How Do You Handle Police Misconduct?
“Police misconduct” is always a favorite topic of the media, and who can blame them? Exposing the dark side of those who are supposed to serve and protect makes for fascinating reading and viewing by the general public. And let’s face it; there is no shortage of fodder when it comes to our own bad behavior. Cops make mistakes, just like everyone else, and sometimes our errors involve momentary insanity, huge lapses in judgment, or even criminal behavior.
In my own small suburban area outside of Chicago, a deputy chief was recently accused of dipping into the prescription drug “turn in” program’s evidence locker. He got caught, fired, and indicted, and it made local and national headlines in print, on television and on the Internet. Ouch.
Police Link recently asked this question on their increasingly popular Facebook page: What would you do if you witnessed misconduct by one of your department co-workers? The responses were varied, emotional, and fascinating.
Many respondents wanted more information before they answered the question. “Define misconduct” was a frequent response, as was “it depends on the type of misconduct.” That kind of attitude is typical in our society; we seem to tolerate more and more bad behavior from each other as well as ourselves. In Michelle Malkin’s fantastic best seller, Culture of Corruption, she systematically outlines decades of misconduct involving many of the people currently holding high office in the United States, and yet there was little sustained national outrage regarding her well-researched findings.
We’re just a nation accustomed to our lawmakers “pushing the envelope” ethically; let’s hope we’re not heading in the same direction when in comes to our law enforcers. I agree that engaging in police brutality is not the same as taking a free cup of coffee, but as a profession, we have to take a hard look at own ethical standards and expectations.
Many of the Facebook posts indicated that people set high standards for themselves but didn’t want to be the one to confront someone else’s bad behavior. That’s a dangerous attitude for this profession. I understand not wanting to be the shift snitch but if you witness a fellow officer engaged in misconduct and you simply turn away, you’re just as culpable as they are. We get frustrated with citizens who don’t want to get involved when they witness a crime, how can we do the same thing when it comes to misconduct? But what about “The Thin Blue Line” you ask?
As one post read: “We are held to a higher standard for a reason. I know we are human, but we get paid to be on point.” Another reader added: Where I work, they make it clear that if you see something, you better say something…this is not the “old days” any longer.” When one of us does something wrong, it affects all of us. We need to remember the lessons (and the horrible domino affect) of the Rodney King incident and act accordingly.
Several respondents suggested talking it out, cop to cop, before reporting a fellow officer to the brass. This is called “Tactical Intervention” and is something I teach to police personnel around the nation. It’s important to know how to successfully approach a co-worker when you observe them make an officer safety mistake or treat a citizen poorly.
We also need to know how to intervene when we see things about to go bad off duty, such as stopping a friend who is about to drive drunk or get into a bar room brawl. However, be cautious about putting your own career in jeopardy. If a fellow employee is hell-bent on self destruction or is engaged in misconduct that is well beyond a heart-to-heart chat, then you’re probably not going to want to take this on by yourself.
Which brings us to “report it to a supervisor,” another reoccurring suggestion. But how that supervisor reacts makes all the difference. When my department hired a new chief, he immediately implemented a “no gratuities” policy. We considered ourselves a very ethical agency, so we didn’t give the new edict much thought. The biggest gratuities we ever indulged in were half price meals at select restaurants and free coffee at the local 24 hour convenience stores; we certainly weren’t taking bribes on traffic stops and shaking down tavern owners for protection.
However, when our new boss found out that we had all taken free hotdogs and sodas during an annual town festival, he was livid! Heads were going to roll. But instead of punishing the officers, he went straight to the sergeants, and gave them each suspension time for failing to enforce his new general order. You can bet that there wasn’t a free cup of coffee taken by a cop in our city for years to come. As with almost all cultural change in law enforcement, the sergeants are the key. As one reader said, “When in doubt, go up the chain.”
Sadly, many of the Facebook responses indicated a complete lack of trust in police administrators to do the right thing if misconduct is brought to the attention of a supervisor. Reasonableness and consistency are two key elements for managers and supervisors to consider, and we also need to examine our own ethical behavior not only as individuals, but as leaders and role models in our organizations.
One of our readers said this: “We are not to forget that we are trusted with a great amount of power and if we misuse those powers or turn a blind eye to a colleague, where does that lead is?” That’s a great point for all of us to ponder. As another said, “In law enforcement, the right decision isn’t always the most popular.” Nobody becomes a cop to be popular, we become cops because we have a sense of right and wrong, and we’re on the side of what’s right.
Print this article out and take it to roll call, forward it to your friends, post it on the locker room bulletin board. Keep the discussion going. Our profession and our society may be at stake. Stay safe!