Online Exclusive

Will You Be On The Top or Bottom?

Things seem to go wrong in the careers of many cops. Somewhere around the middle, they start counting. Not their fingers and toes, mind you. Nope. Instead, they know (almost to the hour) how long they have to wait until retirement.

What's up with that?

I know what it is like on the front end of the job. I recall how it feels when you want to get into the profession of coppery. I have seen guys who are willing to jump through any hoop, scale any building, bend steel with their bare hands, even change the course of raging rivers to become a cop. Then somehow, they do an about-face and begin to dread the job. They have as much anticipation for their exit as they did for their entrance.

Plain and simple: they are unhappy. What a shame. How did they arrive at this spot?

How did they go from being on top to finding themselves unhappily at the bottom of the ladder of life? How was their joy and happiness stolen from them?

The goal of this writing is singular: help the young ones among us recognize trouble before they fall into its firm grasp.

It saddens me to say that there are people in this Brotherhood of Law Enforcement who do not belong. They could use their talents better elsewhere. They are like chameleons. They wear clothes like you. They carry a badge and gun like you. But that is where your paths separate. These folks probably fall into one of these categories:

  • They are lazy
  • They are incompetent
  • They are bullies
  • They are clueless

If we only had to look out for these four traits, we could handle that, pretty simply. However, there are dynamics at work within law enforcement which really make the burden heavy. Following is a list of the elements that I believe add twists and turns which can have a dramatic impact.

We pledge to be duty-bound to one another. We have taken an oath to protect a fellow officer with our life, if necessary. The chameleons use your commitment for their personal gain in a variety of perverse ways.

Showing any unwillingness to cover for a minor indiscretion on the part of another officer is considered by many cops to be a sign of disloyalty to all cops.

Questioning the veracity of statements made by another officer (whether above or below you on the food chain) is also often seen as disloyalty.

The right of a new cop to challenge a senior officer seems to diminish on an inversely proportional ratio compared to the service stripes of the senior guy. Let me say that another way. The more years a cop has on, the less right anyone has to question whatever they say or do.

Some cops fear anyone around them looking better, brighter, more able than they. Hence, the only method these cops have to make themselves look good is to make those around them look bad. These cops are easily threatened and will lash-out defensively, seemingly without any legitimate reason. Watch out for these public safety employees: they can be silent killers of a career.

Being part of the fraternity demands that a cop be have supreme loyalty to another cop in deference to someone who is on the outside. That is particularly distasteful when the insider is lying and the outsider represents the truth.

Disloyalty is about the worst of transgressions in the cop world. It is on par to cowardice for many. It's a deal-killer.

The Penalty Box

The reality of life is that getting yourself into a disfavored position in the police community can make you feel like a punching bag.

  • It can make going to work a miserable nightmare. The stress of the job can drive you to pills or the bottle. It can bring an untimely end to a marriage and/or ruin your health.
  • It can get you assigned to every miserable job your agency has to offer.
  • It can get you assigned to every call that no one ever wants.
  • It can cost you any opportunity for training, beyond the minimum requirement.
  • It can cost you any chance at a promotion.
  • It can get you repeatedly subjected to BS charges that are unfounded. Though never sustained, you will find yourself the focus of unending internal investigations.
  • It can cost you your job and your paycheck.
  • It can cost you your career, if you are black-listed.

Doing a good job, having the best stats, or getting citizen commendations will mean nothing if you are on the wrong side of those in powerful (or golden-boy) positions.

Maneuvering Through the Minefield

It can be done. Some get through by playing their game. In the process, they surrender their dignity, their honesty and their ethics. They have prostituted themselves in order to get along.

Others latch on to a protector. They identify a leader in their department and get themselves adopted. Operating under the wing of a more powerful senior officer allows the young officer to gain solid footing in his own right. Having a tie to someone in power (like a Dad, Granddad or other relative) has the same effect: The young officer carries the shield of his time-tested predecessor.

Maintaining a low profile can also be quite effective. The young officer stays in the shadows. He avoids both great successes and noticeable failures. He avoids risk the same way that President Obama avoids a meeting of the republican caucus.

Talking From Both Sides of Their Mouths

There is an INSTITUTIONAL DRIVE to protect each other in law enforcement.

