Public confidence in law enforcement has been a fickle figure in recent decades, and the mid-2010s saw it at its most volatile. Spurred by several contentious, politically charged events, Gallup reported a significant four percent drop in public trust of police between 2013 (57 percent) and 2014 (53 percent). Dropping another point to 52 percent in June 2015, this figure tied for the lowest recorded public opinion on the matter in some 22 years, dating back to 1993 in the wake of the Rodney King incident.
It is unsurprising, then, that an outraged public has called for many changes throughout this period, centering on transparency – defined here as greater visibility into law enforcement practices, policies, and data. Though requests for improved insight into government machinations are certainly nothing new, measures that put the spotlight on police seem to draw the boldest opinions and most optimistic outlooks. The Obama administration’s plan to open millions in funding to departments adopting body cameras, for instance, was met with broad acclaim on the public’s part; onlookers claimed the implied message the funding sent—namely, that the highest echelons of public service recognized a need for change in modern law enforcement —was as important as the money itself.
Calls for enhanced transparency are especially interesting when contrasted against a common source of public criticism: the well-worn idea that law enforcement officers protect one another from the consequences of unethical or illegal behavior. Although few would deny this blue code or blue wall of silence exists to some degree, and while logic suggests its elimination or erosion might lead to improved public trust, tough questions persist. How much impact would a shift toward transparency have? Can this blue wall be solved with simple measures, as critics claim? Most importantly, are transparency-enhancing measures like body cameras enough to curb abuses of the blue wall?
For concerned public, transparency offered by body cameras may fuel mistrust
Years removed from the tumultuous events of 2014, and changes that occurred in their wake, the body camera experiment persists in law enforcement organizations across the country. So far, the addition has led to mixed results, at least in terms of public trust. Looking past the conflicting evidence presented by two landmark studies of the technology—one suggests cameras reduce civilian complaints and use of force, while another claims the devices may cause more incidents of violence against law enforcement. There is the idea that keeping unethical officers publicly accountable carries an inherent edge of negative PR. Even findings presented in good faith, with a suggested plan of action to right the course, may reduce confidence in the entire department and its individual staff. The body camera experiment, has led to mixed results, in terms of public trust. Click To Tweet
Recent events in Baltimore illustrate this idea. In one case, the Baltimore State’s Attorney office flagged a video that allegedly showed an officer or officers planting drugs in a stopped driver’s car, effecting an internal affairs investigation and inviting the national media spotlight. In another, an officer—apparently not realizing his camera stored 30 seconds of video prior to his camera being activated—was first suspended, then fired and indicted after footage appeared to show him planting drugs in a soup can during an arrest.
Events like these do not occur in a vacuum, and even a single instance of documented corruption can echo in countless cases to come. Per The Baltimore Sun, dozens of cases involving officers at both scenes were dropped following the findings, lowering close rates and potentially allowing numerous legitimate criminals back on the streets. Analysis suggests hundreds more could be dropped by the time the investigation runs its course.
Even without practical, measurable impacts like cases dropped, however, departmental stakeholders face a quandary. At issue is the difficult PR situation posed by transparency-boosting changes. While they should be informed when servants tasked with their safety abuse their post, even the swiftest, harshest reaction from the criminal justice system may not be enough to erase the bad taste of the initial events from collective memory. Moreover, the negative events are the ones that get news coverage. The public does not tune into the news to see the hundreds or thousands of routine interactions that occur in a given day. Since it is impossible to quantify the number of misbehaviors a camera program may stop, body cameras may put law enforcement organizations at a PR disadvantage once the initial goodwill from adopting the technology has come and gone. Even the swiftest, harshest reaction from the criminal justice system may not be enough to erase the bad taste of the initial events from collective memory. Click To Tweet
Other transparency measures: Open data and systemic concerns
Despite the complex situations Baltimore decision makers found themselves in following the drug-planting scandals, none of this is to suggest that the negative PR impacts of body camera make them unsuitable for police work. Rather, the additional transparency lends itself to a healthier and better-informed democracy.
However, body cameras are not the end-all-be-all of law enforcement transparency. To the contrary, open data initiatives—by which departments make certain figures, such as arrest records, officer-involved shootings, or use-of-force cases freely available and easily accessible—have seen a similar increase in attention in recent years. Where body cameras bring to light (and arguably prevent) problems with individual officers at individual crime scenes, these programs make it easier for onlookers to discover and call to attention to trends that public service organizations themselves may be hard-pressed to spot. The public does not tune into the news to see the hundreds or thousands of routine interactions that occur in a given day. Click To Tweet
In another recent East Coast example, analysis of New York Police Department (NYPD) stop, question, and frisk data provides an example of open data initiatives and their potential value. Using data the department posts to its publicly accessible website, analysts at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) uncovered several findings about the long-used, controversial practice. Frequently positioned as a way to lower gun violence, a very small amount of stops (.02 percent) resulted in the finding of firearms. The NYCLU also discovered that a highly disproportionate number of black males, who comprised 25 percent of all frisks, were stopped.
