FLETC director: Is LE 'insulated' from ethics?

"I can tell you that most organizations have a really low tolerance for unethical behaviors," Director Thomas Walters said in a speech during Ethics Awareness Week

By Lauren McDonald
The Brunswick News

GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — Ethics can rarely be defined in black and white terms.

Thomas Walters, the director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers in Glynn County, where he oversees the training of thousands of federal agents and law enforcement employees, has tried to simplify ethics for himself.

“For me, the ‘e’ in ethics stands for ‘expectations,’” Walters said Thursday at the College of Coastal Georgia.

Through more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement, though, Walters said he’s learned that ethics change based on perceptions, life experiences, leadership and personal and community standards.

His keynote speech came at the end of the college’s Ethics Awareness Week, which was part of a University System of Georgia initiative to promote an ethical culture in all USG institutions

“Ethics Awareness Week is a great way to communicate with our employees and community that we care and are committed to ethical conduct,” said Michelle Johnston, president of the college, in a press release. “The week’s activities will build upon the already existing ethical culture, while recognizing the hard work of employees.”

Walters spoke about the perception of ethics in law enforcement and the concern some in the United States have that the police force is lacking in ethical standards regarding use of force, based on recent, highly publicized incidents when police misused force.

“How in the world does this happen?” Walters said. “How could a law enforcement officer, sworn to protect shoot, somebody in the back while they’re running away, and then doesn’t even know if they’re armed or not?”

He asked the audience to take a step back and consider that there’s more than 800,000 law enforcement officers in America.

“Is it a flawed system?” he asked. “Have techniques failed? Is the police force and law enforcement insulated from ethics somehow?”

It’s far more complicated than that, he said. Every day, police officers deal with a wide variety of incidents in their communities, from traffic law violators to opioid addicts to perpetrators of violence.

They have to insulate themselves from all this somehow, he said, the way an emergency room nurse stays insulated from all the pain, trauma and oddities he or she sees.

“And who do you talk to? You talk to your fellow officers,” Walters said. “… It becomes you and the people that live your job as the center of your universe, including your perception of ethics. That’s how some of the outrageous things you’ve seen actually happen.”

Sometimes training is to blame, but not always, he said. And sometimes men or women in uniform simply should not have that job.

Other times, use of force is required to save an officer’s own life.

“There’s a notion that there’s a secret cover up of ethics in law enforcement,” he said. “I have not witnessed it myself. I can tell you that most organizations have a really low tolerance for it, for unethical behaviors.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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