Policing with honor: The three levels of accountability
Editor's Note: We welcome Randy Sutton to our roster of writers. Randy has served approximately 30 years in law enforcement, the last 24 of which were with the Las Vegas Metro PD. Randy Sutton is the author of three books: “TRUE BLUE Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them,” “A Cop’s Life,” and “TRUE BLUE To Protect and To Serve.” Several excerpts from his book have been posted here on PoliceOne. Randy speaks and teaches on the subject of ethics and integrity in a presentation entitled “Policing with Honor,” which also is the foundation of his column on PoliceOne. This article has been published in several police magazines and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
“N.J. Officer Charged With Staging Own Shooting”
“Pipe Bomb Hero Cop Arrested”
“Police Department Dealing With Arrests of Officers”
“Police Corruption Probe Nets Four Cops”
These are actual newspaper headlines from all over the U.S. I’m having trouble understanding the sheer force of my reaction; just reading those truncated accusations cuts through me like a dull blade and makes me feel ashamed. I didn’t do anything wrong and I didn’t know any of those cops. My agency wasn’t the PD in question in any of them, so why do I have such a visceral, gut-kicking response when read such things? It’s simple: because I’m not alone and those cops who crossed the line aren’t alone either. All of us who wear a badge are members of a profession that is one of the most honorable in the nation. I have proudly worn a badge on my chest for more than 25 years and I’ve reached a point where even when I’m out of uniform and off duty the imprint of that badge is still there. I take it to heart — my sworn duty to serve and protect; I’ve knelt by the police memorial wall in Washington D.C. honoring the thousands of cops who gave their lives in the honorable performance of that same duty.
That’s why I take those headlines personally. Those dishonored cops are in the same fraternity — men and women alike — as those who have fallen. That makes me both sad and angered and that’s why I have left the street to become a trainer in my department. Armed with wisdom, street-smarts, experience — all of us who are senior officers are in a position to stem the tide of corruption provided we can understand how it happens.
As a police trainer, I have studied countless volumes on the Ethics of Law Enforcement. There’s a lot of material out there. I’ve read treatises by doctors, professors, police chiefs and street cops. I’ve watched taped interview after interview with former cops recounting their paths to destruction and listened to their accounts of the unraveling of their careers, their marriages, their lives. Despite all this, I’m left with more questions than answers.
• Why did these officers make the decisions that they did?
• Did their agencies fulfill their responsibilities to the public in the training of the officer?
• And finally, could anything have been done to prevent the actions of these officers?
These are the key questions. The answers aren’t simple. Where do we start? With accountability.
The Three Levels of Accountability
Accountability in law enforcement has three equally important components that must work in synchronization with one another. First there is self-accountability. Each police officer, from probationary officers all the way up to the head of the agency, plays an important role within the framework of their police organization. Think of the organization as a living organism, or body, and the personnel within it as being synonymous with the organs, the limbs, the circulatory system, the bones, the skin, etc. For the body to be healthy and performing at its peak, all of its parts must be working in harmony with each other. When even a minor body part, say like the pinky finger, is not functioning well, it affects the functioning of the body as a whole. For example, a dislocated pinky finger will make a hand less agile and useful, creating an inefficient holster draw, a less rapid response, thereby weakening the entirety of the body, or the officer, putting his or her welfare in perpetual jeopardy. Therefore, every little thing in an organism is important; every member of an organization is important and a factor in healthy functionality. Thus when even one officer or agent within an agency commits a breach of trust, the whole organization suffers.
Almost every police agency has an Internal Affairs Bureau and/or Professional Standards Inspectors but, let’s face it, they cannot force a person to act honestly and ethically. An individual’s actual behavior, despite whatever oaths he or she takes to uphold, can only be determined by that individual’s personal response/action to a given set of circumstances. Those behavioral choices come from within the individual and this taking responsibility for one’s actions is determined by one’s internal set of values. This is the essence of self-accountability.
