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Ethics: How Essential Is It?

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Ethics: How Essential Is It?



                    By: Mark Sullivan, PhD, University of Connecticut

                          Lieutenant Darren Stewart, MBA, Stonington PD


        Sergeant Joan Smith arrives for work at her police department fifteen minutes early. She likes working midnights and enjoys working at what she feels is an excellent police department. Most of all, she enjoys the teamwork of her shift, because she has a motivated group of officers working for her. Sergeant Smith is a good employee and does an outstanding job for her police department. 
        As she walks down the hallway to the Sergeants office she says to herself another midnight shift.I hope that it will be a quiet one this morning-I have a lot of work to do. The stack of paperwork from the previous mornings four arrests still awaits her attention, as well as, evaluations for the past six- month period. She makes her way to roll call and speaks with Sergeant Jones as he goes off duty. A quiet second shiftthank god-maybe it will carry over. The roll-call room phone rings as she walks in and the dispatcher tells her that Officer Mack just called and he will be 15-minutes late (no big deal-she says to herself), but the dispatcher then adds, I hope he is not drunk againyou know it was the big neighborhood party for him today and he did not sound good on the phone. Sgt. Smiths hopes for a quiet night may have just changed. She had heard the rumors of Macks heavy drinking as of late, but she never imagined that it would become a work issue, again. Again, because 5 years earlier Mack was suspended for drinking on-duty. Officer Davis, who is in the roll call room then remarks doesnt he have enough common sense to call in sick? Thank god youre working tonight Sarge, at least we know he wont get screwed again! Do you want me to give him a ride home this time when he gets in? 

        This is the type of ethical situation that police officers and police supervisors today may have to face. How important are ethics for police departments? What will Sgt. Smith do? How will she handle this issue? What training has she had that can help her in this matter? Will she allow Officer Davis to give Mack a ride home if he is indeed drunk? What about him driving right now? Should she alert other units still on the road? Is she over reacting? These are all very tough questions that Sgt. Smith must now face. This incident may indeed test her leadership abilities.

         When meeting with police officers of all ranks, including chiefs, we have heard some of the following: We just dont have those sorts of problems. We have good people in our department, so we dont worry about ethics violations. Our people know the difference between right and wrong, thats why they are police officers to begin with!  Sgt. Smith also felt that way about her officers and department, now this morning she must face a very important issue. An ethical issue, no doubt!

         We accept the positions noted above as opinions held by stalwart members of police departments who feel they dont have a problem within their ranks. But thats when the tough questions begin to surface. If we dont need ethics training, how do we explain not only the violations that bring so much negative attention to departments across the state, but the frequency and seriousness of the crimes committed by police officers? Sgt. Smith may have some very difficult decisions to make on her shift. Decisions that may affect more than just Officer Macks career. They could affect her own career!

        Lets be honest, when one department has a problem it does reflect negatively on all police departments and the negative has been on the front page far too often. For example, negative front-page articles are prevalent about police officers being arrested, police officers resigning in the face of scandals, Officers being fired for lying to their Chiefs, and police Chiefs being hired to clean up police departments.  In each case the department involved received major disapproving publicity and the confidence of the public in the department was seriously eroded.  Something needs to be done that helps minimize the lapses and enhances the opportunity for officers to operate in the highest ethical manner possible.

         Training with firearms and other use of force issues, identification of narcotics, investigative skills and legal updates, are all a very important part of being a police officer in Connecticut. It has been determined that officers, to maintain proficiency in these areas, need refreshers, so that they will respond appropriately and professionally whenever those skills are called for in the line of duty. No municipal administrator or Police Chief questions the need for this training; especially the Risk Managers, since it helps limit the municipalitys level of financial exposure when officers are involved in difficult and sometimes life threatening situations.

         Without current training for their officers, both the municipality and the administration leave themselves open for criticism in the political arena, commonly called public opinion. In the most severe instances, the disposition of civil and sometimes criminal proceedings will pivot on when and in what training did the officer participate. Close scrutiny of the training itself and the records kept become an important part of any proceeding that involves training. 

         Yet, if we were to conduct a longitudinal study on the frequency with which police officers are challenged in traditional areas of training and then compare that to the daily ethical challenges that become the focus of media attention, the frequency of the latter would easily overshadow everything else. Think of the most recent cases both nationally and within our own state where members of police departments, sometimes with years of experience, and holding the most important positions within a department, are charged with unethical, career-ending actions tarnishing everyone within the profession. Is this something that we should be concerned with, or is this just the result of a few bad apples?  What is ethical behavior?  What can we do to limit the negative exposure, which so many departments have gone through recently because of unethical decisions of a few police officers?

