Police ethics and integrity: Keeping the ‘blue code’ of silence

Police ethics and integrity: Keeping the ‘blue code’ of silence

Louise Westmarland & Steve Conway | International Journal of Police Science & Management

Police ethics and integrity: Keeping the ‘blue code’ of silence

Louise Westmarland &  Steve Conway | International Journal of Police Science & Management


This paper examines attitudes towards police ethics and integrity using the responses of police officers and support staff to some ethical dilemmas via an online questionnaire. The aim of the study was to explore potential connections between respondents’ beliefs about the seriousness or type of misdemeanour and their likelihood of reporting the behaviour. Using a series of scenarios, we explore professional ethics and integrity by analysing the evidence from our survey of around 1,500 police officers, police community support officers (PCSOs) and police support staff. Throughout, we aim to show which of the scenarios were considered the most ‘serious’, which are more likely to be reported, and offer some suggestions as to why the ‘blue code’ is significant. The findings suggest the persistence of a reluctance to report some misdemeanours; of the 10 scenarios created for the survey, there was a great deal of certainty around the reporting theft of cash, but respondents were less likely to report a colleague keeping a ‘found’ watch. Accessing the Police National Computer without due authority was seen as relatively ‘serious’ and covering up for a drink-driving colleague and use of excessive force were both likely to be reported. We discovered ambiguities in responses around sexual touching of a colleague in an office setting, but a lower level of concern regarding an officer who forms a romantic relationship with a victim of crime who he met in a professional setting. Respondents expressed distrust in the force’s anonymous messenger system, set up for reporting a colleague’s behaviour without revealing their own identity and said they could treat a whistle-blower with respect or caution, depending on the circumstances of the individual case.


The study from which this paper is drawn aimed to consider ethics and integrity by studying attitudes towards the reporting of colleagues’ rule-breaking within a UK police force. The so-called ‘blue code’ of silence is alleged to protect misbehaving officers and staff from outside scrutiny or punishment. We aimed to explore this code of silence and the extent to which the seriousness or type of infringements might influence a respondent to say they would report certain behaviours. Police integrity and the reporting of rule-breaking continues to be an area of concern and public interest, especially as it is over five years since publication of the first code of ethics by the UK’s College of Policing in 2014. One of the key issues addressed in the College of Policing’s Code of Ethics is the requirement for individual officers to report a colleague who breaks a rule, law or regulation. The question of why officers may fail to speak up when they see other officers misbehaving or breaking the law is a long-running conundrum. These instances are often attributed to the police’s ‘insider culture’ which maintains an impenetrable ‘curtain’ of silence. Attempts to change this culture and ‘professionalize’ policing led to the creation of the UK Home Office’s College of Policing in 2012 and the subsequent Code of Ethics (2014). The debate around the ‘blue code’ continues, however, as more misdemeanours are revealed as the police disciplinary process has included the publication of procedures and outcomes.

Over the past 50 years many studies of police behaviour and attitudes have shown that officers often bend – and in some cases purposefully break – rules and regulations (Cain, 1973; Skolnick, 1966; Van Maanen, 1978), but few are reported. This headline finding has been replicated in more recent research (Caldero et al., 2018; Kleinig, 1996; Punch, 2009; Westmarland, 2005) and suggests it is a continuing trend. Observational studies have shown that officers use the power with which they are entrusted by the public to cover up, or fail to report, colleagues’ misdeeds (Westmarland, 2005; Westmarland and Rowe, 2016; Bacon, 2016; Loftus, 2009; Rowe, 2007). Front line officers, who often work alone or in pairs, may lack close supervision, providing scope to make a range of discretionary decisions that remain unobserved. In some cases, officers have been shown to commit misdemeanours for personal financial gain or sometimes in the belief that they are enacting ‘street justice’, which can be termed ‘noble cause corruption’. Morton (1993) distinguishes between these two broad categories as ‘bent for self’ and ‘bent for the job’, although there are, of course many more definitions of corruption, some of which are explored in more detail later in this paper.

