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Analysis: Willing Whistleblowers Need a Trusted Place to Report

Whenever law-enforcement misconduct is discovered, it is framed in the same way, usually as a few “rotten apples” or the result of a corrupt police culture that perpetuates a code of silence.

 

In an effort to move away from the cliches, a team of researchers from Lancaster University conducted a systemic review of the literature on police conduct, by collating and synthesizing existing research. The resulting analysis, published in the most recent Journal of Criminal Justice, found that researchers looking at police whistleblowers are much less interested in police structures and more interested in potential whistleblowers. This “myopia,” as the researchers describe it, has its roots in a commonly used police-integrity survey, “which focuses on assessing willingness to report without asking who the report would be directed to.”

 

Certainly, officers who don’t act in the face of misconduct or who are passively complicit are violating law-enforcement standards and ethics. Unaddressed misconduct also fosters the public perception of unfair and biased policing. But it is the person who takes the report that can make a difference, in whether the issues is resolved internally or whether it goes unaddressed or is addressed unsatisfactorily.


Some findings from the new analysis match the main threads of an ongoing news story out of Albuquerque, where several members of the police academy’s training staff filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, alleging nepotism and retaliation by command staff, in an incident that began after the academy had dismissed a cadet, the son of a police commander.


The Lancaster analysis encouraged more research that focuses on supervisors, not officers in ranks, who are more often studied. Also, they found, though frameworks meant to encourage whistleblowing sometimes set up phone lines for anonymous reporting, officers may prefer to report to supervisors or trusted colleagues. (The International Association of Chiefs of Police also emphasizes reporting to supervisors as soon as possible.)


Police department’s discipline policies and practices were also important. Officers who were reluctant to become whistleblowers often cited the potential unfairness of punishment: If the behavior would be punished with overly harsh consequences, they were less likely to report it.


An often-overlooked mechanism for challenging police misconduct is peer-to-peer intervention, noted the Lancaster team, which found no studies that explored the benefits of peers challenging misconduct in more of an informal way, as opposed to formal reports.


Some policymakers have also proposed making reporting mandatory. “This may take the onus of the decision away from the officers and make them feel they are not being disloyal for reporting,” the analysts suggested. But the benefits and unintended consequences of this approach have not been studied.  

 

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