How police chiefs should handle police officer misconduct

Planning and prevention define responses to high-profile officer-involved incidents


In a memorable episode of the iconic cop show “Dragnet,” fictional LAPD Sgt. Joe Friday quotes real-life former LAPD Chief William Parker: “We have one big problem in selecting police officers. We have to recruit from the human race.” This truth being self-evident, police leaders must accept the reality that any of the ills of humanity can show up behind the thin blue line.

Most law enforcement agencies have some sort of plan for dealing with an officer-involved shooting, but what about other officer-involved incidents? In my own experience, and those of colleagues who are agency heads, I’ve seen the following:

  • A school resource officer sent to prison for relationships with high school students at his assigned school;
  • A midnight shift officer caught regularly stealing mail at a college mail drop to look for gift cards and cash;
  • An officer driving while intoxicated on duty in a marked patrol car;
  • An officer claiming overtime for time spent making out with an off-duty dispatcher in her personal vehicle;
  • An administrator viewing pornography for hours on the department computer;
  • An officer with a torrid online relationship with a minor;
  • Sexual liaisons with coworkers on duty.
Most law enforcement agencies have some sort of plan for dealing with an officer-involved shooting, but what about other officer-involved incidents? (Photo/PoliceOne)
Most law enforcement agencies have some sort of plan for dealing with an officer-involved shooting, but what about other officer-involved incidents? (Photo/PoliceOne)

Unfortunately, the list could go on.

Some of these offending behaviors are illegal, some against department policy and some against prevailing moral standards of a community, but all are an embarrassment to the employing law enforcement agency that causes damage to credibility that requires both time and a strategy to repair.

How can leaders prepare for conduct unbecoming an officer?

Don’t shoot your wounded

With the current police recruitment crisis, agencies that invest in keeping officers who have the capacity to serve the organization well over time save resources in the long run with redemptive, restorative discipline. Holistic health approaches that include counseling are as important as maintaining discipline and accountability.

When an officer makes an egregious error in judgment that reflects poorly on the department, it will help the public and the rest of the personnel to know that the agency culture can’t be blamed for the officer’s delinquency had he or she taken advantage of available restorative resources.

Proactive transparency

Law enforcement agency heads have learned that speaking out on high-profile officer-involved incidents, including officer-involved shootings, can help shape the narrative positively to counteract the inevitable social media storm. Providing facts as they become known and when they can be legally released, outlining the investigative process and timeline, and taking immediate personnel action when appropriate can help calm fears and accusation of cover ups, collusion and conspiracy. Painful honesty can reap public trust.

Critical response team

Most departments know who to call when there is a need for an independent investigation of an officer use of force. A separate agreement might be wise for other officer-involved incidents that involve questions of professional integrity. Even when an agency has a well-structured professional standards investigations procedure, having an outside monitor or reviewer can assure the public that any inquiries are objective and unbiased. If there is a discussion about whether to bring in an outside agency or team to look into concerns about an officer’s questionable behavior, err on the side of avoiding public suspicion of whitewash.

Regular ethics indoctrination

Ethics is a practice, not a four-hour course. The occasional class on ethics is likely to have very little effect on actual behavior. Case studies are more effective than PowerPoint outlines. The recent incident that involved the shooting of a St. Louis officer while two officers played Russian roulette with a third officer present could be a valuable part of roll-call training by asking:

  • What would you do if a fellow officer was drinking alcohol on duty?
  • What would you do if a fellow officer was playing Russian roulette with an off-duty married officer?
  • What were likely early warning signs that might have predicted this kind of scenario?
  • How would you respond if you were a supervisor or chief of police?

Doveryai, no proveryai

In case you weren’t alive during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, this was the Russian proverb he quoted during nuclear weapons reduction talks. It means trust, but verify. Drug testing is routine for officers working narcotics. Polygraphs may be a regular part of working vice. What about SROs and DARE officers and sexual integrity? What about the lonely long-term midnight officer who may think he or she is not being watched?

Regular integrity testing can remind officers of their obligations on and off duty. It can also be used in disciplinary actions. If an officer has responded to an annual or quarterly questionnaire about drug use, theft, relations with minors, viewing pornography on department devices, false overtime claims and so on their failure to be truthful can be a shortcut to dismissal in an ethics breech.

Leadership integrity

The most important key to ethical integrity as a department’s value is what its leadership and supervisors model. Components of a robust program for ethical health include:

  • Aggressive responses to citizen complaints and concerns;
  • Ongoing team assessment of officers by supervisors;
  • Monitoring data for early warning signs of high-risk behavior by officers;
  • Documentation of all warnings and advisements given in cases of minor misconduct that might alert supervisors to patterns of poor behavior.

An agency’s reputation for ethical behavior springs from leadership by example.

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