter on the job, yet a fellow member of law enforcement provided a statement or testified against the killer in merely twelve of those cases. After the trial of Derek Chauvin, some believe that many more members of law enforcement may now be willing to speak up (or better yet, step in) when they witness their fellow officers taking part in misconduct.
However, it is still too soon to determine whether members of law enforcement are truly becoming less averse to holding their fellow officers accountable, or if the high-profile nature of George Floyd’s murder and the international public backlash towards Chauvin has led to this rare departure from the blue wall of silence.
During last summer’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of Floyd’s killing, a haunting sign recurred at numerous protests across the United States and even internationally. It read simply, “How many weren’t filmed?” In the wake of the digital revolution, cell phone videos, social media networks, body cameras, and other pieces of technology have contributed to increased public awareness of long-standing, institutionalized issues within law enforcement ranks and the criminal justice system. Specifically, these tools have led to the public exposure of police officers engaging in blatant wrongdoing and abuses of power against the communities that they are sworn to protect and serve.
In Missouri in 2014, an unarmed Black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, which prompted a period of civil unrest and the onset of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just two months later, a Black seventeen-year-old named Laquan McDonald was shot sixteen times by a white police officer in Chicago. However, a video recording of McDonald’s murder exposed that some police officers who witnessed it provided grossly fabricated accounts of the events that led up to the shooting. In essence, the video proved that these policemen had lied to protect their fellow officer, further perpetuating the blue wall of silence.
In a high-risk, dangerous profession like policing, loyalty between officers is imperative. This message is ingrained in members of law enforcement from the beginning of their training and is reinforced on the job every day by their superiors, police unions, and coworkers. This culture of consistent dependability has simultaneously bred a culture of unquestioned, unwavering loyalty between officers. As a result, many members of law enforcement are reluctant or outright opposed to calling each other out for misbehavior. Instead of holding a foremost loyalty to the rule of law and justice, they have been implicitly taught that their first loyalty should lie with their fellow officers, regardless of the atrocities they may have committed on or off duty.
In “Whistleblowing and the Police,” renowned political science scholar Roberta Ann Johnson wrote, “Loyalty is exacted with a code of honor that requires officers not to ‘snitch on,’ ‘rat out’ or turn in other officers. The police officers’ respect for and loyalty toward their peer group encourages them to abide by the code of honor and to heed the obligation of silence.” The blue wall of silence, particularly when a colleague is under fire for using excessive force, is a major obstacle to police reform.
For instance, after the 1991 Rodney King beating, which was filmed by bystanders, the city of Los Angeles established the Christopher Commission to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department, its training practices, and usages of excessive force. The commission’s research emphasized how the blue wall of silence was “perhaps the greatest single barrier to the effective investigation and adjudication of complaints.”
In the United States, police officers kill approximately one thousand people annually. Although most of these homicides are ruled justified, in the infrequent cases that result in an officer receiving a murder charge, they typically do not serve any prison time. Instead, they generally walk after a jury finds them not guilty or a judge dismisses the charges.
Therefore, even though the blue wall may have been momentarily breached by the testimonies of Chauvin’s fellow officers and members of law enforcement at large, this trial alone will not be enough to precipitate a significant crumbling of the blue wall.
In the words of Howard University law professor Justin Hansford, “They’re throwing Chauvin under the bus because that keeps the bus intact...For each officer who has come forward, this case will determine their legacy.”
Although some pundits have acclaimed this trial as a major shift from a culture of silence to a movement for transparency in policing, this narrative oversimplifies the reality of what is really transpiring during the Chauvin trial. Many testimonies from members of law enforcement paint Chauvin as a “bad apple officer” whose actions do not reflect the training they received and the policing tactics their department practices at large.
By discarding Chauvin as an outlier from the broader community of police officers, they neglect the role that the internal policies, training tactics, and cultural environment of their department played in enabling his killing of Floyd. In doing so, these testifying officers eschew public scrutiny of institutionalized issues within American policing by scapegoating Chauvin for the much larger, long-standing racism, accountability, and excessive force problems that permeate police forces nationwide.
The Minneapolis Police Chief testified that Chauvin’s behavior certainly did not align with official department policy or training, but in reality, Chauvin was doing exactly what he was trained to do: use excessive force on an unresisting Black citizen under the impression that his fellow officers would defend him no matter what.
While Chauvin’s actions may not have aligned with the official department policy, they certainly matched perfectly with informal mores in policing nationwide, specifically the dedication to the blue wall of silence. Therefore, real progress with regards to justice and accountability in policing will require wide-ranging reforms to police training and internal affairs procedures, not just forceful denunciations of one murderous officer in a broader system.
Eroding law enforcement’s institutionalized commitment to blindly abiding by unwritten codes of loyalty and honor will truly help dismantle the blue wall of silence. This process will foster a safer and fairer environment not only for private citizens, but for police officers as well.
On the eve of the third week of the Chauvin trial, another unarmed Black man was gunned down by a Minnesota police officer. This time, it was a twenty-year-old named Daunte Wright, who was allegedly pulled over for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. The officer who killed him, Kim Potter, claimed she mistook her firearm for her taser and Wright’s death was the result of an accidental discharge. The shooting happened on Sunday, April 11, 2021 in Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis merely ten miles away from the site of Chauvin’s trial.
As demonstrated by the police killings of George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and countless other unarmed Black Americans dating back centuries, the problem is systemic, not only within the Minneapolis police department, but in precincts nationwide. One trial is simply not enough. After the cameras are off and the media attention dissipates, local police departments must be willing to do the real work within their own ranks by actively deconstructing the blue wall of silence, even if this process starts one brick at a time.
Sophia Scott is a rising freshman at Harvard College planning on studying Human Evolutionary Biology. She writes about policing, justice reform, and current events.