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Abuse of Power

Back in early April I wrote an article called Silent Pain & Pride of A Wife, where I described the pain I feel when I hear someone criticizing law enforcement officers for the service they provide.  Since Mike has become a part of this world, I’ve been a strong advocate when citizens - even well-meaning if perhaps ignorant - have made comments that degrade our fine men and women who serve our country and communities as first responders, or speak dismissively of what they do or the sacrifices made.  Whether about paramedics, fire, EMTs or law enforcement, I try to educate the public whenever I can.  Lately, however, I’ve witnessed a handful of disturbing incidents, and the impressions they leave, from a different angle:  LEOs using their authority as a sworn or non-sworn official to manipulate a situation for their benefit.  As the saying goes, “One bad apple spoils the bunch.”  Well, this is one of those behaviors that damages the reputation of every officer, and leaves me feeling defeated when I’ve been sticking up for the profession to have that one bad apple confirm a citizen’s negative perception of who the police are.

The behavior I am talking about is a small one, but it has a large impact on the receiving end.  Many have probably done this when frustrated, and many more have probably been sorely (maybe even understandably) tempted, but it does not speak well for the profession and hurts you, your colleagues, and your profession as a whole.  It is the simple behavior of dropping the comment, “Hey, I’m a cop, and I work for… (plug in your city, village, town, county, federal agency, etc)” when a situation is not going your way and you are trying to influence a different outcome.  For me and others, using this statement is an abuse of power because it is, in that circumstance and regardless of how the officer might try to frame it, a power play.

At the group practice I am a part of my office is across the hall from our clerical offices where they perform tasks such as billing, appointment scheduling, medical recordkeeping, etc…  They are the heart and soul of our office and I am very protective of them, just as I am of LEOs.  Because of that proximity, I often overhear the clerical staff upholding a business policy of the office, perhaps an amount owed on a bill, or that this information or that cannot be released under HIPPA laws.  There’s really nothing unusual about that – it’s a conversation they have with many clients of our office everyday - until I hear the client say, completely out of context, something to the effect of, “I know that’s your policy, but I am a police officer for…!”  Now, there is no reason for the LEO to utter those words except with the hope of getting something in return that the average person would not or to influence the person on the receiving end to change their mind.  Every time I hear that statement, I see red because the anger is so intense inside of me.  I work hard to defend the profession, but in that moment I can only agree with the angry staff person that some cops are a profane word I will not use here.

I wish those who have ever used that statement could experience how it feels on the receiving end.  It brings a person to anger and a feeling of powerlessness.  That statement is also seen as fighting words and is very offensive.  So the person on the receiving end only has one of two choices to give into the manipulation and give the officer what they are fighting for or to fight back.  It takes a lot of courage to fight someone who has authority over you so it does not feel right or good.  The statement “I’m a cop” is perceived as hostile and bullying.  To be fair, this is not something that only LEOs do.  People in other professions, who perhaps perceive their job or station in life gives them status or power, such as lawyers, doctors, celebrities, etc use it, too.  However, the difference being no other profession has quite the ability to enforce a citizen to obey them when they are on the job.  No other profession can arrest people, put them in handcuffs, use a Taser, put them in a jail cell, or write a ticket.  LEOs have power that no other profession possesses.  So use your authority wisely and only on the job.

Mike’s perspective

We’ve all been on the receiving end of some version of, “Officer, do you know who I am…?”  Every one of us has pulled over the Mayor’s “oldest childhood friend… we go way back,” investigated a city councilman’s second cousin, twice-removed (by marriage), or otherwise come into professional contact with a variety of high and mighty offenders with no qualm about trying wield their influence to cajole or intimidate us with their imagined importance. 

Sure, while it’s annoying at first the gratification of watching them squirm with the realization that a) you absolutely do not care, and b) their already bad situation has just taken the teensiest turn for the worse, makes it all worthwhile!  But after the episode is all wrapped up, how do you consider the person?  Arrogance, self-absorption, and bullying tend to create a strong, and long-lasting, impression on the recipient.

No matter how you look at it, when a police officer tries to use the office to get his way, far removed from any legally justified, job-related purpose, there are really only two interpretations likely to be formed by the recipient.  The first is that the officer believes he is somehow special, or deserving of special consideration, exempting him from the rules everybody else has to follow.  The second has a more sinister undertone, which is if he doesn’t get his way consequences will follow.  This one is naturally intimidating.  Either way, just as name-dropping by those we deal with tends to leave the impression of arrogance, self-absorption, or bullying, the irrelevant-to-the-moment mention we’re cops does exactly the same.  Worse yet, it sullies not only the character of the individual officer, but of all who wear the badge.

This isn’t another ethics column about free cups of coffee, or half-priced meals; follow your department’s policy, or pay what the waiter asks for and then tip generously, I really don’t care.  And it’s not about extending each other professional courtesy; flash the badge with humility and then have a nice day, which usually works for me when I see red & blues in my rearview!  This is an ethics column about a common and subtle, but very real, abuse of power.  I don’t believe this is widespread among us, but I know it does happen.  I know because it has happened to Althea, and I know because it has happened to me.  On a couple occasions, I have even experienced it on-duty from “brother” LEOs!  The trouble is how near and easy the temptation to drop “I’m a cop…” really is when things are not going our way, and I know this because I have been tempted.  The danger is how quickly it diminishes all of us when we give in to temptation.

Most “civilians” still have a healthy respect – even a little fear – of the police and the powers you hold even if they have done nothing wrong.  Strange perhaps, but that’s just the way it is and a normal human reaction to authority.  To exploit that fear – even a little bit - for personal gain is unethical and should give pause.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.