I train on police and prosecution ethics which makes me a constant student of both. Reading an article by Kevin Gilmartin and John Harris [web link below], I came across an ethical juxtaposition that intrigued me.
The dilemma—or is it?
"Is an executive-level officer who registers at a police conference (at taxpayer expense) and plays golf instead of attending the conference any less unethical than the line officer who is unavailable for calls because he/she is conducting personal business on duty?"
That's a good one, I thought. Especially since I don't golf. But let's not limit the dilemma to golf. Replace "plays golf" with:
Now I wasn't so comfortable. But I was still intrigued.
So I emailed a colleague—a retired police officer who holds a Ph.D. and is, coincidentally, very smart and whose integrity I respect. I asked her what she thought.
She replied she didn't have a problem with the golf scenario and helpfully added that an annual Chiefs of Police conference she has attended has golf as one of the scheduled conference activity options.
Researching online, I discovered that "networking" is one of the purposes of this particular conference. One (not me, but "one") could argue that golf provides networking opportunities.
Still, I wondered how this question might be received by front line officers.
Message from the front line, and above
During ethics training for a police department, I posed Gilmartin's and Harris' question. Responses ranged from derisive laughter, to groans, to "Right on!"
When I tried to explain that at one conference the golf was a scheduled activity, the response became even more derisive.
"Sure, that makes it right."
I didn't offer the "networking" rationale because I only discovered that online while researching for this article. I have a suspicion it wouldn't have impressed the rank and file.
In defense of the golf scenario, one patrol officer volunteered that a previous chief at the department told her and other officers he was sending to a training conference that he didn't care if they attended the training or not.
At this revelation, a captain in the training adamantly declared that if she had known of such advice she would have taken a strong stand against it.
The discussion was lively. I ended up standing on a chair to moderate.
Hypocrisy (or not)—double standards, or just common sense?
Later we were discussing the duty of individual officers to speak up when they witness something they think is wrong—and the many challenges of that duty.
A patrol officer shared that she confronted a fellow officer about not wearing his seat belt and his response was,
"Hey—I'm not a hypocrite. I don't ticket other people for not wearing their seatbelts."
Interesting concept. It's okay to break the law as long as, in addition, I don't enforce that law against others. This suggested another juxtaposition.
Are the seat belt scofflaw officer and his rationalization any more unethical than a taxpayer paid, conference-going, golf-playing chief who rationalizes his behavior by telling his officers he doesn't care whether they attend the conference sessions the taxpayers are sending them to?
And, is the Chief who plays golf instead of attending the conference but does care whether his officers attend the training sessions of the conferences he sends them to—a hypocrite?
These questions may seem like small stuff but they—and others like them—were the ones my audience got most caught up in. Another example of arguably small stuff that arose was an officer who explained that his parking at a red curb was not an ethical issue but a matter of common sense since it saved him 15 minutes he could spend on the street enforcing the law.
Ethics, like life, may be in the details
Thoreau said, "Life is in the details." Maybe ethics is, too. Maybe we need to pay attention, think about, and sweat the small stuff. Maybe that's where attitudes begin. And attitudes are not small stuff. Attitudes are HUGE.
Gilmartin and Harris concluded,
... If law enforcement is to enjoy, maintain and in some jurisdictions regain the status of a respected profession in our society, it has to change the way it approaches integrity and ethical issues. A sincere organizational commitment and meaningful training has to focus on preventing small incidents from developing into major situations with potentially devastating consequences.
What some of it means—maybe
I don't embrace the message " Rank has its privileges." It seems to presume a person has earned something rather than attained it through bureaucratic or political maneuverings. Maybe it just means the higher the rank, the fewer people who can say "no" to you. Neither meaning has much to do with leadership.
Instead, I believe rank has extra duties, responsibilities, and a higher standard to meet. People in higher ranks have to walk the walk—even with, perhaps especially with, the small stuff. Be it golf, shopping, sightseeing or sleeping in on the taxpayers' dimes.
If there is a disconnect between
Their perceived hypocrisy can breed a cynicism that helps officers rationalize their own misconduct.
Dr. Neal Trautman and others have well-established the link between this type of cynicism and organizational corruption. It's a tale of how small things can lead to big attitudes with devastating consequences. [Web link below.]
The brass may not be aware of such disconnects. Who's going to tell them, after all? So, maybe they're not hypocrites, they're just uninformed. But that doesn't change the effect.
The non-seat belt wearing officer may not be a hypocrite either. But that doesn't change the effect his not wearing his seat belt has on the citizens that see him disobeying the law with impunity.
Maybe the officer that parks at a red curb has a point. Maybe the citizens of his community would even agree with him about the common sense of it. But isn't that for them, through their local government, to decide? The municipality can make an exception for police cars if they agree with the officer's rationale.
The devil is often in the details, too. What messages do citizens get when they see the officer park at a red curb simply because he ranks his time as more important than the law that they must obey (or be ticketed)?
Small may be the new big
Discussing these things can change behavior. At the end of the ethics training, one of the officers came up to me and said,
"I want you to know I was one of those officers that never wore my seat belt. I even justified it by telling myself it got in the way of my weapon. This discussion changed my mind. I'm going to wear my seat belt."
The seat belt may be a small thing. The changed mind, the changed attitude—that's big. It makes me hope that maybe some chiefs will question playing golf. Maybe they'll at least check how the rank and file and community perceive it, or other privileges they've assumed as part of their rank.