We attend classes in the academy and in-service on the subject of ethics. Instructors talk in circles. They use abstract, hypothetical situations to drive home two concepts that your parents taught you from birth: (1) Tell the truth; (2) Treat others the way you want to be treated. It seems so complex in a classroom. In reality, it is not tough to comprehend.

Many of these same instructors, when back at their regular jobs (like sergeants, lieutenants, etc.) seem to be operating from a totally different playbook. To them, truth is relative to the situation. Treat civilians good enough so that it looks OK on the video. Write a lot of tickets and make arrests - it's all about good stats. At the top of the list: don't do anything that might make the boss look bad. Finally: if you have a complaint or an idea on how to improve: keep your mouth shut.

The Real Deal

Well, it's time some of the chameleons in our midst are outed. I am galled to see these people hide. Remember: we are dealing with cops who are lazy, incompetent, bullies or clueless. They are in the minority, but their actions are a huge pain in the butt.

I am going to share a series of real stories and examples. I can't make this stuff up. These incidents have originated in every corner of the country. Most came to me as I traveled the country. I train law enforcement professionals. I have been on hundreds of ride-alongs in nearly every state in the union. Students share their personal stories frequently. Most are fun. Others, not so much. I am using real examples because I believe it is important for young officers to know that rotten things actually happen, and rotten things can happen to them.

Generally, these incidents cited have already been resolved and closed, some time ago. But this kind of trouble remains in our midst. Some say the problem is worse today than ever before. I will withhold judgment.

Any resemblance to anyone in real life is purely coincidental. No one (other than me) knows the true identity of these people or agencies. This approach is being used as a means to educate the young. Think of it like watching a training video from a car camera where everything went sideways. We often learn from the bad fortune of other officers. I want to help prevent the young from falling into the trap of failed ethics.

The Drive To Be, ah, Creative

Case Study #1
The officer was newly assigned to the detective bureau. It was his first stint in the DB after nearly 20 years in patrol. His agency made a practice of queuing-up job applications until there were enough to give one or two to every detective.

The newly-minted detective is given the assignment to conduct a background investigation on a job applicant. The supervisor comments as the file is delivered, "I didn't like the way this guy talked during the oral interview. I'm sure you can find a reason to broom him."

The implied direction from the boss was intended to prejudice the investigator and mold the findings to meet the foregone conclusion of the supervisor.

This actually happened. How would you handle it?

Case Study #2
The detective begins the background investigation. The applicant's file contains dozens of recommendations from individuals with law enforcement credentials. The applicant has extensive life experience. The applicant has standing in multiple national law enforcement organizations. The applicant is measurably more qualified than any that the detective has possibly ever investigated.

The detective's supervisor expects the applicant to be broomed, but in all of the contacts, there is only one who offered negative comments. The investigator produces a report filled with fabrications and misleading statements. It is clear to even an unsophisticated reader that the facts have been twisted to meet a predetermined outcome. The investigator has filed a false police report which possibly rises to the level of being a criminal act.

The investigator has an extremely long career behind him. A supervisor who questions his truthfulness might be viewed as being disloyal to his troops. Yet, one of the highest ranking executives in the agency realizes the transgressions of the investigator - who is not within his direct command.

This actually happened. If you were the top man in this agency, how would you handle it?

Case Study #3
The police department has an auxiliary unit and serves a suburban community within a large metropolitan area. The community is a well-known harbor for drugs, prostitution and every other kind of wickedness that evil minds can devise. One of the principal duties for the auxiliary officers is to provide police presence in the Section 8 (subsidized) housing areas. These areas are the virtual cess pools of wrongdoing in town.

On this day, the shift lieutenant tells the two auxiliary officers on duty that they are no longer to patrol in housing. His explanation: he had asked the housing director for a personal favor. The director declined. As payback, the lieutenant will withdraw proactive police services from the area and teach the director a lesson.

The lieutenant can best be likened to the Frank Burns (remember M.A.S.H.?) of the agency. He is universally disliked, but he knows the value of sucking up to the bosses. His career is littered with prior disciplinary actions, including a termination that was reversed in arbitration. Long ago, he surrendered his ethics, morals and reputation as an honest cop. He is one of those who strive to look good to the bosses by making other cops look bad. He falls into two other categories, as well: lazy and incompetent.

The auxiliary officers must decide: Do they obey this ill-conceived directive and thereby put themselves in the same ethical pit as the boss?

This actually happened. How would you handle it?

