Monday, April 30, 2012
Valerie Van Brocklin
“We should blow up the whole city and start over. They [sic] bystanders are not even people, lumps of s@#t.”
We’ve already looked at how these comments violate the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and the Warrior Ethos, and how they’re a firing offense. These questions remain:
- Can law enforcement afford to ignore such conduct?
- If not, what do we do about it?
Ignore Unprofessional, Unethical Conduct at Your Peril
I received quite a number of thoughtful reader comments to "Where Have All the Warriors Gone". One reader gently reminded me that the vocal, profane minority don’t represent the majority of officers. This reader further suggested that the true warriors of law enforcement might simply choose not to stoop to the level of the unethical commenters and waste their time arguing with them.
That may well be true. But the honorable majority can’t afford to remain silent. As I’ve noted, these comments are open to the public. Here’s one of their comments:
I, for one, encourage LEOs to express their opinions and emotions candidly on public forums online. I hope LEOs continue to vent, rant, insult and generally spout off whatever they are feeling. This will increase the public’s awareness of the mindset of the typical LEO, and further turn public opinion against the police as a whole. LEOs definitely deserve to have their real thoughts known by the public, and be viewed for the monsters that they are.
As another reader commented to my article, “In silence there is consent. We must speak up and be the leaders we talk about.”
As a law enforcement trainer, I also believe in being proactive. It may be that in a culture where profanity is spoken, sung, acted, worn and danced to, and incivility increases ratings and is common amongst our nation’s leaders, officers have become desensitized to its ramifications when indulged in by someone bearing the badge.
Training to Change Behavior
- Raise their awareness of the threat.
- Provide examples of responses that will avert the threat.
- Raise individuals’ confidence they can perform the response.
Sounds similar to what we do to prepare for and execute scenario-based training. I decided to try it.
Earlier this week, I was training DPS Academy recruits on their rights, responsibilities and liabilities on the Internet. Since embarking on this series, I’ve added a segment to this block of instruction. I gave the recruits a scenario where a fellow officer and friend who had gone through the academy with them posted some of the vile comments we’ve been discussing. I asked them what they would do, if anything. When they said they would talk to the officer, I had them role play what they would say. Then I asked them if the officer could be fired if she or he had made such comments and been identified. Every recruit answered affirmatively.
I had them read aloud the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and I asked them if such comments lived up to the promises.
- My fundamental duty is to … respect the constitutional rights of all people [.]
- I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop restraint [.]
- I will recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service.
I asked them what they thought the public’s response might be to such comments coming from a police officer. The recruits collectively expressed that the vile, profane comments could diminish or destroy public trust. I asked them if the loss of public trust and respect was a safety issue for all officers. The “officers to be” replied that if the public doesn’t trust the police they're less likely to cooperate with them, which makes every officer’s job harder and more dangerous.
The next time I train on this, I’ll have the recruits repeat they scenario after such instruction to see if the quality of their responses change. I believe they will. I saw the dawning on their faces.
Training for Tradition
Recently, I was seated on an airplane next to a young marine that “Ma’am”-ed me up one side and down the other. He was thoughtful and articulate. The exact opposite of the Internet comments we’ve been discussing.
I asked him about his decision to join the Marines and one of the things he mentioned was the care the Corps takes to teach its history to new enlistees. He said it made him feel part of a greater tradition to which he felt deeply responsible.
I wonder how many of the coarse, disrespectful commenters know their profession’s history and have heard of Sir Robert Peele. He’s considered the father of modern policing and he developed principles for an ethical police force. They include:
- The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.
- Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observation of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
- Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police … [.]
We may be teaching the warrior code of winning the fight and never giving up. Are we inculcating the warrior code of self-discipline and restraint in non-tactical police conduct and Peele’s principles for an ethical police force?
What Should the Sites Do?
In my earlier articles, I called on fellow officers to hold accountable those who post comments harmful to the profession. Now I call upon the sites.
In writing this series, I’ve communicated with editors at three different law enforcement web sites. One of the sites had formal online guidelines for reader comments, but they weren’t readily accessible. Two had informal guidelines the editors applied as best they could in light of the innumerable comments.
I believe all three editors care deeply about officers and the profession. Providing a comments forum for officers and the profession to self-examine, constructively criticize, reasonably disagree, vent, commiserate, support, encourage and question is a good thing. Providing a forum for the kinds of comments we’ve been discussing harms the profession and doesn’t advance any civil discourse. It allows officers to vent—but if their venting violates the profession’s Code of Ethics, the editors’ guidelines and would be firing offenses except for the commenter’s anonymity, such venting shouldn’t be tolerated.
I urge all law enforcement web sites to have formal policies for online comments. It could be as short and simple as: “________.com encourages a free and open exchange of ideas that provides for passionate but civil debate and disagreement. This excludes comments that are harassing, threatening, abusive, vulgar, defamatory or unacceptably profane.”
And how about posting such a policy right above the comments section rather than buried somewhere else on the site? I don’t think this is that high a standard. It’s covered by the manners kids should know by age 9.
Shut Your Mouse, Please
Does your public comment add a constructive criticism to a discussion or are you just venting and letting off steam? If the latter and you can’t vent civilly, please shut your mouse and talk face-to-face with a real person instead. Vent over a beer or mocha latte with trusted friends, family or brothers and sisters of the shield. Counsel with a pastor or talk to a therapist about anger management.
Policing can be one of the most stressful and frustrating jobs imaginable. Given the demands, officers need to be able to vent and let off steam and not always be on guard about the position you hold and the character and conduct it demands. But not in public, and these internet comments are public.
You may not personally be identified but you stand for something bigger than yourself. When you fail to meet that standard, it hurts your fellow officers and makes their job out in the public that much harder. And it hurts us who look up to you.