ETHICS BASED POLICING
April 9, 2015 By Kevin Gilmartin
One of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement administrators today is the creation and maintenance of a values-based agency consisting of an ethical cadre of officers and supervisors that represent the values of society.
Many issues arise that make the maintenance of ethical employees a difficult task. One major challenge to maintaining an ethical/values-based agency is that over the course of a police career every department can expect it’s officers to be exposed on a daily basis to individuals and situations that violate the values these officers hold central. This exposure over time can be expected to leave an emotionally corrosive impact.
To assist in the goal of creating values-based police agencies, one of the primary areas of study of the law enforcement behavioral sciences for more than two decades has been the refinement of pre-employment selection techniques that bring values-based individuals to the starting point of a police career.
Screening protocols from psychological test batteries to interactive video assessment instruments have assisted agencies in selecting men and women who have the skills and values to potentially become successful police officers. These individuals begin their careers able to not only successfully complete the multiple task demands required of a police officer, but to present personal backgrounds reflective of well developed values systems congruent with those of society.
For the law enforcement administrator, the challenge of the selection of competent and ethical police candidates may be significantly less demanding than the maintenance of a values-based police agency.
To become a law enforcement officer is not an easy task. Intellectual, psychological, and background reviews are completed that many times require the officer applicant to wait months, if not years, to determine if they are successful in obtaining a position in the basic police academy. Once selected to attend the academy, the applicant faces further academy screening and testing.
Demanding academic, physical, and discipline challenges continue to reduce the number of recruits who eventually graduate the academy. Even then, after successful completion of months of an academy curriculum, a Field Officer Training Program thins the ranks even further of those hoping to successfully complete the probationary period and have the opportunity to serve their respective communities as police officers.
With the exception of a small number of professions in our society, very few, other career fields demand more to obtain an entry level position than law enforcement.
Even with these highly selective screening measures in place, why does the field of law enforcement experience the headline cases of wrongful acts perpetrated by officers that potentially taint the entire profession? Are these cases of “Bad Apples” that should never have been officers and are selection failures or can the experience of being, a law enforcement officer change the existing values structure of the officer? Can this change cause an abandonment of “Core” ethical values by officers and permit the development of rationalized “Situational Ethics”?
The selection of values-based individuals at the entry level appears to have been successfully completed by most law enforcement agencies over the past 20 years. The maintenance of values-based individuals in police work, however, has not been a major focus of attention either by law enforcement executives or behavioral researchers until quite recently.
In an effort to reduce ethical violations by officers, agencies continue to address the issue of inappropriate officer behavior patterns by utilizing primarily a reactive investigative model. Although clearly the thorough investigation of inappropriate acts committed by officers is an absolute necessity, it does not reflect a complete management intervention strategy to reduce wrongful police acts.
The reactive investigative prong needs to be augmented by a proactive values maintenance” prong designed to provide officers with the necessary information and insights to maintain core based values. These interventions would need to take place at routine intervals over the course of a police career and not limited to only entry level academy lectures.
In attempting to create values-based law enforcement agencies the profession demands review of the dynamics that create officers who willfully violate the values structures they possessed at the time of career entry.
Viewing officer values or ethics as a never changing photograph taken at the time of entrance into the career, inappropriately permits ethical violations to be viewed as poor pre-employment selection decisions and misses the essential elements of most inappropriate police behavior patterns.
In reviewing the factors that permit ethical violation to occur within a law enforcement agency, no singular determining causative factor exists that generates these behavior patterns. There does however, exist several central traits that provide fertile ground for the development of ethical deterioration at all levels of the rank structure.
One of the central traits to values deterioration is the development of a culture of perceived “Entitlement”. This belief would permit law enforcement officers to rationalize and justify to themselves behavior that is clearly unacceptable and would warrant enforcement action if engaged in by members of the community at large.
The belief that unrealistic expectations of favorable treatment or privileges being granted embodies entitlement. Entitlement can take many forms and can appear at initial review to be a relatively benign issue. Closer scrutiny can demonstrate the essential malignant nature of entitlement.
Entitlement is the belief that an individual by virtue of his/her position as a law enforcement officer is owed certain privileges or latitudes in terms of their behavior, “those rules really don’t apply to us”. The old military adage of “rank has it’s privileges” would represent one example of “Entitlement” that appears to be accepted within that culture and possibly is only an expression that certain positions of authority are afforded additional respect in proportion to additional responsibility.
In Law Enforcement, however, like any other authority based system, the potential for the abuse of authority exists and requires consistent vigilance for prevention. When the concept of entitlement is transferred to the law enforcement culture, it can take the form of “as cops we deserve “Professional Courtesy”; ” Speed limits don’t apply to us”; ” as a commander my secretary can do my personal typing”; ” as the Chief, I can play golf instead of attending the conference, even though I’m attending the conference at the communities expense”.
Each of these statements is the embodiment of entitlement. A belief develops that “you owe us cops for all we put up with on the streets to serve and protect you”. Pride in being able to serve as a member of a given police agency is not entitlement. The belief that as a member of a police agency we’re special and the rules don’t apply to us” is however, “Entitlement”.
