Policing with honor: The three levels of accountability
“N.J. Officer Charged With Staging Own Shooting”
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.
These are the key questions. The answers aren’t simple. Where do we start? With accountability.
The Three Levels of Accountability
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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