Case Study #4
The officer is working part time in an agency that is racially divided: about 50/50 black and white officers. Everyone gets along wonderfully and have a blind eye to the issue race, internally.

A new chief arrives from a neighboring big city. He has been chased out of his prior job and would be serving time in a federal pen somewhere if it were not for high-speed paper shredders working overtime in advance of the arrival of the FBI. The chief brings with him a deputy who has an equally sullied background.

Everyone knows: they both got their jobs without the customary interviews; there was a deal made behind closed doors.

In the spring following their arrival, civilians begin appearing at the front desk asking for the deputy chief. It turns out that the new D.C. is a tax expert. He is using his office and city time to prepare tax returns in his side business. The cops quickly figure this out. The question is whether or not to say anything to the city manager about what is going on.

This actually happened. How would you handle it?

Case Study #5
A directive is announced at roll call: if anyone books a prisoner who has been arrested on a drug charge and money is found in the prisoner's possession, it is NOT to be recorded on the personal property form. Explanation: it will be forfeited as drug money and therefore, should not be included as personal property.

Instead: put the money in an envelope and slide the envelope under the chief's door. Mark the case number and date on the outside of the envelope.

Subsequently, when putting such a prisoner through the booking process, his money was taken from him. The prisoner loudly complained that the cash would never be returned. The complaint was dismissed by the officer doing the booking. After all, someone who has just been arrested cannot be expected to make truthful statements, right?

Finally, the officer witnesses the chief directing a staff member to go out and buy a new computer for his office at a local store. The chief then pulls a roll of $100 bills from his pocket and counts out enough cash to easily make the purchase. Later, the head of the detective unit objects to having his people use a credit card to purchase fuel. He is heard to say that, "Handling credit card receipts is too much paperwork. It is a lot easier to use drug forfeiture money to buy gas."

It would ultimately be found that nearly $500,000 in forfeiture money had disappeared. It took nearly a year to uncover the missing cash. Yet, many of the cops had witnessed the chief flashing huge sums of cash.

This actually happened. How would you handle it?

Case Study #6
It is a fledgling department. However, it holds great promise. It is part of a growing, thriving community that is expected to soar in population to be one of the largest in the state. In its infancy, the community hires a new chief of police. He will be the savior, arriving to the fanfare of the local media.

The officers will quickly learn that his most important priority is to improve his own image. He has an ego the size of Alaska. He is a bully. Cops who reject his demand for unquestioned allegiance will soon find themselves the subject of an IA investigation, or they will be assigned to the property room or made so miserable that they will find work elsewhere.

This chief is front-and-center anytime there is a camera present. He wants credit for all of the positive, glitzy and glamorous accomplishments of the agency, while distancing himself from anything negative. The new chief will claim all good deeds as his own. When he isn't polishing the plaques on his office wall, he will be found glad-handing the media or holding court with the elected officials. They too have become mesmerized.

He will work very hard to prevent anyone from learning that he was once asked to leave an instructor's position at a local training center because of reported inappropriate sexual contact with a student. He will deny the repeated claims that he makes promotional decisions for his female officers based largely upon their willingness to submit to his advances in the privacy of his office. He will denounce citizen complaints claiming that he used unscrupulous (but willing) officers to shape the political landscape of the community to his liking.

He has been quoted, "My most important asset is my public image. I will go to any lengths to protect and enhance it."

You are a newly-minted female officer looking for employment. You have been given the lay of the land, so you know what lies ahead if you take the job offer made by this chief.

This actually happened. How would you handle it?

Ethically Bankrupt Role Models

Young officers are exposed to the senior cops once they are on the job. The lofty platitudes of academy ethics training gives way to reality. The rookies are sure that some of their co-workers are most certainly on the path to Hell.

As officers, we often hide our disapproval of another with humor, laughter or silence. We look the other way, rather than expressing our disapproval. After all, showing disdain for the words or deeds of a senior officer is considered a sure sign of disloyalty by many. The more years of service the wayward cop has under his belt, the more likely he is to get a pass for bad behavior.

The following examples are real. They too, have come areas located between Texas and Michigan, Maine and California. No names. Most are from the archives. Many of the officers described are now retired. I strongly recommend you not follow in their footsteps.

