POLICING WITH HONOR
Lieutenant Randy Sutton
- NJ Officer Charged With Staging Own Shooting
- Pipe Bomb Hero Cop Arrested
- Police Department Dealing With Arrests Of Officers
- Police Corruption Probe Nets Four Cops
These are actual newspaper headlines from all
over the U.S. I’m having trouble understanding the sheer force of
my reaction; just reading those truncated accusations cuts through me like a dull blade and makes me feel ashamed. I didn’t do anything wrong and I didn’t know any of those cops.
My agency wasn’t the police department in question in any of them, so why do I have such a visceral, gut-kicking
response when read such things? It’s simple: because I’m not
alone and those cops who crossed the line aren’t alone either.
All of us who wear a badge are members of a profession
that is one of the most honorable in the nation. I have proudly worn a badge
on my chest for more than 25 years and I’ve reached a point where even when I’m out of uniform and off duty the
imprint of that badge is still there. I take it to heart to be my sworn duty
to serve and protect; I’ve knelt by the police memorial wall in Washington D.C. honoring the thousands of cops who gave
their lives in the honorable performance of that same duty.
That’s why I take those headlines personally. Those dishonored cops are in the same fraternity men and women alike as those who
have fallen. That makes me both sad and angered and that’s why I have left
the street to become a trainer in my department. Armed with wisdom, street-smarts,
experience all of us who are senior officers are in a position to stem the tide of corruption; provided we can understand
how it happens.
As a police trainer, I have studied countless
volumes on the Ethics of Law Enforcement. There’s a lot of material out
there. I’ve read treatises by doctors, professors, police chiefs and street
cops. I’ve watched taped interview after interview with former cops recounting
their paths to destruction and listened to their accounts of the unraveling of their careers, their marriages, their lives. Despite all this, I’m left with more questions than answers.
Why did these officers make the decisions that
they did? Did their agencies fulfill their responsibilities to the public in the training of the officer? And finally, could
anything have been done to prevent the actions of these officers? These are the key questions.
The answers aren’t simple. Where do we start? With accountability.
Levels Of Accountability
Accountability in law enforcement has three equally
important components that must work in synchronization with one another. First
there is self-accountability. Each police officer, from probationary officers
all the way up to the head of the agency, plays an important role within the framework of their police organization. Think of the organization as a living organism, or body, and the personnel within
it as being synonymous with the organs, the limbs, the circulatory system, the bones, the skin, etc. For the body to be healthy and performing at its peak, all of its parts must be working in harmony with
each other. When even a minor body part, say like the pinky finger, is not functioning
well, it affects the functioning of the body as a whole. For example, a dislocated
pinky finger will make a hand less agile and useful, creating an inefficient holster draw, a less rapid response, thereby
weakening the entirety of the body, or the officer, putting his or her welfare in perpetual jeopardy. Therefore, every little thing in an organism is important; every member of an organization is important
and a factor in healthy functionality. Thus when even one officer or agent
within an agency commits a breach of trust, the whole organization suffers.
Almost every police agency has an Internal Affairs
Bureau and/or Professional Standards Inspectors but, let’s face it, they cannot force a person to act honestly and ethically. An individual’s actual behavior, despite whatever oaths he or she takes to uphold,
can only be determined by that individual’s personal response/action to a given set of circumstances. Those behavioral choices come from within the individual and this taking responsibility for one’s
actions is determined by one’s internal set of values. This is the essence
The next component is supervisory accountability. When law enforcement officers go through the promotional process and take on supervisory
roles for the first time, there is too often not enough preparation training to ready them for their transition. Officers are usually promoted based on seniority and/or field experience but such a background, no matter
how essential it is for one in a supervisory capacity, does not prepare an officer for what he will encounter. A promoted officer, usually a sergeant, leaves behind being “one of the guys” and that change
alone is a difficult change for many. The familiar squad room/locker room banter
that the officer once enjoyed and could participate in suddenly ceases once the newly promoted supervisor enters the scene. Sometimes the new supervisor faces resentment from his former peers who believe that
the promotion was unearned and occurred because of politics or because he or she was a better test taker.
