Free Cup of Coffee?

Dec. 20, 2006
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.

So if the officer doesn't expect it and the merchant shouldn't expect anything in return, why are gratuities offered and accepted? It could just be that some people in our society are just happy to live in a safe place. They recognize that police officers spend their entire lives placing themselves between danger and the citizens. It could be that the citizens recognize and appreciate this sacrifice and want to, in some small way, show their appreciation to the officer. Maybe the dry cleaner is just thankful that someone is brave enough to drive toward danger when everyone else is running away. Maybe the doughnut man is grateful that the officer did CPR on a family member without hesitation. Maybe the convenience store owner is happy he can safely walk with his family to the park. Maybe the community enjoys freedoms and safety found very few places in this world. Maybe all these people want to do something, anything, to show how grateful they are to the police.

Every minute of every day, we trust police with life and death decisions. Law enforcement officers are specially selected and trained to make lethal decisions under arduous circumstances. Literally, someone's life hangs in the balance of an officer's sound judgment. It is insulting to the intelligence and integrity of the police profession to imply that an officer cannot make a decision as to whether he should accept a cup of coffee for half price.

As with most issues, the extremes are easy to identify. We do not want our police running protection rackets; but we should be able to accept a brownie from an appreciative nun. The strength of any policy is the ability, desire and need to enforce it. In regards to the accepting of gratuities, rather than the zero tolerance policy that is in effect in many places, a reasonable policy of tolerance that recognizes and respects the integrity and good judgment of law enforcement officers is probably the better way.

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