Replacing the “Blue Wall of Silence” with the “Blue Wall of Integrity”

We have seen truth change the course of history through civilian intervention and documentation of police brutality and wrongdoing, but only after the harm is already done. The murder of George Floyd in June 2020 sparked a long-overdue national reckoning for greater police accountability simply because the heroic bystanders pulled out their phones and let the world see the injustice, causing protests across the country. It is clear that Floyd’s death was preventable if changes were made from within law enforcement. As the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization, Government Accountability Project has created “Breaking the Blue Wall of Silence” as an informational guide for creating meaningful police reform and protecting law enforcement whistleblowers. Legislation recently introduced in Congress by Representative Gerald Connelly, the Special Inspector General for Law Enforcement Act, honors all these principles with best-practice provisions for legitimate reform.

Law enforcement officers are often the only witnesses to corruption, waste, fraud, and abuse in their own workplaces, and yet police whistleblowers are rare. The “Blue Wall of Silence” – compounded by a lack of credible anti-retaliation protections – forces law enforcement officers to risk their careers, safety, and even their lives when they choose to blow the whistle on abuses of power in their ranks. The sheer culture amongst officers is what keeps the “Blue Wall of Silence” alive, but the power it has is the unspoken rules and practices in place.

In contrast to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin are Cariol Holloman-Horne and Neal Mack. In 2006, before the era of cellphones and body cameras, Horne intervened to stop her partner from choking Neal Mack, the suspect they were called to investigate. “Neal Mack looked like he was about to die,” Horne recalls, “So had I not stepped in, he possibly could have. He was handcuffed and being choked.” Horne’s partner was cleared in an internal investigation and Horne’s case went to a disciplinary hearing where she was charged with 11 out of 13 charges, despite Mack testifying that she saved his life. Horne was fired in 2008, just months short of her pension. Horne claimed that the department had made her life a “living hell” the same year her partner was promoted to lieutenant.

Horne was shown justice in 2021 when the New York State Supreme Court vacated the previous ruling. Today, Horne is supporting the crafting of the Duty to Intervene Law, or Cariol’s Law, to require and protect police officer intervention when a colleague is using excessive force. This legislation, along with many changes Government Accountability Project is proposing with Senator Connolly, would radically change the culture of law enforcement to stifle the threat of retaliation when a fellow officer speaks up for what is right.

Horne’s case exhibits the ways that the department will protect its own until someone speaks out against it. However, a large reason why officers do not speak out against the wrongdoing they see is because of the culture already present. Broad cultural norms of peer solidarity are continually promoted and sustained through a sense of obligation to comply with this unwritten code of honor.

On  Norman A. Carter Jr.’s first assignment, he quickly found himself at odds with colleagues after refusing to ignore a scandal that involved police officers protecting, getting kickbacks from, and participating in a local burglary ring. Carter reported what he saw and was subsequently blackballed by members of the force who began to surveil him, refuse to support him in field operations, and even fabricate violations to establish a pattern of behavior that would allow them to fire him. Carter went through multiple hearings where he was encouraged to plead guilty or accept his firing, but he persisted.

Carter eventually helped execute a raid to break up the burglary ring, resulting in several of the police officers involved being transferred and many others, including the District Commander, were later arrested. Despite this, Carter remained a target for retaliation and harassment even after he retired, which forced him to leave the city entirely, and suffered substantial psychological burdens from his experience.

Despite going through the legal processes to prove his own innocence, the culture within law enforcement still demonized Carter and all those who speak out against wrongdoing. Legal rights alone cannot overcome cultural bias and hostility, but they are the first step toward changing attitudes. The core lesson to learn from police whistleblowers’ experiences is unavoidable—whatever the ground rules for conduct, there will never be justice without a clear channel for the truth about police abuses of power. Through the Special Inspector General of Law Enforcement Act and our white paper, “Breaking the Blue Wall of Silence”, that legally safe channel will be made available to all who witness abuses, whether other police officers, citizen witnesses, or victims. Most significant, it means that those who want to communicate the truth for the first time will have credible legal rights to defend themselves.