Following work by Westmarland (2005, 2013) and Westmarland and Rowe (2016), this paper is a further attempt to expand our understanding of a range of behaviours, and their relation to the police ‘code of silence’ by asking about attitudes towards rule-breaking and misdemeanours. This includes examples of ‘acquisitive corruption’ (for personal financial gain), ‘noble cause corruption’ (‘street justice’), potential sexual misconduct and minor rule infringements. As with the previous two surveys conducted by Westmarland and Rowe, 2016 and others, this study is designed to take account of police occupational culture and the part it is said to play in the ‘blue code’. This includes Reiner’s (2010) suggestions that the origins of camaraderie and team solidarity are the unpredictability and potential danger of police work, and that a culture of pressure for results is a motivating factor for rule-bending (Maguire and Norris, 1974; Punch, 2009; Waddington, 1999).

Despite obvious differences between policing in the USA and UK, this paper uses methods similar to those employed by Klockars et al. (2004). Building upon previous studies by Westmarland, 2005 and Westmarland and Rowe (2016), it addresses police rule-breaking, illegal and unethical behaviour, and whether survey respondents would report a colleague’s misdemeanours. In addition to sworn police officers, we also invited police community support officers (PCSOs) and police support staff to take part in the study. The main focus of the survey was 10 scenarios of misconduct and rule-breaking (n=1,509). A few additional questions were also included which aimed to ask specifically why officers might cover up for colleagues’ misdeeds. The survey was designed to capture the spectrum of police rule-breaking – from ‘minor’ infringements, to ‘harmful’ actions and violations of criminal law – which may be perceived by some respondents as excusable actions.

In addition to previous US studies by Klockars et al. (2004), Westmarland (2005: 151) as part of an earlier study also collected empirical data suggesting that only 50% of UK officers would definitely report a fellow officer covering up for a drink-driving colleague. They were also unlikely to report excessive use of force, despite claiming to find it serious or ‘very serious’ (n=275) (Westmarland, 2005). In a later study, Westmarland and Rowe, (2016) found that although a greater percentage of respondents was willing to report drink-driving, they were still unlikely to snitch on colleagues they observed using excessive force (n= 520). Although some of these and other corrupt behaviours may not be illegal, as Newburn (2015) points out, they all, in different ways, involve the abuse of position. Newburn argues that most definitions of noble cause corruption – where the actions are not illegal but the ends being sought are legitimate in organizational terms, tend to focus on personal rather than organizational gain (emphasis in the original) which is crucial to understanding such conduct. Miller (2003) argues that there is very little ‘organizational’ corruption in UK policing – suggesting that individual acts are much more common. Miller (2003) is referring here to ‘organizational’ in the sense of ‘organized’ crime or corruption, and he reports that cultural solidarity prevents officers from ‘telling on their own’ colleagues’ misbehaviour.

Although this paper does not claim to make direct links between police culture and corruption, we wish to add to the ‘seriousness and likely to report debate’ raised previously by the various studies using similar methods of enquiry. The survey was designed to explore everyday situations involving potential dilemmas with aspects of ethics and integrity via an online survey of serving police officers and support staff in a large UK police force in 2017 (n=1,509). It also reproduces two scenarios from Klockars et al.’s earlier study (2004) and those by Westmarland (2005). The new questions and scenarios were designed in consultation with the research force’s professional standards department (PSD) and included the adaptations of some recent cases they had encountered. As in the previous studies, the scenarios were aimed at comparing perceived ‘seriousness’ and ‘likeliness to report’ of a particular behaviour on a Likert scale. Unlike previous surveys, with the exception of Miller (2003), we also included police support staff in the survey invitation. The questions we posed are particularly pertinent since the introduction of a new Code of Ethics in 2014 (College of Policing, 2014) as it is now a statutory, legal duty to report any misbehaviour by a colleague. Section 10 of the Police Code of Ethics states that unethical or unprofessional behaviour on the part of a policing colleague should never be ignored ‘irrespective of the person’s rank, grade or role’ (College of Policing, 2014: 15). This Code of Ethics applies to all police officers and support staff and we were encouraged, by the research force, to include everyone classed a police service employee. Some of the scenarios may seem biased towards patrol officer activities, but we aimed to elicit responses which throw light on these issues and explore how respondents conceive of a range of misdemeanours and wrongdoing.

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Police ethics and integrity: Keeping the ‘blue code’ of silence, Louise Westmarland &  Steve Conway, International Journal of Police Science & Management, 2020

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