Chicago Police Department Mired in Controversy Again read the headline on my internet home page. Later the same day, I checked the Officer.com web site and the news headlines included no fewer than five stories relating to police corruption or other misconduct. Here we go again, I thought. Another feeding frenzy for the media, more careers in ruins, and a tougher tomorrow on the street for the brave and honest officers who do not betray the badge.
Is it only a "few bad apples"? Well, maybe it is--but if so, those few sure make it rough on the rest of us. Or is corruption and misconduct the norm in law enforcement? We've all heard about the "blue wall of silence." And perhaps we've seen it in action. A few years ago, I was asked to review an allegation of excessive force in my old agency. As a former defensive tactics instructor, the investigator wanted my input on whether the force used was appropriate. In my opinion, the force used was excessive, but fortunately, no significant injuries resulted. What I found troubling was that another officer whom I know to be a good and honest man told investigators he didn't see anything. Maybe he didn't--I hope so. But maybe he felt silence was the only way to avoid ratting out a fellow officer who momentarily--and with some provocation--lost it a little. There but for the grace of God...
We know that our job is risky and impossible to do perfectly--and not just because of the bad guys. A moment's hesitation and we may get shot. Too quick on the trigger, and we may shoot an innocent person and go to prison. We are expected to go from zero to 60 in use of force in a heartbeat--and stop on a dime when the suspect is under control. We are expected to work all hours of the day and night at a pay rate so low that many of us cannot even buy a house in the jurisdiction we protect. But we soldier on, and some of us make choices we regret. In retrospect, they often look appallingly stupid: the traffic sergeant who worked extra hours without overtime pay, and then fixed some parking tickets he got while putting in that extra time. 25 years of honorable service and a pension put at risk, for less than $200.
There's got to be a better way.
Shared Responsibility--A New Approach
I think there is a better way, and it's called Shared Responsibility, an idea that is already built into the basic law enforcement curriculum for the State of Wisconsin. The concept is simple: every officer involved in a police action is responsible for how that action is handled. Not just the primary officer, not just the highest ranking, but all of us. We share the responsibility for making sure we do the right thing, always, no matter what. After all, we know we'll share the blame if things go south.
What does Shared Responsibility mean in practical terms? It means you don't get to stand by when you see another officer about to step over the line. It means you don't get to avert your eyes, even if it's your lieutenant that's about to stumble. It means you have a duty to intervene and take action to prevent the misconduct before it happens. If we prevent the misconduct, then there's no need for the blue wall of silence. You don't have to cover up something that never happened. No officers wind up stuck between the rock of untruthfulness and the hard place of betraying a fellow officer; no careers get trashed; no badges get tarnished.
We back each other up tactically--why not do it ethically as well? Just as we rely on other officers to watch our backs for physical danger, we can learn to rely on them to watch out for ethical dangers. We prize loyalty. When you become a law enforcement officer, you truly join a family of brother and sister officers. Doesn't loyalty call you to put yourself between a fellow officer and a career-ending mistake? We work as a team to handle complex or high-risk calls. What better example of teamwork is there than working together to make sure every call is handled right?