Another fact of P.D. life is that the majority
of police agencies in the country are small, with far less than 20 sworn officers, so there is too often general knowledge
of everyone’s personal lives, not to mention an in-depth knowledge of everyone’s professional career. This familiarity can make taking a supervisory role even more difficult and yet it is essential that the
newly promoted supervisor meet the challenge of above-reproach ethical behavior. The
scrutiny that he or she will be under is both a burden and an opportunity to set an example.
Furthermore, the supervisor becomes the second line of defense in the battle for ethical behavior. It is he or she who is in the best position to observe the conduct of their personnel and it is he or she
who will most likely encounter the conduct problems that arise from inexperience within the ranks of the unguided.
To not take firm and decisive action at the earliest
opportunity not only poses its own ethical conundrum but it becomes a lost opportunity to demonstrate leadership. Supervisory intervention, by setting clear examples of expected behavior and by correcting the transgression
early in its commission, may actually save the career of the employee down the road.
Ultimately, it is the first line supervisor who truly sets the standard for departmental work ethic, for on duty behavior
and for the treatment of the community’s citizens.
The final aspect of accountability is administrative
accountability. Law enforcement agencies throughout the country all have similar
hierarchical structures which progress upward to eventually include the head of the agency, most often a chief or sheriff. If the agency is small, the administrative staff above the first line supervisors
may just include a captain or a couple of lieutenants or their equivalents. If
the agency is large, there may be a full complement of staff officers or agents who make up the administration.
There is no doubt that the entire ethical personality
of an agency is determined by the head of that organization and, accordingly, by those who the leader has chosen to surround
himself or herself with. If, upon appointment or election, the chief or sheriff
selects men or women who are perceived as competent, fair and ethical, the entire organization, as a body, will respect the
decisions made on their behalf and will be optimistic as to how these decisions will affect their professional, even personal,
lives. If, however, the head of the agency enjoys a less than savory reputation
or if he/she appoints or promotes administrative bullies, the less-than-a-leader will surely destroy morale and set a low
bar for ethical behavior for the agency’s employees.
It is essential that administrative staff truly
and decisively walk the walk ethically, if not morally. If they don’t,
lower ranking personnel, when facing discipline for their transgressions, will view any punishment as hypocritical and as
having no value. They will feel unsupported and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, it is equally important that whatever discipline is to be administrated is done so in a manner
that is Firm, Fair and Fast and that personal grudges and past relationship issues be put aside when both conducting internal
investigations and in determining and administrating discipline. None of this
is possible if the administration is less than accountable for its actions or less than stellar in its ethical stance.
Ultimately the question is this: what can we do
as a profession to improve the ethical demeanor of our nation’s law enforcement officers so that we seldom, if ever,
see those damning newspaper headlines again?
First, the creation of an Internal Affairs office
and Professional Standards Bureau, no matter how small the agency, is essential. Also,
sending officers in leadership positions to interdepartmental courses in law enforcement ethics is an excellent way to bring
knowledge back into the agency and encouraging officers to continue with their outside-law-enforcement education, such as
college degree programs, is helpful in promoting a think before you act ethical mentality.
Many agencies, as well, now offer ethical training as early as the academy level.
Despite these educational resources, however,
we have not gone far enough. We have not set national standards for the hiring
of law enforcement personnel. We have no national clearing house for information
on those officers who have lost their certification or jobs as a result of criminality or misconduct and too often this leads
to inappropriate rehiring. We have never established a consistent and comprehensive
training strategy that addresses ethical issues in more than a superficial way. Before
we can have true accountability in all three levels, these are issues we must address nationally and not just as separate
But what can we do right now? Can we, as police officers and agents, street cops and administrators, do something that will have an immediate
impact on our chosen profession? Yes. You
see, the vast majority of those of us who enter the field of law enforcement do so out of a sense of purpose and patriotism. We fully intend to honor our commitment to the ideals of what our badge represents. It is that commitment that we must build on.
We must create a culture of pride.
A culture of pride is actually a simple concept. It begins with each one of us realizing that we are important not only as individuals
and as members of a noble profession but also in how we play a vital role in the lives of others. Once we accept that fundamental truth about ourselves, we need to look at our colleagues and coworkers
and regard them with the same respect. Ultimately, it’s a belief in what
one stands for and pride, of the healthy, expansive sort that keeps a person from dishonoring themselves and their profession.
