Police Loyalty

Understanding The Post-Shooting Support For Officer Darren Wilson

By John Kleinig (City University of New York & Charles Sturt University)

March 17, 2015          Picture: Jaegar Moore/ Flickr.

This article is part of The Critique exclusive Black Lives Matter: The Problem of Race and Police Ethics.

Initially, some thought it was a nasty rumor, then that it may have been a photo-shopped picture, but when the online sales site was tracked and Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said he would talk to the officers about it[1], many were aghast at the provocative display of solidarity: Ferguson police wearing “I am Darren Wilson” armbands.[2]

In view of everything, it was tasteless, though the police probably thought that they were just pushing back against the relentless (and sometimes equally tasteless) national criticism. It was one way in which they could show the loyalty of the “band of brothers,” and that attacking one was attacking all. Since the grand jury decision, of course, they have probably thought that, whether tasteless or not, they were justified in taking the position they did.[3]

Police loyalty is an impressive but sometimes troubling phenomenon. An officer who will lay his (or her) life on the line to protect a buddy will often also lie through his (or her) teeth to cover up for a buddy’s indiscretions.

Without condoning the actions of the Ferguson police, I will here attempt to understand the loyalty they have shown to each other, before making some suggestions about its appropriate limits.

But first, some thoughts about loyalty. It’s a problematic virtue – an option for Nazis as well as best friends. This has led some to claim that it is no virtue all – its value, insofar as it has one, being a function of the value of its object.

There is something to the latter reaction, though I would put it differently. The virtues are not all of a piece, and one longstanding categorization distinguishes substantive virtues (such as compassion, kindness, and generosity) from executive virtues (such as sincerity, courage, and conscientiousness). The substantive virtues motivate us to act well, to do good – they are critical to our moral relations with others (and, in the case of prudence, to our own interests as well). The executive virtues, sometimes called virtues of the will, are important to the implementation of what the substantive virtues require of us – sincerity in our compassion, courage in our kindness. They help us to surmount obstacles to our doing good.

Loyalty belongs in the latter group, and its worth is especially sensitive to the value of its object. Like other executive virtues, it can become detached from worthy objects – just as one can be a sincere racist one can be a loyal gang member. Nevertheless, the executive virtues are virtues because a world or person without sincerity or conscientiousness or loyalty would be a seriously deficient one. Such virtues are important ingredients in human excellence, and it is important that we cultivate them. But we should not cultivate them in isolation. As the ancients recognized and acknowledged in their somewhat puzzling doctrine of “the unity of the virtues,” the virtues should hang together and, as Aristotle put it, should be moderated by phronesis or practical wisdom. Justice should be tempered with mercy, and generosity and valor with discretion. The latter is also an important limit on loyalty.

The importance of loyalty as a personal virtue is that it enables us to persevere in some valued relationship when the present cost of doing so is likely to be disadvantageous to us. If loyal, we will put ourselves out for our friends or family or associative group when their interests are under threat of some kind. The enemy of loyalty is a certain kind of self-interest – a selfishness that inclines us to betray an important associative object. But the associative object must be important to us – one that we have come to value for its own sake, as we tend to in the case of our family and close associates. Whatever instrumental value such groupings have for us, they are no longer merely instrumental to our purposes but our involvement with them has come to be important to us in its own right. Abandoning an object of our loyalty (for self-interested reasons) constitutes a betrayal, a violation of another that we often consider to be among the worst.[4]

One reason that people worry about loyalty is that – as indicated by the diversity of objects it may have – it has the capacity to contravene moral boundaries. We sometimes lie to protect our friends or family, and maybe even do terrible things to others (kamikaze loyalty) as expressions of our loyalty to an organization or institution. Stephen Decatur’s (in)famous toast: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong,”[5] captures what is often seen to be an absolutism in loyalty (and thus a reason to praise or condemn it). But a closer look at loyalty indicates that it is not inherently absolutist. Lying may not always be wrong, and lying out of loyalty may sometimes avail itself of the moral wiggle room that we recognize in “white lying.” However, more serious breaches of moral boundaries in the name of loyalty may not get such a sympathetic acceptance. We speak of excessive or blind loyalty when loyalty involves or risks serious transgression. Parents who destroy evidence of a rape-murder committed by their son display loyalty even though that loyalty is overridden by other moral claims.[6] They become complicit in his wrongdoing. Although some grumbled about David Kaczynski’s reporting (to the FBI) that his brother might be the Unabomber, most thought that sibling loyalty should not extend so far.[7]

