Perspectives on policing

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 30 May 2008


Winningham Carter, L. (2008), "Perspectives on policing", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 31 No. 2.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Perspectives on policing

Article Type: Perspectives on policing From: Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, Volume 31, Issue 2

Rothwell, G.R. and Baldwin, J.N. (2007), “Whistle-blowing and the code of silence in police agencies: policy and structural predictors”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 53 No. 4, pp. 605-32

The idea that police are reluctant to break the “code of silence” and report each other for acts of misconduct or illegal activity has been accepted almost to the point of becoming common knowledge. Not limited to anecdote or theory, reports and studies have been published in support of the occurrence – or, as the case may be, lack of occurrence – of what Rothwell and Baldwin (2007) refer to as “whistle-blowing” by police on fellow officers. The current research tests whether police are, in fact, less likely than civilians to report misconduct by fellow employees.

Previous research has identified three situational variables that explain more variation than the individual variables that have been studied to date. Rothwell and Baldwin (2007) have focused on these variables for their current study, looking at organization size, supervisory status, and tenure effects on whistle-blowing. Extant research indicates that whistle-blowing is positively associated with organization size, perhaps due to greater opportunities for reporting and fewer social consequences with larger numbers of employees. Supervisory status is expected to relate to whistle-blowing in that addressing misconduct at any level is part of a supervisor’s job. And although the findings have been mixed in previous research, it is expected here that someone who is more familiar with internal procedures as a result of tenure is more likely to use those procedures.

Four additional variables are included to address the influence of procedural justice and structural functional theories; in short, organizational structure can affect employees’ tendency to blow the whistle. The existence of policy manuals, the use of polygraph tests, and the existence of an internal affairs (IA) unit are all expected to facilitate whistle-blowing, while work group assignment is expected to be associated with the maintenance of silence codes. In short, policy manuals and IA units make the whistle-blowing process easier to identify and follow, and the risk that one will be given a polygraph reduces the temptation to lie. On the other hand, it is expected that employees assigned to workgroups that are not closely supervised are more likely to see silence as a way to protect themselves.

A random sample of 300 was drawn from certified police officers at all levels in Georgia, along with 300 civilian public employees. Both officers and civilians represented state, county, and city agencies. Of the final 547 surveyed from the sample, 197 police officers and 168 civilians submitted surveys. Dependent variables included willingness to blow the whistle and frequency of blowing the whistle on minor and major violations of policy, misdemeanors, and felonies. Independent variables included the existence of a policy manual, a mandatory reporting policy, an IA unit, and work group assignment (measured as dummy variables); tenure was measured as interval-level data; and agency size was measured by number of sworn officers and employees.

The results were enlightening. In this sample, police are more willing to report misconduct at all levels than civilian public employees. This is more strongly supported with minor violations and misdemeanors than major violations and felonies, and the authors theorize that this may relate to differences in willingness (generally higher) to report and frequency of actually reporting. Other supported relationships include higher willingness to report with a mandatory reporting policy, and the higher willingness and frequency of reporting by supervisors.

Liederbach, J., Boyd, L.M., Taylor, R.W. and Kawucha, S.K. (2007), “Is it an inside job? An examination of internal affairs complaint investigation files and the production of nonsustained findings”, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp. 353-77

A key role of IA units is to address the concerns of the public with regard to police misconduct. Citizen complaints, however, are frequently not supported by the findings of internal inquiry conducted by such units – in some jurisdictions, none of the complaints filed by citizens have been found to be substantiated by IA investigations. This phenomenon has potentially serious consequences with regard to public perception of and support for police, but until now has not been studied extensively. In this paper, Liederbach et al. (2007) have studied the internal investigation files of a large midwestern agency to identify the characteristics of complainants and what factors were used to justify findings of IA investigations.

Liederbach et al. (2007) begin by reviewing the factors that affect internal control. In a discussion of structured opportunity, the authors describe how the nature of police work creates discretionary situations without direct supervision; how internal controls may be inhibited by the secrecy inherent in police subculture; and how an environment of tension between police and civilians results from the coercive nature of police work. Taken together, these factors create opportunities for misconduct (real or perceived) as well as restrictions on how agencies can limit or address misconduct. The authors then review the literature on citizen complaints, focusing on the types of complaints and the characteristics of complainants. They find that complaints are more likely to be filed when the complainant is advised that they will succeed in some way or result in change; most formal complaints involve verbal harassment or minor violations; a significant percentage of complainants have been charged with resisting arrest by the officer being accused of misconduct; and minorities are substantially more likely to file formal complaints. The authors go on to discuss at length the possible reasons for these trends.