In this situation, free availability of the data made it easier for analysts to examine trends without the expensive process of requesting records from the courts. More importantly, the NYPD’s commitment to making various kind of data easily accessible inherently reflects a nothing-to-hide attitude. Compared to the state of Kansas, which until recently sealed all police records and put reporters and others through numerous legal hoops to reopen them, the difference in implied attitude is stark. While critics are apt to call for even greater transparency and accountability in the wake of singular controversial events, the growing trend towards open data may be a valuable tool in engendering longer-term trust between the public and the police that serve them. This is especially true when organizations recognize, explain or address, trends the public points out. Free availability of the data made it easier for analysts to examine trends without the expensive process of requesting records from the courts. Click To Tweet
Can transparency break down the “blue wall of silence?”
Turning back to the blue wall, it makes sense that initiatives built to foster transparency could help combat it. Harnessed properly, body cameras and appropriate usage policy show particular promise on this front, at least in certain situations. Since the camera presents a more objective (if still imperfect) look at the world than an officer’s notes and recollections, it would potentially be harder for an officer to back up an untrue story, or to engage in similarly dishonest behavior on behalf of a colleague.
However, exclusively pinning the blue wall to unethical officers and blind loyalty is reductive at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Law enforcement officers are subject to immensely formal and informal pressures that are difficult or impossible for persons outside the force to understand. While this does not excuse officers who choose to engage in out-and-out dishonesty, it does call to light the realities of working in a modern law enforcement environment.
Fear of reprisal is one such reality. Sadly, law enforcement’s history is fraught with tales of reprisal for so-called rats or snitches. The culture in some departments is such that, should an officer choose to report colleagues for misbehavior, even an impeccable work record and respect from peers might not prevent them from informal threats and larger career consequences. The story of Adrian Schoolcraft, an officer who claims he was involuntarily committed to a mental institution for whistleblowing, is one well-known example. Alternatively, consider Joe Crystal, a rising star within the Baltimore Police Department, who claims to have been bullied, threatened, and subjected to formal reprisal after reporting colleagues.
In situations like the above, it makes sense that even an upstanding officer might ignore certain misbehaviors. Like everyone, law enforcement officers have families to support and mortgages to pay. When the choice rests between doing the right thing and the very real risk of severe personal and financial consequences, things grow a bit murky. Even an upstanding officer might ignore misbehaviors. Like everyone, officers have families and mortgages. Click To Tweet
More to the point, body cameras may represent a way for officers in certain unpleasant situations to remain ethical while avoiding unofficial sanctions or malicious compliance from superiors. It would be easier for an officer to blame the camera’s footage when pressed to lie or ignore an event captured on film; the officer who simply recounts what the footage already supplies would ostensibly be less of a target than one whose testimony is the only proof of what happened.
Other accused instances of the blue wall extend beyond the precinct and into the larger justice system. Although low prosecution rates for officers indicted for crimes are often painted as sure-fire signs of corruption or fear of reprisal—and while this is likely the case in certain situations—the fact remains that people within the criminal justice system understand the stresses officers are subjected to through repeated professional exposure. Fairly or not, this may lend prosecutors and others investigating alleged misbehavior the perspective needed to fully understand the officer in question’s reasoning, even if that reasoning ends up being incorrect in hindsight.
Conclusion: No easy fix for transparency, “blue wall”
Ultimately, weighing the benefits of transparency-focused initiatives is largely the same no matter what problem they must solve. Some situations may see significant improvement from their deployment, while others may realize little. Viewed as a panacea for all that ails modern police-public trust issues, the measures are sure to collapse under the weight of the expectations they create. Viewed as a useful tool in a larger collection of technologies, policies, and strategies, on the other hand, there’s no doubt stakeholders can make effective use. Transparency is a great addition to the public confidence tool box which consists of technologies, statistics, policies, and strategies, but it is not the panacea for the whole kit. Click To Tweet
It is worth revisiting the idea that damaged trust is sometimes the better option. While no harried captain wants to deal with a budding PR crisis, it is generally wiser to shed light on a problem and outline the steps taken to fix it than to take an internal-only approach. It is reasonable to think the people who refuse to accept a solution hold a negative opinion of law enforcement to begin with—a problem that goes beyond technology and trust polls.
In terms of informal pressures, the blue wall is undoubtedly a problem worth combating. A focus on transparency is good for curbing the trust issues that stem from so-called toxic loyalty, but larger cultural changes, systems to protect whistleblowers, and general attitudinal shifts must also be part of the process: measures that protect the public instead of the institution. However hard these changes may be to make, transparency is only one part of the larger effort.