Breaking the Code of Silence: The Importance of Control Systems and Empathy Toward Outgroups

AuthorAmie M. Schuck,Cara E. Rabe-Hemp
Published date01 November 2022
Date01 November 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 11, November 2022, 1637 –1655.
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© 2022 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
The Importance of Control Systems and Empathy
Toward Outgroups
University of Illinois at Chicago
Illinois State University
This study used data from 654 new officers attending several training academies in the United States to examine changes in
recruits’ attitudes toward the code of silence. The results of multivariate multilevel growth models showed that recruits’
experiences at the academies strengthened their adherence to the code. The results also showed that shifts in officers’ attitudes
about the community, seriousness of the misconduct, expected discipline, and familiarity with agency policies were directly
associated with changes in their adherence to the code, but changes in job satisfaction and perceptions of organizational
justice were not. Female officers exhibited less adherence to the code in incidents of physical violence compared with male
officers. The results confirm the need for reform in police training. Specifically, academy leaders should ensure that instruc-
tors and training materials present positive images of the community as well as strengthen social control systems which
reinforce the importance of reporting coworker’s misconduct.
Keywords: academy; blue wall of silence; corruption; code; misconduct; female officer; police integrity; training
On April 20, 2021, a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty
of murdering George Floyd. One unique aspect of the case against Derek Chauvin was the
testimonies of other officers, including the Minneapolis Chief of Police, who denounced his
actions. Criticism of Derek Chauvin’s conduct did not begin at his trial. Fourteen Minneapolis
police officers signed an open letter stating that “Derek Chauvin failed as a human and
stripped George Floyd of his dignity and life” (Alonso & Campbell, 2020). Even the officer
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors have no known conflict of interest to disclose. This research was partially
funded by the National Institute of Justice (2008-DN-BX-0005). Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Amie M. Schuck, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 West Harrison Street, Chicago,
IL 60607; e-mail:
1105219CJBXXX10.1177/00938548221105219Criminal Justice and BehaviorSchuck, Rabe-Hemp / CODE OF SILENCE
representing the Minneapolis Police Union agreed that his behavior was horrific and that he
should be removed from the force. Derek Chauvin’s trial underscored the importance of
breaking down the blue wall of silence to advance policing systems that are accountable to
all members of the community.
The blue wall of silence, which is sometimes referred to as the blue curtain or the blue
code, is an injunctive norm among officers to avoid reporting other officers’ mistakes, mis-
conduct, or criminal behavior (Caldero & Crank, 2010; Kleinig, 2001; Skolnick, 2002;
Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993). To adhere to the blue wall of silence, which will hereafter be
referred to as “the code,” officers not only feign ignorance of others’ misconduct but also
sometimes actively participate in covering up their colleagues’ wrongdoings. Research sug-
gests that while overt endorsements of the code are rare, attitudes that normalize and per-
petuate the code are pervasive and present in law enforcement agencies around the world
(Kutnjak Ivković & Haberfeld, 2015; Kutnjak Ivković et al., 2018; Porter & Prenzler, 2012;
Rothwell & Baldwin, 2007; Weisburd et al., 2000; Westmarland & Rowe, 2018; Wolfe &
Piquero, 2011; Wu & Makin, 2019).
While we know that attitudes that normalize and perpetuate the code are pervasive in
policing, the mechanisms behind the development of officers’ beliefs are less clear. Their
identification is necessary to establish strategies for reducing police misconduct. Sherman
(1982) characterized the development of officers’ beliefs and attitudes as a trajectory in
which the officers’ moral mind-set evolves as the individual experiences exercising control,
faces moral dilemmas, and develops rationales for his or her behavior. The police training
academy is an important juncture in that trajectory. Most new recruits enter the academy
with high expectations and noble ideals, but by the time they graduate, many adopt the
negative attributes of the “canteen subculture,” including those related to misconduct and
deviant practices (Alain & Grégoire, 2008; Chan et al., 2003; Chappell & Lanza-Kaduce,
2010; Conti, 2009; Schuck & Rabe-Hemp, 2021; Sherman, 1982; Van Maanen, 1973;
Waddington, 1999).1
The purpose of this study is to explore the developmental trajectory of recruits’ attitudes
toward the code, with a focus on their police training academy experiences. Using data from
654 recruits attending several training academies in the United States, we examined changes
in recruits’ attitudes toward the code and evaluated the mechanisms that may help explain
the development of officers’ beliefs regarding reporting incidents of misconduct. As the
Derek Chauvin case demonstrates, there is an urgent need to identify strategies for disman-
tling the code, as it has been identified as a major obstacle to reducing corruption (Knapp
Commission, 1972; Mollen Commission, 1994; US Department of Justice, 2017) and main-
taining the legitimacy of the police (Mazerolle et al., 2013).
Research suggests that the etiology of the code is rooted in aspects of police work, char-
acteristics of police culture, and attributes of organizations (Kleinig, 2001; Skolnick, 2002).
Police work is dangerous and unpredictable, and it requires spilt-second decision-making.
These factors, combined with the sense of vulnerability that results from perceptions of
unfair scrutiny by members of the public, give rise to a close-knit subculture. At the center
of this subculture is solidarity and loyalty (Kleinig, 2001; Skolnick, 2002). Kleinig (2001)

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