- By Lt. Tim McMillan
The Truth About The Blue Wall Of Silence
The legal standard for when a police officer is justified in using force against someone is set by the “objective reasonableness” standard that emerged from the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court Case Graham v. Connor. What the objective reasonableness standard states that an officer is lawful in their use of force if it is determined that an officer’s actions were reasonable and prudent based on the perspective of another law enforcement officer given the same set of circumstances.
The ruling in Graham v. Connor set the tone for the “officer safety” standard, which in effect is the organizational and legal standard that can justify a police officer aggressing first towards a person if they believe that this person is about to engage in something that places the officer’s safety in jeopardy.
Now, the inherent nature of law enforcement is a complex role to have to fill. The bottom line is that police officers at times are forced to make split-second judgments in very tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. As a result, it is unfair to judge the actions of a police officer by evidence that comes to light after the fact. In essence, the presence of 20/20 hindsight cannot be taken as the ultimate determining factor for justification. Additionally, it can be argued that it is unfair to the police officer to have their actions be judged by non-law enforcement personnel due to all of the complexities that are involved in the police officer’s job.
Essentially, cops have a tough job. As a result of the robustness of the profession law enforcement officers are afforded a degree of subjectivity in their favor, regarding how their actions judged.
Now, when this subjectivity becomes problematic is if situations occur in which the police officer is afforded too much partisanship in their favor, and therefore, the “officer safety” standard becomes an umbrella that legally covers everything they do. In perspective, the standard in which we as police officers have our actions judged is the Mount Everest of slippery slopes.
One of the most vital elements that are required to ensure that the objective reasonableness standard doesn’t end up resembling anything but justice is that the police officers employed within the profession must represent individuals within society that possess the highest quality of ethical discernment. The police officer’s moral character must be their paramount compass for how the act in a situation. Whether an officer’s actions are legal should be a secondary consideration, because if improperly employed, something can be technically legal, but still immoral or unethical.
To further complicate things, the suggestion that an “objective reasonableness” can even truly exist is problematic. Ask ten cops how they would handle a situation, and you are likely to get ten different answers. Therefore, it is virtually impossible actually to have an actual objective standard. Perceptions are inherently always going to be subjective for those on the perimeter of any incident.
An unintended side effect of the objective reasonableness standard is that whenever an incident involving the police occurs and a great deal of public scrutiny is associated with it, the collective police profession remains relatively silent or defensive. The silence isn't because there is some national organized “blue line” brotherhood which conspires to protect bad police behavior. Rather, it is a result of the fact that each officer is limited to their individual perception. Therefore officers fear the consequences of speaking poorly about the actions of another police officer, should those actions later be determined to be lawful and ethically defensible.
As a result, the police profession cultivates the ensuing culture that exists to this day. The average cop has a fear of publicly speaking poorly about how an incident looks based solely on the public view, which indeed is the only view that both the vast majority of cops and civilians are given. So when an incident looks bad to the public, it equally looks just as bad to the collective police profession. However, only the public is crying out against the event.
The police silence then fosters public mistrust of the police and the perception of a “The Blue Wall of Silence” that is protection afforded to cops by other cops. In reality, this is entirely correct. However, the "The Blue Wall of Silence" is a byproduct of the culture and not an intentional attempt at protecting crooked cops. In essence, the public feels like cops are protecting corrupt cops. The individual Cop feels like they are, in effect, protecting themselves. In reality, the cops may indeed be inadvertently be protecting crooked cops.
So how do we reconcile this perception of universal police mistrust that exist today?
First of all, it begins at the police department level long before any controversial incident exists. For this justice system, which is admittedly, disproportionate in favor of police officers, to function righteously and maintain the trust of the public, police agencies must ensure they are hiring the right people for the job. On top of hiring the right people for the job, police academies and police departments have to engage in ethical and critical thinking training with their recruits and officers.
