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The code of silence and ethical perceptions: Exploring police officer unwillingness to report misconduct

Louise E Porter (School of Criminology and Criminal justice, Griffith University, Southport, Australia)
Tim Prenzler (Faculty of Arts & Business, University of the Sunshine Coast, Sippy Downs, Australia)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 16 May 2016




The purpose of this paper is to explore Australian police officers’ perceptions of unethical conduct scenarios with the aim of understanding unwillingness to report infractions.


The responses of 845 officers were compared across 11 scenarios to explore variation in the extent to which they understood the behaviour to violate policy and their hypothetical willingness, or unwillingness, to report the behaviour. Particularly, it was hypothesised that non-reporters may justify their inaction based on the misperception that other officers hold even less ethical beliefs.


Five scenarios emerged as least likely to be reported, with a substantial minority of officers stating their decision was despite their understanding that the behaviour constituted a policy violation. Contrary to predictions, these “non-reporters” were aware they were less likely to report than their colleagues, but believed they held the same views as their colleagues in terms of the seriousness of scenarios. Comparisons between non-reporters and other survey participants, however, found this belief to be false, with non-reporters viewing the scenarios as significantly less serious. A perceived self-other difference, along with a belief that others will report were shown to reduce the likelihood of not reporting.

Practical implications

The results are discussed in terms of increasing willingness to report misconduct through organisational efforts to communicate values and support officers to make ethical decisions.


The paper contributes to understanding the “code of silence” in perpetuating police misconduct and how it may be reduced.



The authors would like to acknowledge the support and assistance of the two participating police agencies in undertaking this study.


Porter, L.E. and Prenzler, T. (2016), "The code of silence and ethical perceptions: Exploring police officer unwillingness to report misconduct", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 39 No. 2, pp. 370-386.



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Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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