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What a state trooper's demotion can teach you about ethics standards

Some may label this an overreaction, but it’s the wave of the future

A news item on PoliceOne discussed the demotion and reassignment of a police executive after he arranged for his son and the son’s girlfriend to be admitted to a professional football game without having tickets. 

I know many cops who likely read that and interpreted the outcome as either an overreaction of management and/or a situation where someone was singled out to be made an example of. 

I think it’s the harbinger of things to come. 

Setting the ‘Ethics Bar’ High
The agency in the case is the Washington State Patrol, which operates in an environment of very high ethical expectations. Gratuities, like free or discounted food, are strictly forbidden for troopers. 

This may be a standard practice in many parts of the country, but in Washington it will get you disciplined or fired. That is one of many actions which are common practice in other agencies, but absolutely forbidden conduct in most Washington agencies. 

A few years back, several WSP troopers were found to have received educational pay incentives for degrees received from unaccredited colleges, otherwise known as “diploma mills.” 

The troopers were disciplined over the episode, but they were nearly prosecuted criminally. It wasn’t so much that they knew they hadn’t earned those degrees, but that they should have known it was improper to be paid for them. 

This standard isn’t unique to the Washington State Patrol. As a former employee of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (or DPSST — what’s called “POST” in other states), I know cops in the Pacific Northwest are held to a considerably higher standard than is the case in many other parts of the country. 

DPSST goes out of its way to let everyone know where the line is drawn. Every month, DPSST publishes its Ethics Bulletin http://www.oregon.gov/dpsst/Pages/publications.aspx , which details cases brought before the Police, Corrections, Fire Service and Telecommunications Policy Committees. These committees review episodes of alleged misconduct by public safety employees trained and certified by DPSST in Oregon. 

Generally, any misconduct that will get you fired from your job will result in the case being reviewed by the appropriate policy committee, and misconduct meriting discipline short of termination can get you to the same place. 

In each case, the policy committee reviews the misconduct case and offers the person at the focus of the case an opportunity to present evidence on their behalf and be heard. 

Most don’t bother. If the committee believes the misconduct is of sufficient gravity, it revokes all of the subject’s DPSST certifications. The revocations are usually permanent. 

Doing this means that person is done working in public safety in Oregon. DPSST trains every cop, firefighter, corrections officer, and dispatcher in the state, and without their ticket, you can’t work. 

I worked for DPSST as a regional training coordinator out of an office on the other side of the state from headquarters. Once a month or so, I’d drive west to attend staff meetings. Without fail, as I went out the door to go home, a stack of the latest issue of the Ethics Bulletin would be shoved into my hand. 

We were mandated to distribute these at every station we called on, just in case the people who worked there hadn’t yet discovered the Internet. 

No one could say they weren’t warned. 

A Sacred Trust
Getting to this ethical standard wasn’t an overnight thing. It required a change not just in agency organizational culture, but regional culture. People just expect more of their cops and other public safety professionals in the northwest. It doesn’t mean that the cops enjoy a love fest between themselves and the citizenry, but there are fewer news stories about police misconduct than one sees in other parts of the country. 

I think — I hope — this is a trend. Being a law enforcement officer is a sacred trust, where citizens grant authority to carefully selected and trained people. Every time an officer acts improperly, especially to benefit himself or an acquaintance, that trust is eroded. People inclined to have faith in the police have a little less confidence; people who don’t like the cops anyway will use the incident to reinforce their argument that all cops are dishonest, brutal, and corrupt. 

Changes to organizational cultures never happen overnight. They are the result of years or gradual change and reinforcement of values. Those values can begin and be exemplified by a single person. 

Could that person be you? 

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