The data for this study is taken from the complaints filed against employees in a single district of Midwest City Police Department (MCPD). Files that were collected over 46 months between 2000 and 2003 yielded a sample of 206 complaint investigation files, which were coded for analysis. A total of 26 of the complaints were initiated by MCPD officers or employees, and 62 percent of these were sustained with the most serious penalty involving 30-day suspension. Of the 180 citizen-initiated complaints involving a total of 218 allegations, only three were sustained. Of the remainder, 46.4 percent were “not sustained” (indicating insufficient evidence to either sustain or dismiss the allegations) and included the bulk of physical and verbal misconduct allegations. Over half (52 percent) of the complaints involved non-white citizens and white officers; these same complaints were more likely to involve physical misconduct than other types.

Conflicting statements and/or lack of uninvolved witness(es) were most commonly cited for findings of “not sustained,” followed by lack of cooperation or response on the part of the complainant, a finding of lawful action on the part of the officer, and action taken by officer (in complaints of non-action). Almost one-third of the complaints that were not sustained included unreliability or lack of credibility on the part of complainants or witnesses, or failure to identify to accused. This points to the most significant value of the current research; although we can expect that more than three complaints were valid, there is now some indication as to why the bulk of complaints are not sustained.

Holmes, M., Smith, B.W., Freng, A.B and Muñoz, Ed.A., (2007), “Minority threat, crime control, and police resource allocation in the Southwestern United States”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 54 No. 1, pp. 128-52

Rational choice and conflict theories face-off as Holmes et al. (2007) consider, if police resources are allocated according to crime control needs or in political attempts to control racial and ethnic minorities. Existing research suggests that crime control is in the best interests of all citizens regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity; but support is also found indicating that the bulk of police resources are mobilized against lower socioeconomic classes and minority groups. Holmes et al. (2007) identify two key issues in the research that may clarify the issue. First, previous research tended to focus, literally, on a black versus white interpretation of minority versus non-minority, with almost no attention paid to non-black ethnic or racial minority groups, or their socioeconomic evolution in the USA. Second, the relationships between race or ethnicity and the administration of justice are complex and may rely on a number of heretofore unexplored variables.

According to rational choice theory, crime rates directly affect resource allocations made to police agencies. If crime increases, police will be allocated more resources to combat crime. According to the conflict perspective, however, resource allocations are made in such a way that any threat to the existing politically powerful group is controlled. If a minority group’s activity threatens the majority group’s power in any way, police will be allocated more resources to control that threat. The existing research does not provide evidence to support either theory over the other, however, with inconsistent relationships found between crime rates and police resource allocations; the most common finding is that there is no relationship. Holmes et al. (2007) suggest that this may be the result of a more complex relationship between the factors than previously considered – specifically, racial categorization and the exclusion of non-black minorities in prior analyses. To address this shortcoming in the research, they focus on Hispanics in the current study.

Data for 88 southwestern cities with populations of 100,000 or more and municipal police departments were collected and analyzed. Focusing on sworn officers, only, dependent variables included per capita police expenditures as well as the number of officers per 100,000 in the study. Measures of community need and resources were taken as independent variables from rational choice theory, while measures of level of a community’s minority threat were taken from conflict theory. Because the authors expected minority threat to increase with closer proximity to Mexico, distance between the US cities in the study and the closest Mexican cities was also measured.

Findings indicate some support for the complex relationship between socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and police expenditures, with both rational choice and conflict Theories explaining some aspects of resource allocation. Percent black continued to have a strong and positive relationship with the resource variables consistent with previous research, while the Hispanic population had relatively little effect in comparison. Cities closer to the Mexican border did, consistent with expectations, demonstrate perceptions of greater threat and allocation of more police resources than cities less proximate to the border. The authors theorize that differences between findings for Blacks and Hispanics in the study may be due to social and cultural differences between the two groups, and how each relates to the larger community.

Luahna Winningham CarterUniversity of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA


Holmes, M., Smith, B.W., Freng, A.B. and Muñoz, Ed.A. (2007), “Minority threat, crime control, and police resource allocation in the Southwestern United States”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 54 No. 1, pp. 128–52

Liederbach, J., Boyd, L.M., Taylor, R.W. and Kawucha, S.K. (2007), “Is it an inside job? An examination of internal affairs complaint investigation files and the production of nonsustained findings”, Criminal Justice Policy Review, Vol. 18 No. 4, pp. 353–77

Rothwell, G.R. and Baldwin, J.N. (2007), “Whistle-blowing and the code of silence in police agencies: policy and structural predictors”, Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 53 No. 4, pp. 605–32