Don't Be a Rat...Or Don't Be a Sheep?

Chicago Police Department Mired in Controversy Again read the headline on my internet home page. Later the same day, I checked the 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?

Chances are you have already acted to prevent misconduct--without calling it Shared Responsibility. If you've ever noticed your partner starting to get angry in response to a suspect's taunts and offered to take over so he or she could have a chance to cool off, that's informal Shared Responsibility. I'm proposing that we take it a step further and establish Shared Responsibility explicitly as the way we do business. That means writing policy to cover it, designing training to teach it, and inculcating new officers with it from their first day on the job.

Making it Work

Well, you say, it's a nice idea, but how could it possibly work in the real world? When officers first hear about Shared Responsibility, they usually voice one of the following objections:

  • I'll be punished for the misdeeds of others--because I failed to prevent them.
  • I'll be charged with insubordination if I intervene with a superior officer.

Nobody wants to take the rap for somebody else's screw-up. Most law enforcement unions would automatically balk at rank-and-file members being held responsible for the actions of their superiors. And yet, most agency policies already require officers to report misconduct they observe, regardless of the rank of the wrongdoer. The key is writing a good policy. A well-crafted policy on Shared Responsibility acknowledges that it is not possible to prevent every act of misconduct. Sometimes things happen too quickly, or the other officer rebuffs our intervention. Sometimes we truly aren't aware that another officer is doing something wrong. The only time that punishment should be meted out is when the misconduct is flagrant or egregious and could reasonably have been prevented. Only when an officer's failure to intervene amounts to clear complicity, should the policy provide for discipline.

Similarly, a well-written policy must differentiate between an officer's attempt to intervene to prevent misconduct and a willful disobedience of a lawful order. Most times it's a pretty clear distinction. Shared Responsibility is intended to prevent misconduct, not turn every command decision into a committee meeting. Interventions can range from a verbal caution ("Hey Joe, take it easy") to physically separating an officer from a subject or a scene. If a higher-ranking officer rebuffs an attempt to intervene, the lower-ranking officer should only persist if life and limb are at stake--but still may have a duty to report. A good policy provides protection from retaliation when an officer makes a good-faith effort to prevent misconduct or to report misdeeds that could not be stopped.

Getting Everybody On Board

Obviously, this concept will only work if it is supported from the top of the organization as well as the bottom. You might be surprised to learn that when I have presented this idea to police executives, it has gotten an enthusiastic response. Police chiefs may be at the top of the ladder, but that ladder is being held by the rawest recruit. Water and certain other things run downhill, but liability runs up. It is in the chief's best interest to embrace Shared Responsibility, because doing so results in fewer problems and better job security.

Implementing Shared Responsibility requires a change in mindset and action, and the only way to make it work is through training. Naturally, the best kind of training is scenario-based training. In the case of Shared Responsibility, scenarios and simulations may well be essential because implementing the concept involves changing officers' behavior. Mounting evidence suggests that practicing new responses to old situations is far and away the most effective way to implement change. Reading policy, watching training videos, and discussing ethical dilemmas are all useful activities, but getting out of your chair and literally acting out a situation trains the mind and body, and ultimately changes attitudes.

Just as Shared Responsibility must be supported from the top to succeed, for training to work, simulations must involve a mix of ranks. It's one thing to say, "Yeah, if I saw my lieutenant about to do something wrong, I'd step in," and quite a different thing actually to do so in a role-play. By the same token, the lieutenant has to practice accepting an intervention as supportive rather than seeing it as a challenge to authority.

Make sure the scenarios aren't too easy. Most officers would step in if they saw a fellow officer about to pocket cash confiscated from a drug dealer. But suppose instead, your partner was trying to intimidate a subject into permitting a "consent" search of the trunk of his car by threatening to arrest him for obstruction--when the subject had legitimately exercised his Constitutional right to refuse consent, and there were neither real grounds for an obstruction charge nor probable cause for a search. Or what if your sergeant ordered you to empty and tag as evidence the beer cans seized in an underage drinking bust, but started to walk away with a bottle of Jack Daniel's, saying, "No reason to waste good whiskey." What would you do then?

Implementing Shared Responsibility may not prevent every incidence of misconduct, just as establishing a policy requiring mandatory reporting hasn't always worked to breach the blue wall of silence. But the more we work proactively to protect our brothers and sisters of the badge from all the hazards of the job, the less need we'll have for that wall. It may just crumble from disuse.