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

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.


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.

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