Do (Not Just Say) the Right Thing

You're scheduled for in-service training next week, and you notice that the first morning is devoted to firearms training. It'll probably be the usual--the chief will come in and go over the policy on deadly force and permissible weaponry, the firearms instructor will discuss the importance of maintaining your weapon, and address causes of malfunctions, and the legal instructor will go over three or four recent cases of officer-involved shootings. Maybe you'll watch a video or spend an hour or so discussing tactics for armed encounters, and then (at last!) it'll be time for lunch.

Can you imagine firearms training that involves no range time? Ridiculous! Not only do we require officers to spend time at the range, we put them through tactical courses, induce stress and require them to make shoot/don't-shoot decisions. We wouldn't think of putting officers on the street without that kind of preparation--it would be tantamount to sending them out to be killed.

So why do we expect officers to meet ethical challenges that can kill a career with no preparation beyond classroom discussion of policy and case review?

But that's different, you say. Firearms use is a psychomotor skill. It involves both brain and body, and you can't learn physical skills without practice. It's not just learning a bunch of cognitive information.

Well, guess what? Ethics isn't just cognitive, either. While memorizing policy is a mental task, developing proper values and attitudes fall into the affective learning domain--emotion, values, and attitudes. Think about the headline issues that weekly rock the law enforcement world: brutality, corruption, racial profiling. Those aren't head issues--they're heart issues. The Wisconsin law enforcement memorial has four words carved around the base:

  • Duty
  • Honor
  • Service
  • Valor

You don't learn those by listening to a lecture or reading a book.

Can Ethics Be Taught?

Some would say you don't learn values and attitudes as an adult at all. One school of thought holds that ethics cannot be taught--if you don't already have the proper values when you become an officer, it's already too late. Attitudes and values once established don't change. If that were true, there would be no such thing as "the police culture." I remember standing next to my squad car talking to fellow officer one evening after we had assisted in making an arrest. He said he'd like to go back to school one day, and mentioned that he had been set to start a master's degree program when he was hired by the department. I asked what field he'd been in, and he replied with a laugh, "Social work. But that career's obviously out the window now." Working as a police officer had sufficiently changed his values and attitudes that he could no longer see himself fitting into the mindset of a social worker.

But even if it were true that values and attitudes don't change, and the burden falls on the recruitment process to select for sound ethics, officers would still have to learn to apply those values and attitudes on the street.

It's not always cut and dried. Consider this situation. A rookie officer is riding with a substitute FTO. It's 3:00 a.m. The bars are closed, there's no traffic, and no one out and about. The FTO directs the rookie to pull the squad into a secluded park, reclines his seat, and nods off to sleep, telling the rookie, "Wake me if something happens." The rookie, having just gone through the academy, knows full well that policy prohibits sleeping on duty. He also knows that ratting out the FTO is a high-stakes decision. Is it worth blowing his reputation with other officers to report a sleepy FTO if no harm was done? Suppose he decides to keep quiet, and when they return to headquarters at the end of shift, the desk sergeant asks the rookie, "How did it go tonight? Did Joe [the FTO] give you any problems? How does he answer that?

Too tame? What if the FTO slips out a flask and takes a drink? Or roughs up a suspect?

Or how about this one? An officer responds to a disturbance call and finds a domestic involving another officer in her department. While no one sustained significant injuries, it's clear that the officer was the primary aggressor and under the laws of the state should be subject to a mandatory arrest--which could spell the end of his police career.

Any of these would be good fodder for a classroom discussion, where officers could explore all the possible choices and their ramifications. But how much more powerful would they be if the officers had to role-play the calls--and actually make the decisions? Suddenly the dilemma moves out of the realm of the theoretical ("Well, I would do this...") into the realm of the actual.

Walking the Walk

Ethics scenarios, like any other scenarios, must be designed to be winnable, but not too easy. Having a scenario in which a traffic offender attempts to bribe the officer into letting him off without a ticket is too easy--the right answer is obvious. (No, it's not to take the bribe and issue the citation anyway!) A better scenario would put two values in conflict, such as loyalty vs. truthfulness or upholding a suspect's constitutional rights vs. obtaining vital evidence.

While it's important to have training devoted specifically to ethics, it's also important to integrate ethics into other training topics. For example, in a vehicle contacts class, you would expect to have scenarios where officers conduct an investigative stop. Why not prep one of the officers to bully the driver into permitting a search of the trunk? When the driver politely refuses consent, the officer persists, saying, "Look, if you don't have anything to hide, why don't you want us to look?" When the driver again refuses, the officer says, "OK, you leave me no choice. I'll have to place you under arrest for resisting an officer and tow your vehicle, which will require an inventory search of the entire vehicle--including the trunk. Please step out of the car."

While expecting the scenario to focus on law and tactics, the second officer is suddenly faced with how to respond when another officer pushes the ethical envelope. There's no time to sit back and study the issues: the officer either has to intervene or let the moment pass. Either way, the moment packs an emotional punch that just isn't there in an academic discussion.

Why It Matters

One way in which policing differs from just about every other profession is that the newest, greenest rookie is likely to have the least supervision and the broadest discretion. Think about it. If shift selection goes by seniority, as if often does, the new kid is probably going to wind up working midnights, when street sergeants are scarce and command staff virtually absent. In addition, most of the citizens awake on that shift are not exactly pillars of the community, making them easy targets for police misconduct and easy to discredit on the witness stand. You've heard the sayings: "There are no victims on nights," and "The only people you see on nights who aren't drunk are other cops." In a very real way, that brand-new officer has ample opportunity to engage in bad acts with little chance of being caught.

If we don't prepare officers to meet those ethical challenges by practicing proper responses ahead of time, we're setting them up to fail. We wouldn't expect an officer to be able to defend against a physical assault armed only with a book on defensive tactics and a classroom discussion. Why do we expect an officer to withstand ethical assaults if all they've done to prepare is read and talk? Over the last 30 years, more than 19,000 officers have been decertified because of misconduct. Hundreds more have faced lesser discipline. Surely some of those ruined careers could have been saved if the officers had been better prepared for the ethical dangers they faced. Isn't it time we take what we've learned about what works in training and apply it to all aspects of officer survival?