Police standards have to evolve with contemporary times and incorporate other non-criminal justice domains that are not widely being used right now. For example, the evaluation of emotional intelligence for police candidates. A good friend of mine Dr. Bernard Ferguson, wrote a book, ‘Where’s the EQ: Race and Policing Up Close. In his book, Dr. Ferguson examines the topic of emotional intelligence in law enforcement. The fact is as Dr. Ferguson will be quick to point out, the profession, as a whole, fail’s to acknowledge the importance of emotional intelligence. However, isn't having the ability for a police officer to recognize their own emotions and other people’s emotions one of the most significant factors in determining how successful a person can be in performing the role of societies police?
Additionally, police leadership must be representative of the highest degree of moral character within a police department. How well police officers treat the public, often can be traced back to how well are officers dealt with by their leadership. I call this the “abused child syndrome.” When officers are mistreated or abused by supervision, often they become abusers. However, the victims of their abuse are the general public. The ensuing is a snowball effect that produces what is seen across the police profession right now.
When one becomes an abuser or authoritarian, that becomes a part of who they are. It is like being infected with a wicked unethical poison. Suddenly, the only way one can derive a sense of happiness is when they are in authority or abusing others. The abuse then isn’t solely limited to the public being victimized. The abuser begins to inflict harm on those closest to them, and ultimately themselves. They are like an addict chasing a high that only ultimately results in lows. The outcome results in the high levels of divorce, domestic violence and suicide that exist within the police profession presently.
These are only a few elements that must be rectified universally for the police role to ultimately be able to function as a dualistic entity that both meets the needs of the police officers within it and the public it serves. These are also a few of components that represent the entire motivation behind establishing The Four Trees Project (www.thefourtreesproject.com). In the end, it is not about taking anything from one side of the equation; rather it is about providing betterment for both parties equally.
Additionally, regarding possessing a willingness to speak out against controversial police incidents that the public is vocal about, law enforcement must continue to demonstrate their ability to be a model for ethical and moral discernment. When you see the news video of the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. (a topic I will dedicate an entire article on this week), you have to be willing to say that Mr. Slager unlawfully took Mr. Scott’s life. You all know it. We are all looking at the same video. We should be aware of the law better than most, and we are mindful of the fact that shooting and killing a fleeing misdemeanor suspect in the back is murder. Moreover, the NCPD was upfront in saying that Slager had provided false statements of the event in his police report. If it hadn’t been for the cellphone video, we all might not have known the incident even occurred. Outside, of course, Mr. Scott's family who lost a loved one. They would be well aware of the tragedy behind that case.
Or if we see something like what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, it is ok to say that based on our knowledge of the law and the complexity of the profession that even from the initial reports, potentially Daren Wilson was justified in his shooting of Michael Brown. However, the fact that there was so much public outcry over the incident suggest that the Ferguson Police Department at the time, was doing a poor job before the shooting with their engagement of the African American community and that community didn't trust them. The concept that the underlying problem in Ferguson extend long before Michael Brown died is something that is accidently substantiated by Darren Wilson himself in his first interview after the incident he did with The New Yorker (another topic I will cover in depth later in the week).
In conclusion, being good to the police profession doesn’t mean collectively supporting everything that happens in law enforcement. Being good to law enforcement means being a good best friend to law enforcement. A best friend doesn’t help their friends when they engage in bad behavior. If they did, that wouldn’t be a good best friend. It means encouraging fellow law enforcement agencies and officers to do the right thing and if we feel like fundamentally we have made the right decision, but the public is saying we haven’t. Then maybe it means the first right thing we didn’t do, was doing a better job with how we treat the public and the community.
If you are a law enforcement officer and you, want to be that “Saint Michael” protector of the innocent, then be that! However, that means striving to be like the Archangel Michael. In Hebrew the world Michael is מיכאל transliterated as “MiCha’el.” The Hebrew meaning is “Who is like God.” In the Book of Daniel, which is the first mention of the Archangel Michael, he is described as “a great prince who protects the people”-Daniel 12.1.
To actually protect the people, they must trust you. To gain their trust, you must always strive to be angelic in your belief of righteousness. If you are unwilling to take on that great responsibility, then are you really worthy of carrying the title “Who is Like God”?