Is there ever a right time to do the wrong thing? Said differently, is it okay to do the wrong thing for the right reasons?
These questions spring to mind because of the actions taken last week by Sergeant Sean Murphy of the Massachusetts State Police, and the subsequent punishment levied against him by his agency this week.
Outraged over the rock-star status seemingly given to Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Sergeant Murphy sent photos of what he called “the face of terror” to Boston magazine. The leaked images in which a police marksman lases the forehead of the terror suspect are indeed a stark contrast to the “fluffed and buffed” image on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Sergeant Murphy was not authorized to release the photos, and although he has been placed on desk duty “until a further investigation is completed,” it appears that he won’t lose his job or suffer a significant career setback. In fact, Murphy said on CBS ‘This Morning’ that he’s “doing great.”
Support for Sergeant Murphy
Did Sergeant Murphy violate Massachusetts State Police policy? Yes.
Did he also do the “right thing” for himself and the people of Massachusetts he has sworn to protect?
In my opinion (and the opinion of just about every PoliceOne Member who has commented on these stories), absolutely yes.
Even the mercurial denizens of the Democratic Republic of Facebook have overwhelmingly said they back Murphy’s actions.
Standing Your Moral High Ground
But this whole episode prompts us to look inwardly and contemplate a very serious question: When faced with a conflict between agency policy and personal convictions, when do you decide to be “righteous” rather than “right”?
You may be told to do something you believe (or know) to be illegal, unethical, immoral, or any combination thereof. By disobeying such orders, you’re technically doing the wrong thing. But also the right thing. It’s a career conundrum and almost always a “lose-lose” scenario for the officer.
I’m pretty sure that every agency in America recognizes that an individual officer has the right to refuse an obviously unlawful order — or one he/she believes will endanger himself or another person — but this question can be applied to countless ethical, moral, legal, philosophical, and tactical decisions you have to make on a daily basis.
• Do I let that old guy off with a warning?
• Do I give that girl a ride to her mom’s?
• Do I enforce a law I feel is unconstitutional?
The August cover of America’s 1st Freedom magazine carries a picture of more than two dozen Colorado Sheriffs who sided with their own personal conviction when they publicly declared that they would not enforce recently-passed gun-control legislation. Sheriffs in New York have made a similar stand.
Ultimately, those Sheriffs will have to answer to their respective bosses, just as Sergeant Murphy must answer to his.
Balancing Discipline and Discretion
So, how does an agency allow for individual judgment without losing control of (or authority over) its officers? From an outside-looking-in perspective (I am more than 3,000 miles from Boston, after all), it appears that Massachusetts State Police has achieved a good balance in the case of Sergeant Murphy.
Although the matter remains officially unresolved, it looks like Sergeant Murphy will not lose his job. But there have been many cops who took a stand against something they thought to be an injustice, and were subsequently fired for standing their moral high ground.
I want to end today’s column with two questions and an invitation to answer, either in the comments below or by email to me:
1.) When you’ve been faced with a conflict between personal conviction and agency policy, what did you do?
2.) If this is something you haven’t yet been challenged with, have you done any when/then thinking on it?