CNN- Rally In Support Of Officer Darren Wilson

Back to the police. There are features of police work that encourage the development of very strong loyalties among officers, especially partners, but also fellow officers on the street and, in certain cases, to the police organization. Central to this is a carefully cultivated (though sometimes exaggerated) sense of the dangerousness of what they do – that there is a jungle out there; that police are the “thin blue line” between the jungle and civilization; that each day officers go to work not knowing whether they will return home; that each shift their job is to be on the lookout for people who might want to kill them; that they cannot count on the assistance of any but their fellow officers; that critical decisions must be made in split seconds, under conditions of uncertainty; and so on.[8] It is a complicated and diverse loyalty and it sometimes competes with other loyalties that police have or are thought they ought to have.[9]

A great deal of police work – especially of the more dangerous kind – requires team work and backup, and police in such situations need to know that they can rely on others to support and not second-guess them. Police often embed this mutual reliance in the language of friendship and familial relations. It is a “brotherhood.”[10] In a memorable turn of phrase from the film version of Prince of the City, an officer says: “I sleep with my wife, but I live with my partner.”

Important as this is, the expectation should not be an unlimited one. Officers who observe other officers overstepping the bounds – by beating a passive or handcuffed violator – may rationalize to themselves that they might have done the same if they were in the other officer’s situation. And they might! But this does not make what the officer did either acceptable or excusable. Nor, more importantly, does it justify the “blue wall of silence” that citizens often complain about when they report mistreatment by officers. Officers will most often back each other up or profess ignorance of what they saw, and violated citizens (whether or not they violated others) will find themselves without redress, even though the ubiquity of smart phones that record good video is beginning to make the wall more transparent.

There are two things to be said about the use of friendship and familial language to characterize the relations that police have with each other. Friendships and familial loyalties are among the strongest that we acknowledge, and (alleged) betrayals of those bonds are treated as moral violations of the first order. It is not without significance, then, that police officers appeal to the language of family when characterizing their relationships with each other. Nor should we think that they are less than serious, even though fellow officers are not literal family members. The critical thing is the social bond that is involved in sibling relationships, not an actual biological connection. There is an important dimension to this characterization: the loyalties of family and friends are likely to be more demanding than other loyalties we might acquire – such as loyalty to a football team or employer. Not only are they likely to be more demanding – to expect more of us – but they are likely to justify greater sacrifices. If I see a stranger shoplifting, I may not be reluctant to turn her in; but if the perpetrator is my child, I may wish to handle it in another way (and may sometimes be justified in doing so).

The second point, however, undercuts or at least qualifies the first. That is, unlike other natural human connections – such as those between friends and members of an actual family – the institution of policing is an artificial one (even if it then generates extremely deep bonds among those who enter into it).[11] Important as it is – and it is seen as important enough to figure as a basic institution of civil society – the deep bond among police officers should not be seen as a basic human one, but is instrumentally justified – justified by reference to an institutional role, whether we characterize that instrumentality as social peacekeeping, order maintenance, or law enforcement.

Diana Robinson/Flickr
Diana Robinson/Flickr"NYPD Police Academy Police Graduation Ceremony at Madison Square Garden" in June 30th 2014

Furthermore, the justification for such loyalty ultimately lies in service to the larger community – protecting people – rather than simply furthering the internal relationships that police develop. In theory, were people better than they are, we could do away with police organizations and deal with crime or social wrongdoing in more informal ways. Families and friends, on the other hand, are more integral to our human existence and though we may sometimes disagree about their configurations, they are much more central to who we are and what wish to be. They are essential to our capacity for a good life or our flourishing in a way that the contingency of police work is not.[12] That said, because we have the institution, we expect of police the kind of commitment to our protection that we would anticipate from a best friend or family member.