  • Example #1
    You are a married guy with three young kids at home. You have about 15 years on the job. You routinely show up at the bar after work with the rest of the crew and on your arm is your girlfriend. She also appears at shift parties. You make no effort to conceal this affair while your wife is at home attending to your three children.
  • Example #2
    You are a long-serving command officer - with an alcohol problem. It is a problem that you vehemently deny. In the past year, you have been stopped on three separate occasions for DUI and each time, given a break. In every instance, the officer involved takes you home rather than arresting you and making an incident of it.
  • Example #3
    You work in patrol. You are more than half way through your 25 years. You have chosen to invest your retirement savings in real estate rental properties in and around the town where you work. You routinely spend a couple of hours on each shift tending to your duties as a landlord while leaving your area unattended.

The above examples are real people doing real things. Young officers can view this behavior and mistakenly think it is OK. They might even think that emulating this stuff will gain them acceptance by their crew. This stuff is poison.

It is vital that the strong, sturdy, moral cops do not stand mute. The future of policing depends on it. As a very wise man once said, The only thing that evil requires to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

What Does It All Mean?

You will unavoidably face tough decisions. While taking the high road is admirable, it can have disastrous consequences. In the earlier case studies, some of the misdeeds were ignored by those in attendance. In others, cops took action that was honest, honorable and just. In one case study that was omitted, the honest officer was targeted by IA until he produced photographic evidence supporting his statements. Then IA laid off but the officer worked without backup on the streets for about a year. His honesty, quite literally, could have cost him his life.

Sometimes the good guys prevail. Other times, doing the right thing can end a job or haunt a career for years to come. A black mark in an officer's history, that was caused by taking an honorable action, can smudge an otherwise lily-white record. That's not fair, you insist. While it isn't fair, it is real.

The stakes are high.

Cops who get caught lying or covering unprofessional conduct can hurt everyone in the community. Val Van Brocklin, one of my esteemed colleagues, recently wrote that when an officer gains a reputation for dishonesty it can erode public trust in the police, harm the reputation of the entire department, end the career of the individual officer and have a long-term psychological impact on the officer from the effects of lying.

As I said in my last missive on this subject, some lying is acceptable. Some is even desirable. Blunt honesty is bad when your wife asks if a piece of clothing makes her backside look fat. It is bad business to quote an angry neighbor complainant to the supposed offender. When the truth needlessly inflames a situation, it may be best concealed.

The line moves. But be certain: there is a line. You need to constantly be vigilant of its location. If you find yourself inadvertently on the wrong side, recover - and do it quickly.

A new cop will come under great pressure to conform. There will be pressure to look the other way. Make no mistake: silence can be lying, too. The pressure to cover for other officers will come from the same group who insists that doing so is unacceptable: your boss(es) and training officers.

You will see cops with more time on than you who are doing really stupid stuff. Don't follow. Remember Mom chiding bad behavior saying something like, If the rest of the kids jump off a bridge, are you going to follow? and then sternly adding, I hope not!


Your behavior must pass the smell test. It must withstand the reasonable man theory in order to be acceptable.

Does society or anyone else expect you to be perfect? No they don't. But, you are expected to strive for perfection. Society will not accept a law enforcement professional who blatantly disregards the two most fundamental principles of life: (1) Tell the truth and (2) Treat others the way you want to be treated (a/k/a The Golden Rule).

The best way to avoid finding yourself in a bear trap is to prepare. Your ethics and your honesty will be tested by those closest to you. THINK IN ADVANCE about how you intend to handle these situations.

As an aside, I learned about an Ohio cop when doing the research for this article. Anytime he worked with another officer for the first time, he had a short prepared speech. The critical message: I will not lie for you or for anyone. Don't ask. He would then tell the new coworker that he was free to find a different partner if the rules were unacceptable, but this cop would not bend and it was clear from the outset.

I am not suggesting that this is a universal solution. There is no, one size fits all option for this problem. Sorry, Charlie.

The examples used came from all across the country. They come from agencies which are both big and small. I know a few of the perpetrators personally. The reason for real examples is to teach the young about the reality of the job.

A future blog entry may be written to open discussion about these types of events. I would like to know what your response would have been if you had been there. This is not about crucifying anyone, but rather, using the stories as a real-life learning experience.

To the good young cops coming up - I am proud of you. I want to remain full of pride for all that you will accomplish in your careers. Please, please, please: consider these ethical dilemmas that are certain to find you. Do not fall unwittingly into a quagmire and end your career on the bottom.

It's all about saving just ONE life. Let's work to save careers in the process, too.