When attempting to discuss values many law enforcement agencies, unfortunately have not discussed the concept of the possible existence of a belief of entitlement in their agencies, but rather have instead focused on such issues as the acceptance of gratuities or other potentially controversial behaviors. When an agency focuses it’s attention on the question of what is an inappropriate behavior or gratuity without discussing entitlement it bypasses the more fundamental question for the officers to answer. Without discussing entitlement the agency loses an opportunity for officers to understand and discuss the potential impact of the gratuity question and its impact on core values for the police officer.
Lecturing working police officers about the evils of gratuities and how they lead to the “slippery slope” of corruption will usually be met with sarcastic sighs and closed minds. Discussing entitlement provides officers the information necessary to conceptualize independent values-based decisions.
Whether or not the free cup of coffee is a harmless expression of appreciation by a member of the community or represents a contingent gratuity such as; “if I keep the cops in my restaurant the added security is good for business” is actually a moot point for officers trained in core values maintenance. The more appropriate questions for a police administrator would be, by permitting the members of the department to accept free coffee or reduced priced meals are we permitting to be created a belief system in the officers that they warrant a different standard of accountability than the general population.
Secondly, it should be asked if a different standard of accountability does exist, is it one where the officers are less accountable for their behavior than the general community. Many a police administrator that would consider reduced priced meals inappropriate would permit officers to accept “special prices for law enforcement” for cellular phones or pagers without a second notice.
The law enforcement administrator would also need to evaluate if a sense of “Entitlement” is being cultivated within the departmental hierarchy, and expressed as an extension of the military “rank-to-privileges” relationship. “As a commander I can bend the rules, but you folks down the chain better behave”, represents in-house entitlement in operation.
How does entitlement develop and become institutionalized across levels of rank/status within agencies?
Law enforcement by it’s nature is required to perform tasks the majority of society cannot or will not perform. The tasks can range from dealing with violent situations, responding to tragic events, or dealing with the most unsavory aspects of society. Officers by seeing themselves dealing with situations that they alone must handle and control learn early in a police career that the position permits them authority to transgress certain social norms to perform job duties. Impacting freedom of movement of citizens, emergency movement due to exigent circumstances, even the capacity/responsibility to make lethal force decisions are part of the officers regular routine. Being exposed on a regular basis to “special authority” and at the same time being exposed on a daily basis to that element of society that operates without values, combines to severely challenge an officer’s core values system.
Unchecked authority operating in an ethical vacuum is a central component of all police corruption.
The movement away from core values is not a difficult transition for officers working in many settings in our society. “What harm is there in accepting a free meal compared to the carnage these suspects at my last call just dealt to society?”, is a realistic appraisal of the situational relativity of values. It severely challenges officers to maintain their essential “Core” values.
“Situational” or “Relative” values or ethics are often times the path of least resistance. “Before I became a cop I had no idea this kind of stuff went on”, can become the foundation for rationalizing what initially appears to be harmless rule violations.
The change in values-based decisions by police officers can be outlined by a “Continuum of Compromise” ranging from “Acts of Omission” typified by not performing seemingly petty tasks to “Acts of Commission” including the active violation of administrative rules and possibly ultimately criminal violations. This compromise begins with the onset of a change in the manner in which officers explain or rationalize minor rule violations.
The officer’s newly acquired behavior patterns begin with a reappraisal of values relative to the environment in which the officers operate. “Because of all the garbage we put up with on the streets, what’s the big deal about a little speeding or a free meal” can become an expression of situational values comparison. Entitlement is the precursor belief that leads to wrongful acts ranging from minor to felonious.
Entitlement spans the rank structure. Police executives that operate under the double standard in terms of entitlement are doomed in attempts to create values-based agencies and are viewed cynically by rank and file as little more than generating sound bites for the local media. This command perspective lends itself to “Politics-based” policing as opposed to “Values-based” policing.
Often times the executive level capacity to rationalize “special” ethical decisions due to political exigency is no different than the street officer rationalizing inappropriate actions for more tangible or earthy reasons.
A culture of entitlement is only reduced by a culture of ethical accountability. Accountability needs to be both self-initiated and organizationally-generated. The capacity to rationalize a lack of both individual and organizational accountability can be directly linked to what degree officers perceive themselves as being victimized by the deteriorating values of the community they police.
If the officer is exposed on an increasing basis to violence and a generalized lack of social order it becomes easier to perceive wrong doing as harmless relative to the general level of community deterioration. The officer can readily rationalize that “Extreme situations demand extreme measures”. Brutality, lack of truthfulness in reporting police activities, and a well entrenched belief that loyalty is far more essential than integrity for a street officer can, unfortunately become established core cultural agency values. Internalized by officers but rarely if ever discussed or reviewed.
If officers are not reviewing their respective values through competent training and frank discussion of the emotional demands of the job, “Core” ethics give way to “Situational Ethics”.
Officers not provided ongoing values training can naively perform a comparative assessment of their held core values and beliefs in relation to the social disorder that can typify their call-loads. This potential transfer to “Situational Ethics” away from “Core Values” occurs in an emotionally charged atmosphere of perceived exigency of the situations in which the officer works.
