Ethical Survival: Officers must prepare for not only physical danger but ethical danger as well
By Randy Sutton
An LAPD honor guard stands tall and represents everything that’s right about police work. Ethics allegations hurt everyone who wears a badge.
On a dreary autumn morning seven years ago, Sgt. Philip Ross stuffed his fully loaded 9mm SIG into his waistband and headed into the wooded area behind his home. He thought of his wife, his daughter and his 14 years at the police department where his fellow officers were more like family than co-workers. A note in his pocket said, simply, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” Attached to the note was a New Jersey grand jury indictment bearing his name.
Fortunately, Ross’ wife was home. Running into the woods, she came upon him in time to stop him from his planned suicide attempt. Back at the house, he showered and dressed, and together they drove to the court for his sentencing.
Now, seven years later, with pain still etched on his face, former police Sergeant Phil Ross told me, “For years I trained . . . firearms, tactics, officer safety, and in the end I destroyed my own career and almost my life with one stupid decision.”
What was that decision?
Ross had bolstered the strength of a case against a major narcotics trafficker by claiming in an investigative report that narcotics found in the suspect’s residence were discovered after a search warrant was issued. In reality, the evidence had been discovered during a protective sweep before a search warrant was issued.
Ross’ motives were noble — he wanted justice to prevail in a case where the suspect was clearly guilty — but by lying, he violated his oath of office. Noble-cause corruption is still corruption.
The New Survival Challenge
Physical danger is among the most fundamental aspects of law enforcement, and so, in order to survive, we train to protect ourselves both physically and mentally. Yet the last decade has seen a leveling off of line-of-duty deaths of law enforcement officers. Most point to better equipment, body armor and training, and as a police trainer for one of the largest police agencies in the United States, I must agree. The training budget in most police departments is geared heavily toward firearms training, tactical training and officer safety, and, accordingly, those are the concerns in the minds of our nation’s law enforcement officers each day as they pin on their badges and strap on their gun belts.
But ethical danger, as Ross experienced, can also prove fatal, at least career-wise.
For example, in my department alone, for every officer lost in the line of duty in the last five years, 70 were fired for ethical misconduct. And unlike those who died honorably, these officers are alive but disgraced.
The Concept of Ultimate Responsibility
I recently saw an interview with a corrections officer caught on video forcing prisoners to abuse one another sexually while he watched. He denied he was in the wrong, claiming no written rule forbade his behavior.
This ignorant justification, a denial of personal responsibility, rings closely to what every law enforcement officer hears on the street every day. The constant exposure to the array of excuses that spew from criminal suspects contributes to the hardened cynicism in street cops. But we cannot allow either the I’m-not-responsible mindset or unchecked cynicism to pollute the perspective guiding our actions.
Our job entails a great amount of discretion and autonomy; we must accept a degree of responsibility commensurate with our positions. If I make a decision, however big or small, I am accountable for it. Ownership of each decision, from the mundane to the life changing, lies with the one who makes it. This is the concept of ultimate responsibility. If we embrace this basic idea, we can avoid myriad ethical pitfalls.
Take the case of Officer John Black, a three-year police officer in a large urban police department. Black came under investigation for logging out for an unauthorized coffee break during a follow-up investigation. When questioned, Black compounded his mistake by denying taking the coffee break, unaware he had been observed by another officer. Thus, where he had faced minor disciplinary action, he now faced — and received — termination.
He made a mistake he compounded by not being accountable.
Statistically, law enforcement agencies across the country are seeing higher rates of termination for truthfulness issues than ever before. Regrettably, in many cases, had the officers not lied about the initial conduct under investigation, they would not have been terminated.
Aside from basic ethical duty, a number of pragmatic reasons indicate why law enforcement agencies nationwide increasingly hold officers strictly accountable for truthfulness, including public awareness of officer conduct and oversight scrutiny provided by citizens’ review boards. Court decisions, such as U.S. vs. Henthorn, that allow a judge to examine a law enforcement officer’s personnel file in order to determine an officer’s credibility pose another factor. If an officer has a truthfulness issue on record, their usefulness as a witness is basically forfeited.
Preparing for Ethical Survival
Lack of truthfulness, however corrosive, is not the most potentially destructive enemy of an on-duty law enforcement officer: complacency is. Complacency means more than dropping your guard. It means shortchanging yourself and the quality of your life by doing only the minimum necessary to get by. Ethical survival requires preparing the psyche with the same vigor you use to prepare for tactical survival.
I asked a highly respected and decorated 20-year police veteran how he had escaped ethical pitfalls during his career. He said simply, “I know myself, and I respect who I am.” He discovered one of the most important strategies in mental preparation: self-definition.
Each of us is unique in our life’s experience, personal values and goals. But few of us take the time to reflect on who we truly are. How can we do this?
Complete a Personal Inventory
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. A personal inventory requires taking a long, introspective look at your personal traits and characteristics.
What are the qualities I like about myself?
What are the aspects of myself I am not proud of?
When I look at my actions and interactions with others, am I honest and compassionate? Or am I selfish and petty?
Who you are is not a matter of chance but a matter of choice.
If you like what you see, you can probably clearly visualize the hard road of self-evolution you traveled. If, however, there are areas you feel need improvement, this is the opportunity to identify those aspects and consciously change them.
Religious belief and spirituality have long played a vital role in guiding the decision-making of those who contribute to their communities. Our nation’s law enforcement officers come from every religious background known, and many have been drawn to the profession because of the corresponding values that law enforcement represents. The label you attach to your set of beliefs isn’t as important as the existence of those beliefs; those officers who have strong belief systems are far less inclined to stray ethically than those without.
Honor Yourself & Your Co-Workers
Law enforcement officers are special people. Unfortunately, we honor ourselves rarely, typically for funerals and retirements. But each day, heroic actions are commonplace.
How often have you watched a professional sports game in which a player accomplishes a difficult play? More often than not, teammates acknowledge the player with encouraging words and vigorous pats on the back.
Law enforcement is the ultimate team sport. When another officer accomplishes a good arrest or makes a positive difference in someone’s life, celebrate it. Be vocal, congratulatory, encouraging. Honor your co-workers, and, when your moments come, they will honor you.
Law enforcement continues to lose dedicated, talented officers to ethics-related mistakes. Just as we prepare ourselves tactically for physical threats, we must prepare ourselves mentally for ethical threats. By embracing the concept of ultimate responsibility — the principle of accountability — we take charge of our own professional destinies. By equipping ourselves with self-knowledge, we protect ourselves with the armor of values and professional honor. Otherwise, as Ross can attest, it’s a long and lonely walk into the courtroom for sentencing, but it’s an even longer walk into the woods.
Lieutenant Randy Sutton is a 29-year police veteran, serving 10 years with Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and the past 19 years with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He is the author of True Blue: Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them and the autobiographical collection of stories, A Cop's Life, released in 2005 by St. Martin's Press. Contact him through his Web site at www.policingwithhonor.com.