What this means – though it is not usually put this way – is that police officers’ first loyalty should be to their community rather than to each other. Or, to put it a little more carefully, their loyalty to each other should be constrained by their loyalty to the wider community of which they are a part, and to which their role calls them. Or, conversely, there may come a point at which their loyalty to each other is overridden by their loyalty to the larger community. It is not usually put this way because in many societies, including liberal ones, there has developed a deep “us” v. “them” mentality in the relations that exist between police and (some of) the citizenry. What is viewed as police excess, corruption, or even racism has ruptured what should be a deeply interdependent and co-operative relationship.

That is what had occurred in Ferguson. Subsequent support for the police was largely divided along racial lines, not helped by a white police officer telling black protesters early in the protests: “bring it, all you fucking animals. Bring it.”[13]

“Police officers’ first loyalty should be to their community rather than to each other. Or, to put it a little more carefully, their loyalty to each other should be constrained by their loyalty to the wider community of which they are a part, and to which their role calls them”

Whatever the rights and/or wrongs of Darren Wilson’s conduct, the fact that his fellow officers refused to condemn and even supported him should not have surprised us. Although the police uniform is intended to be a symbol of impartial authority, it also encourages the idea that if one officer goes astray all are tainted. And the fact that the Ferguson police department was so one-sidedly white in a neighborhood whose demographics had changed so dramatically, reflected a much deeper divide that had already occurred within the Ferguson community: the police were already seen as racially prejudiced. For a police department that appears not to have done anything to rectify the racial imbalance, the “us-them” divide was likely to reinforce the bonds of loyalty that are so assiduously developed as part of police training and culture.

Not that police solidarity is a simple matter of a morally justified loyalty, even though the loyalty in question often tends to be absolutized. It is reinforced by pressures and values that make it extremely difficult for any officer to say of another: “He has forfeited his claim to my loyalty” or: “The loyalty I owe her has been overridden by another loyalty.” An officer who (for whatever reason) refused to support a fellow officer in circumstances such as occurred in Ferguson would have:

(1) been seen as disloyal and therefore not to be trusted (a snitch)

(2) experienced the moralized retribution of fellow officers for such disloyalty (harassment and ostracism as punishment for betrayal)

(3) been accused of a failure of reciprocity by second-guessing another officer

(4) felt the condescension of other officers for presuming that s/he had the moral authority to judge another officer’s actions; and

(5) even been made to feel shame because it would be known that s/he too had at some time stuffed up and been covered.[14]

Even though, after the grand jury decision, Darren Wilson prudently chose to resign from the Ferguson department, it is unlikely that officers will abandon their overt support of him.[15]

This is not to deny that the police in Ferguson were placed in a difficult position. They recognized their own vulnerability in the face of (surely premature, but possibly justified) judgments about the guilt of their colleague. Nevertheless, they sometimes reacted in grossly insensitive ways, of which the armbands were simply one instance:

(1) revealing the video of Michael Brown in the convenience store in advance of knowing whether there was any connection between what happened there and what happened on the street was probably a thoughtless piece of damage control; [16]

(2) using military equipment and tactics to quell the subsequent unrest was provocative and ill-conceived;

(3) although the concealment of Darren Wilson was understandable, it was not handled in a way that inspires confidence that there was not a cover-up (for it gave him and/or others time to develop a sufficiently exculpatory story); and

(4) given the racial divisions in Ferguson, expressions of loyalty for police (by demonstrators as well as those by police) were likely to reinforce the view that the purpose of policing is not to maintain the social peace but to preserve a racially skewed hegemonic order.[17]

Footnotes & References:

[1]Following missteps by the Ferguson Police Department, responsibility for managing the Ferguson unrest was outsourced to Johnson.

[2]A few days later Christy Lopez of the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division wrote to the Department to confirm a prohibition on their being worn in Ferguson. See: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.documentcloud.org/documents/1306217/letter-to-ferguson-police-regarding-bracelets.pdf.

[3]One of the more problematic features of much police work is the tendency to conflate “legal” with “moral” or, even more troublingly, given a review of the grand jury transcripts, a willingness to conflate the “decision not to indict” with “moral vindication” of what was done. If nothing else, release of the transcripts showed how the grand jury process was slanted in the officer’s favor.

[4]It is no disloyalty to abandon for moral reasons those who don’t deserve or have forfeited their claim to our loyalty.

[5] This popular version of his toast may not be the original one, though what is sometimes reported as the original one portends much the same: “Our country – In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong,” Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland) April 20, 1816.