The next component is supervisory accountability. When law enforcement officers go through the promotional process and take on supervisory roles for the first time, there is too often not enough preparatory training to ready them for their transition. Officers are usually promoted based on seniority and/or field experience but such a background, no matter how essential it is for one in a supervisory capacity, does not prepare an officer for what he will encounter. A promoted officer, usually a sergeant, leaves behind being “one of the guys” and that change alone is a difficult change for many. The familiar squad room/locker room banter that the officer once enjoyed and could participate in suddenly ceases once the newly promoted supervisor enters the scene. Sometimes the new supervisor faces resentment from his former peers who believe that the promotion was unearned and occurred because of “politics” or because he or she was “a better test taker.”
Another fact of PD life is that the majority of police agencies in the country are small, with far less than 20 sworn officers, so there is too often general knowledge of everyone’s personal lives, not to mention an in-depth knowledge of everyone’s professional career. This familiarity can make taking a supervisory role even more difficult and yet it is essential that the newly promoted supervisor meet the challenge of above-reproach ethical behavior. The scrutiny that he or she will be under is both a burden and an opportunity to set an example. Furthermore, the supervisor becomes the second line of defense in the battle for ethical behavior. It is he or she who is in the best position to observe the conduct of their personnel and it is he or she who will most likely encounter the conduct problems that arise from inexperience within the ranks of the unguided. To not take firm and decisive action at the earliest opportunity not only poses its own ethical conundrum but it becomes a lost opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Supervisory intervention, by setting clear examples of expected behavior and by correcting the transgression early in its commission, may actually save the career of the employee down the road. Ultimately, it is the first line supervisor who truly sets the standard for departmental work ethic, for on duty behavior and for the treatment of the community’s citizens.
The final aspect of accountability is administrative accountability. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country all have similar hierarchical structures which progress upward to eventually include the head of the agency, most often a chief or sheriff. If the agency is small, the administrative staff above the first line supervisors may just include a captain or a couple of lieutenants or their equivalents. If the agency is large, there may be a full complement of staff officers or agents who make up “the administration.” There is no doubt that the entire “ethical personality” of an agency is determined by the head of that organization and, accordingly, by those who the leader has chosen to surround himself or herself with. If, upon appointment or election, the chief or sheriff selects men or women who are perceived as competent, fair and ethical, the entire organization, as a body, will respect the decisions made on their behalf and will be optimistic as to how these decisions will affect their professional, even personal, lives. If, however, the head of the agency enjoys a less than savory reputation or if he/she appoints or promotes “administrative bullies,” the less-than-a-leader will surely destroy morale and set a low bar for ethical behavior for the agency’s employees.
It is essential that administrative staff truly and decisively “walk the walk” ethically, if not morally. If they don’t, lower ranking personnel, when facing discipline for their transgressions, will view any punishment as hypocritical and as having no value. They will feel unsupported and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, it is equally important that whatever discipline is to be administrated is done so in a manner that is Firm, Fair and Fast and that personal grudges and past relationship issues be put aside when both conducting internal investigations and in determining and administrating discipline. None of this is possible if the administration is less than accountable for its actions or less than stellar in its ethical stance.
Ultimately the question is this: what can we do as a profession to improve the ethical demeanor of our nation’s law enforcement officers so that we seldom, if ever, see those damning newspaper headlines again?
First, the creation of an Internal Affairs office and Professional Standards Bureau, no matter how small the agency, is essential. Also, sending officers in leadership positions to interdepartmental courses in law enforcement ethics is an excellent way to bring knowledge back into the agency and encouraging officers to continue with their outside-law-enforcement education, such as college degree programs, is helpful in promoting a “think before you act” ethical mentality. Many agencies, as well, now offer ethical training as early as the academy level.
Despite these educational resources, however, we have not gone far enough. We have not set national standards for the hiring of law enforcement personnel. We have no national clearing house for information on those officers who have lost their certification or jobs as a result of criminality or misconduct and too often this leads to inappropriate rehiring. We have never established a consistent and comprehensive training strategy that addresses ethical issues in more than a superficial way. Before we can have true accountability in all three levels, these are issues we must address nationally and not just as separate agencies.