A sense of entitlement combines with a belief that the degree of the social deterioration permits situational suspension of core values for the police officer.
<> “You won’t exist for five minutes out here in this jungle with your core values”;
<> “these folks down here would eat you alive, all they understand is force”;
<> “These folks respect what they fear, not your core values.”
These can become the expressions of the rationalization of values deterioration.
This movement to situational values from core values many times put the police in direct confrontation with subgroups within society. Subgroups within our society that experience significant disenfranchisement in terms of education, employment and housing are particularly at risk for exposure to the “Situationally Ethical” police officer. Permitting the belief that separate standards of policing behavior are demanded in certain areas of the community has potentially tragic consequences for all involved.
Although obviously more violent areas of any community require enhanced officer safety procedures tactically, they do not warrant suspension of ethical police behavior.
The capacity to maintain ethical behavior can pose an overwhelming challenge to the young officer experiencing for the first time, challenges and questioning of his/her core values in a confrontational atmosphere supported only by other officers requiring camaraderie for survival. The more confrontational the situation, the more officers are required to rely on fellow officers for survival. Loyalty becomes more important than integrity.
Officers policing in the more confrontational areas of any community require larger organizational resources invested in the area of values maintenance and review, however manpower shortages, and high call-loads typically permit the administrator to perceive it as a low operational priority. This belief typically changes radically when an agency must react to a significant crisis stemming directly from inappropriate officer behavior patterns.
To establish a values-based police agency requires the agency to invest resources into permitting officers to review the dynamic process of values formation and deterioration. Lectures from Internal Affairs on past investigations of “Bad Cops” that do not explain the underlying behavioral issues facing the officers only further alienates officers from the mechanisms of values based accountability. This potentially leads to the belief ” so-called “values” are externally imposed upon us by people who have either forgotten what the streets are really like or have never been out here”.
Officers without an understanding of the dynamic nature of values formation respond to values or ethics training with rather naive comments like “you can’t teach ethics, either you have it or you don’t”.
Vilifying officers that have produced major ethical or criminal transgressions does little to preserve core values if the officers do not gain insight into the dynamic process of ethical deterioration that leads to the violations. Strictly seeing the “Bad Cops” as some alien entity from other larger departments and unrelated to the “Good Cops” does nothing to inoculate officers to values/ethical deterioration.
Interventions that permit officers to realize that many times the compromised officer started his/her career as an enthusiastic values-based individual, who possibly only after 10 or more years of good service began the transgressions, permits a more valuable values/ethics review. Helping officers to understand their perception of values and ethics in policing as a potentially changeable state consisting of daily challenges permits officers to reduce their own respective naivetΘ and resistance to the issue. This also permits officers to develop and embrace strategies for ethical preservation and maintenance.
Officers with well developed support systems and priorities consistent with their core values are more resistant to deterioration. Integrity inoculation and strategies for ethical maintenance requires effort and resources. These resources, however, are minuscule compared to what an agency invests dealing with a major ethical/values violation that destroys the public trust.
Strategies to preserve values based behavior are varied. Group instruction/discussion of ethical issues by competent facilitators is fundamental. Information on past cases of corruption and the specific potential pitfalls to officers in any given jurisdiction is also essential.
Officers with well developed support systems and balance in the realm of their personal lives can be expected to be perceptive of the full range consequences of their behavior. “Emotional Survival” training needs to be perceived as essential to the officer as street survival instruction.
Officers need to learn the skills to develop and internalize a sophisticated sense of self accountability that stretches beyond the belief “us cops are victimized by having to deal with society’s problems therefore we’re justified or entitled to take liberties with rules or laws”.
Using exposure to hazard and risk in the line of duty as an officer as a means of rationalizing rule violations needs to be seen as a precursor to deterioration/corruption, not misplaced loyalty or camaraderie to fellow officers. “If it weren’t for us where would society be?” at one level can be an expression of job commitment; at another level can be an expression of victimization and entitlement. A rationalization or belief that can prove disastrous to maintaining “Core” values-based police officers.
Providing law enforcement professionals with the information and support to remain core values-based individuals should be a primary goal of any police administrator. Officers who maintain emotional and social perspective are the only ones who can professionally enforce societies values and norms.
Officers who perceive themselves “at war” with the communities they serve, soon question their own internal values beliefs. Officers, due to special assignment, that are exposed to either increased risk or behavioral latitude are particularly vulnerable in this area.
Although this questioning of values is to be expected it cannot be ignored. Competent intervention is demanded. Those officers who posses the belief “that due to everything we deal with and are exposed to on a daily basis we’re entitled to our own standard” spell a disaster to the community and agency alike.
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This edited excerpt is drawn from Gilmartin’s book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. Dr. Gilmartin is a behavioral scientist who specializes in issues related to law enforcement. In writing this book, it was his goal to aid officers and their families in maintaining and/or improving their quality of life both personally ad professionally. A guide for law enforcement officers and their families. More information is available by going to emontionalsurvival.com.
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