[6] One might even argue that in such a case the child has forfeited any claim to their loyalty. However, I would not go quite so far. Rather, given what he has done, the child can expect what loyalty remains to be shown in other ways (prison visitation, etc.).

[7] For an accessible version, see Ed Pilkington, “My Brother, the Unabomber,” The Guardian, September 15, 2009, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/15/my-brother-the-unabomber.

[8] Statistically, of course, the chances of such danger are relatively small (except, perhaps, in certain neighborhoods). This is not to deny that police work can be dangerous or that we expect police to accept dangers that the rest of us may avoid, and certainly not to disrespect what police do for their communities, but simply to draw attention to the fact that the heightened sense of danger that is cultivated as the everyday lot of the police officer is not usually matched to reality. Even mass police funerals and memorials for those “killed in the line of duty” – institutions that I support – don’t distinguish very carefully between officers who have been killed by criminals and those who have died in less honorable circumstances.

[9] Even within a police department there may be competing loyalties – to partners, fellow officers, supervisors, units, divisions, and organization. Outside the department there will sometimes be competing loyalties with friends, family, co-religionists, ethnic tradition, and the public at large, to note just some of the possibilities. Sometimes there will be a conventional prioritization, at other times an anguished decision. See also, John Kleinig, “The Problematic Virtue of Loyalty,” in Policing a Safe, Just, and Tolerant Society, ed. Peter Villiers and Robert Adlam (Winchester: Waterside Press, 2004), 78-87.

[10] Sexism in the ranks is still quite strong, despite increasing diversity, and even latent racism has to be countered with maxims such as “blue before black.” Following the shooting of Michael Brown, it was not lost on the local community that a police department with only three out of 54 officers served a jurisdiction that was 67% non-white.

[11]I do not deny that even the natural/artificial distinction is not hard and fast. Ideas of family and friendship are to some degree social constructs. Nevertheless, I think the distinction is clear enough for present purposes.

[12]One of the dilemmas of police loyalty can thus consist in a tension between the loyal friendship that develops between police partners and the role-based loyalty that police owe to the community they serve. It comes to a head when police are expected to testify against each other.

[13]See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQuo5-ewDR8. It was exacerbated by an October 2014 St Louis County Police Academy Workshop on police-media relations that titled one of its sessions, “Feeding the Animals”: http://rollingout.com/news/ferguson-police-get-media-training-calling-protesters-gorillas-animals/.

[14] One is reminded of the story in which the religious leaders bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery and he is asked to comment on the Mosaic penalty of death by stoning. At his response – “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” – the religious leaders melt away (John 8:3-11). I have developed the bullet points at greater length in “The Blue Wall of Silence: An Ethical Analysis,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 15, no. 1 (2001): esp. 6-7.

[15] My own reading of the transcripts strongly indicates that between his initial account of what occurred (to a fellow officer) and what he stated in the grand jury, Wilson was coached to revise his account. A police union lawyer was waiting for Wilson when he returned to the precinct house after the shooting.

[16]Like revealing that Rodney King of LAPD fame had a police record – something the police were not to know when they pursued and beat him. However, the Ferguson case might be more complex. Whether or not Darren Wilson knew about the theft, Michael Brown did, and that may have influenced his interaction with Wilson

[17]I received very helpful comments on a draft of this posting from Brandon del Pozo and Delores Jones-Brown.

John Kleinig
John Kleinig
John Kleinig is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Criminal Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and in the PhD Program in Philosophy, Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York. He is also a Strategic Research Professor at Charles Sturt University and Professorial Fellow and Program Manager in Criminal Justice Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (Canberra, Australia). He is the author/editor of 21 books, including The Ethics of Policing (CUP, 1996), Ethics in Criminal Justice (CUP 2008), Professional Police Practice (OUP, 2013, ed., with PAJ Waddington & Martin Wright), On Loyalty and Loyalties: The Contours of a Problematic Virtue (OUP, 2014), Prisoners’ Rights (Ashgate, 2014, ed), and The Ethics of Patriotism: A Debate (Wiley Blackwell, 2014, with Simon Keller and Igor Primoratz).
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  • Chris Wilson

    Attempting to formalize the essay, would it be fair to say that: in a system of two values, community or partnership, we can only have both values if community is placed above partnership?

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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