What exactly is this sense of pride? It’s that same feeling one gets at graduation from a law enforcement academy. It’s the feeling of a crisp new uniform and a starched shirt and the weight of a shiny new badge
on your chest. It’s the feeling of an awesome responsibility coupled with
a soaring belief that we, the new officer, can meet whatever challenges we face come hell or high water. There is no feeling like it, no greater sense of optimistic pride.
This is the feeling we all, as experienced law enforcement officers, need to strive to recapture. We must seek to cloak ourselves in ethical pride for it is there that we are most invulnerable to our baser
Too simple, some say. Too unrealistic, others remark. But why not simply believe
in your profession, in yourself? You have absolutely nothing to lose but some
stress and maybe some attitude. And on an organizational level, each of us can
play a critical role in building up the pride in our agency. From the cop on
the beat taking a little extra time make sure his or her uniform is clean and pressed to the top administrator making sure
that his or her personnel is properly equipped and provided with both technical and personal support, are all ways to instill,
foster and promote pride.
Realistically, in a profession that employs approximately
700,000 people, there will be a certain number who will transgress. Human fallibility
has been historically constant throughout the centuries and this isn’t likely to change despite our best efforts. But the field of law enforcement is quite unlike any other profession. Within policing there have been great strides made in recent years and this is amazing if you take into
account that law enforcement is relatively new as a profession B it’s been less than 200 years since Englishman Robert
Peel began what’s become the modern police force. Yet it will never be
enough until each and every one of us, all sworn police officers, make every possible effort to be vigilant and innovative
when it pertains to ethical behavior. There is far too much at stake not to take
this responsibility seriously. Quite literally, our law enforcement officers
hold the power of life and liberty over our nation’s citizens.
Liberties are the most important rights that a
person can possess and the sanctity of these rights must not be tread on. Modern
law enforcement, in its zeal to protect the people of our country in the wake of the reality of terrorism, must be on guard
against noble cause corruption - doing the wrong thing for good reasons.
Administrators and supervisors must do their part
and be careful not to send out the message to our eager young officers that they must get the job done no matter what it takes. Falsifying investigative documents and manufacturing
evidence in support of obtaining search warrants is a major cause of ruined careers and lives and cannot be justified even
when the goal is to take a criminal of the streets. Such behavior, reprehensible
in deed though not in thought, is a part of the slippery slope from corruption to criminality.
And, in fact, research has shown that in many cases outrageous conduct by law enforcement officers where termination
or criminal charges resulted, much like the headlines that began this article, were merely the conclusion of behaviors which
began innocently enough but then escalated over a period of time until simple misconduct became egregious malfeasance. In all probability, had the less serious issues been addressed effectively in the
beginning, many scandals could have been averted and many careers saved.
Law enforcement in the United States has never
faced tougher challenges than it does today and will continue to face in the future.
The rising rates of criminality and the threats of terrorism within our communities together with diminishing resources
and budget cuts will exert pressures never before experienced. We must prepare
ourselves physically and we must prepare ourselves mentally. Mental preparedness
means taking pride in oneself, one’s agency, and in the noble profession of law enforcement. By doing so we, as police officers, can prepare ourselves ethically to handle whatever challenges we face. If we do this we will truly be Policing With Honor.
Randy Sutton is a Field Lieutenant with the Las
Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept and a thirty year police veteran. He began his
career as a Patrolman with the Princeton Borough Police Dept. and left that department holding the rank of Detective. In 1986 he joined the Las Vegas Metro Police and served as a Patrol Officer, Field
Training Officer, and Narcotics Detective before being promoted to Sergeant. He held that rank for 13 years while being assigned
to Patrol, Field Training, Community Oriented Policing, Investigations, Task Force operations and Supervisor of Advanced Training. He currently serves with the Northwest Area Command. He is one of the most decorated
Police Officers on the department holding commendations for “Valor”, Meritorious Service” Community Service
Award” and several “Lifesaving” awards.
Randy is the author
of two popular books published by St. Martins Press. “TRUE BLUE Police Stories by Those Who Have Lived Them” and “A Cop’s Life” and is currently at work on “TRUE BLUE II” to be published in 2008. His articles on Law Enforcement related issues have been featured in “American
Police Beat”. “Law Officer Magazine”, “Policeone.com” and he publishes a regular column entitled
“A View From the Blue” in “24/7 Cop to Cop News”.