         Unlike firearms proficiency, or the ability to handle an automobile in challenging environments, both of which produce tangible results, ethical behavior is a more conceptual model that is conveniently and too often easily set aside. That is, until a decision is made that proves to be unethical and becomes public. For instance, there was the recent tragic end of a Chiefs career and life after he murdered his wife and committed suicide, leaving his children and family devastated, and the Tacoma, Washington Police Department closely examining their hiring practices. The hiring of a new Police Chief in the City of Providence, Rhode Island to clean up the department, restore trust is of great concern. Why is a new Chief needed that must restore trust? What was happening before? Doesnt the hiring of a Chief to clean up a department send a message that the department is dirty? What do the citizens of these cities think? How do they react to these unsettling issues within the ranks of the organizations they trust and pay to protect them and administer justice?

         What can we do? The first and ultimately probably the most important step is to have the Chief set high ethical standards and then hold people accountable. Tough questions must be asked. Audits must be conducted. Investigations must be instituted where wrongs are suspected. A clear message needs to be sent that ethical behavior on the part of all police employees is a main priority of the organization. Without this first step, everything that follows will quickly be compromised and the most praised ethical standards announced and supported by the chief/administration will become the latest fatality in the fight between right and wrong.

         The second step is to educate your people on what is expected, how to reach that goal, and the penalty that must be paid for failure. This sounds inflexible, even hardhearted, and it is for an excellent reason. Ethical behavior on the part of police officers is something that the public and our political system insist on and is required, if we are to maintain our system of justice. Without consistent highly ethical behavior on the part of officers, which exceeds the norm of the community, we will see a rapid undercutting of our traditional social/political values and a decent in the confidence of the public in the abilities and reputations of our police forces. Lets face facts-a lack of public confidence plus a shoddy reputation will equal smaller budget support, increased employee retention issues and a degradation of community safety.

        The educational requirement, much like that we already use in firearms proficiency, is not fulfilled in a 3 hour class at the academy, or the occasional nod once every third year, but through ongoing high expectations, formal refresher classes and accountability. That time must be spent in reviewing the performance expectations and support apparatus designed to help officers succeed in maintaining the high level of ethical behavior expected of the profession. Classes on this topic must be delivered in a manner that encourages participation, reflection and questions, so that everyone leaves the class with renewed commitment and the tools necessary to be successful. Case studies, careful examination of known pitfalls and careful consideration of how officers identify and then respond to ethical challenges are all key components in raising the bar and helping police officers to succeed. Just as we would not expect an officer to master and maintain the skills honed on the firing line with one class during a career, neither should we expect them to meet or exceed the high ethical expectations of the Chief without similar training on a regular basis. Without a serious commitment of time and resources, the lip service given to ethical behavior will continue to come back and cause immeasurable damage as ethical lapses are exposed and give the profession a black eye.

        The outcomes of an effective ethics program are extremely attractive from both an individual or organizational perspective and include:

  • An immediate impact on unethical (and sometimes illegal) behavior

  • An acute awareness of ethical (legal) issues

  • For officers, an opportunity and willingness to seek ethical advice

  • An increased willingness to report unethical behavior by officers

  • An understanding of how important it is NOT to keep bad news from the Chief

  • An established support system of organizational values to be used in making ethical judgments

  • An increase in commitment to the department by Officers

  • Meeting/exceeding the ethical expectations of the community

  • An increase in the level of support from the community

  • Becoming true role models within the community

         Ethics training should be initiated for the right reasons and not just be a reaction to an ethical lapse within a department. Ethics training should not be a Band Aid to the ethical wounds of a department facing criticism, but more like vitamins that should be available to police officers on a daily basis through example and training to keep it strong and healthy.  We have presented some challenging questions that can be applied to any police department willing to examine their own position on what is expected of their officers ethically. The main point is that high ethical standards must become part of the culture within all police organizations. Police departments must not wait for the negative headline announcing an early retirement or the hearing where an officer is being fired, to seriously address these issues. Ethics must become as important for every police officer as strapping on their duty belt and gun.


About the Authors:

Dr. Mark Sullivan is an Associate Professor with the University of Connecticut. He is the director of the Labor Education Center in the College of Continuing Studies with over 25 years in adult education. Dr. Sullivan has worked with companies around the State dealing with labor and conflict resolution issues, conceptually based workplace literacy and ethics. Dr. Sullivan has a PhD in administration from the University of Connecticut, a Masters Degree from Rutgers University, and a B.A. from Providence College.


Darren Stewart is a Lieutenant with the Stonington Police Department with twenty years of experience. He has held assignments that include DARE Officer, Statewide Narcotics Task Force, patrol Sergeant, Detective Sergeant, and Lieutenant. He currently serves as the training commander. Lieutenant Stewart. holds a Masters Degree in Business Administration and a graduate certificate in Human Resource Management from Salve Regina University, a Bachelors Degree from the University of Connecticut and an Associates Degree from the Community College of Rhode Island. He is on the part-time facility at both Salve Regina University and the University of Connecticut.


Dr. Sullivan and Lieutenant Stewart co-lecture on ethics and leadership issues that business and police departments face today


**First Printed in the Winter 2003/2004 Issue of Connecticut police Chief Magazine**

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