Free Cup of Coffee?

We trust officers' judgment in life and death situations, but can we trust them accepting a cup of coffee?

Most officers have been exposed to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. The six-paragraph document is a staple of academy training. It includes the phrase "…and never accepting gratuities." I would imagine that for many of us, this is the only tenet of the Code that we violate. But don't feel bad--according to the Boston Herald and as reported by Tim Dees on, it seems a few attendees at this year's IACP conference in Boston received some "benefits' including the chauffeuring of liquored-up chiefs and VIP escorts. Hardly anyone in the profession was outraged because we understand there is a huge disconnect between the IACP Code of Ethics on gratuities and actual police practice.

A gratuity can be defined as "any discount, gift or benefit one receives by virtue of their profession." Many departments derive their policy toward gratuities from the IACP model; it is a violation of many departmental policies to accept any gratuity. On the surface this may seem like a reasonable safeguard against corruption, but in practice it means I can't accept a brownie from a nun after I change her flat tire on a rainy night.

The most common argument for the "no gratuity" policy is the slippery slope argument. The acceptance of even the smallest benefit will start an inevitable slide toward serious corruption. The only difference in accepting a cup of coffee or $1000 (in unmarked twenties) is the degree of wrongness. Once an officer gets in the habit of receiving things for free, it is easier to accept a large bribe.

Each gratuity by itself may be small, but the cumulative effect is said to be great. The merchant supplying the cup of coffee will ultimately receive a disproportionate amount of police services at the expense of other merchants. The police need the community's support to properly do their job. The police must be perceived as an honest group of crime fighters, not a bunch of coffee mooching do-nothings.

The truth is there is no proof that accepting gratuities leads to higher levels of corruption. Though it is true that all overtly corrupt cops originally accepted smaller gratuities at the beginning of their career, it is also true that thousands of cops accept small gratuities and it has never affected their honesty or integrity. Officers rarely, if ever, demand gratuities.

There are stories from previous generations of police who did not receive gratuities from all the businesses on their beats, and decided to begin their proactive enforcement with the unfriendly establishments. This practice of "hanging paper" seems to be in the distant past. A more common problem is an establishment offering discount meals and having an officer get used to paying about $5.00 a day; then, one day, a new, unaware cashier rings up a total of $12.00 and the officer is standing there only with Abe Lincoln in his hand.

The real problem with gratuities is that of expectations. In order to have a crime, you must have an act and intent. Obviously we have the act (the discount); but what is the intent? If the officer expects the discount as a sense of entitlement of his position, this is a problem. A discount is not a special right of the job. An officer should never come to think he is owed anything from the public. An officer should not show favoritism toward the merchant who provides the discount. Similarly, the merchant should not expect any special treatment from an officer because he gave him a cup of coffee. It would be outrageous to think a police department could be bought for a box of doughnuts or a pizza.

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