But what can we do right now? Can we, as police officers and agents, street cops and administrators, do something that will have an immediate impact on our chosen profession? Yes. You see, the vast majority of those of us who enter the field of law enforcement do so out of a sense of purpose and patriotism. We fully intend to honor our commitment to the ideals of what our badge represents. It is that commitment that we must build on. We must create a culture of pride.
A culture of pride is actually a simple concept. It begins with each one of us realizing that we are important not only as individuals and as members of a noble profession but also in how we play a vital role in the lives of others. Once we accept that fundamental truth about ourselves, we need to look at our colleagues and coworkers and regard them with the same respect. Ultimately, it’s a belief in what one stands for and pride, of the healthy, expansive sort, that keeps a person from dishonoring themselves and their profession.
What exactly is this sense of pride? It’s that same feeling one gets at graduation from a law enforcement academy. It’s the feeling of a crisp new uniform and a starched shirt and the weight of a shiny new badge on your chest. It’s the feeling of an awesome responsibility coupled with a soaring belief that we, the new officer, can meet whatever challenges we face come hell or high water. There is no feeling like it, no greater sense of optimistic pride. This is the feeling we all, as experienced law enforcement officers, need to strive to recapture. We must seek to cloak ourselves in ethical pride for it is there that we are most invulnerable to our baser instincts.
“Too simple,” some say. “Too unrealistic,” others remark. But why not simply believe in your profession, in yourself? You have absolutely nothing to lose but some stress and maybe some attitude. And on an organizational level, each of us can play a critical role in building up the pride in our agency. From the cop on the beat taking a little extra time make sure his or her uniform is clean and pressed to the top administrator making sure that his or her personnel is properly equipped and provided with both technical and personal support, are all ways to instill, foster and promote pride.
Realistically, in a profession that employs approximately 700,000 people, there will be a certain number who will transgress. Human fallibility has been historically constant throughout the centuries and this isn’t likely to change despite our best efforts. But the field of law enforcement is quite unlike any other profession. Within policing there have been great strides made in recent years and this is amazing if you take into account that law enforcement is relatively new as a profession — it’s been less than 200 years since Englishman Robert Peel began what’s become the modern police force. Yet it will never be enough until each and every one of us, all sworn police officers, make every possible effort to be vigilant and innovative when it pertains to ethical behavior. There is far too much at stake not to take this responsibility seriously. Quite literally, our law enforcement officers hold the power of life and liberty over our nation’s citizens. Liberties are the most important rights that a person can possess and the sanctity of these rights must not be tread on. Modern law enforcement, in its zeal to protect the people of our country in the wake of the reality of terrorism, must be on guard against “noble cause corruption” — doing the wrong thing for “good” reasons.
Administrators and supervisors must do their part and be careful not to send out the message to our eager young officers that they must get the job done “no matter what it takes.”
Falsifying investigative documents and manufacturing evidence in support of obtaining search warrants is a major cause of ruined careers and lives and cannot be justified even when the goal is to take a criminal of the streets. Such behavior, reprehensible in deed though not in thought, is a part of the slippery slope from corruption to criminality. And, in fact, research has shown that in many cases outrageous conduct by law enforcement officers where termination or criminal charges resulted, much like the headlines that began this article, were merely the conclusion of behaviors which began innocently enough but then escalated over a period of time until simple misconduct became egregious malfeasance. In all probability, had the less serious issues been addressed effectively in the beginning, many scandals could have been averted and many careers saved.
Law enforcement in the United States has never faced tougher challenges than it does today and will continue to face in the future. The rising rates of criminality and the threats of terrorism within our communities together with diminishing resources and budget cuts will exert pressures never before experienced. We must prepare ourselves physically and we must prepare ourselves mentally. Mental preparedness means taking pride in oneself, one’s agency, and in the noble profession of law enforcement. By doing so we, as police officers, can prepare ourselves ethically to handle whatever challenges we face. If we do this we will truly be “policing with honor.”