My commenters on the last post got me thinking: police departments (and other professions) demand officers hold themselves to a “higher standard” of conduct. So what’s that standard? What does it mean? How are officers expected to know where the lines are?
The “higher standard” is subjective
These are not easy questions to answer. Young people have, as in previous generations, different standards from those that came before. As commenter H. Carvey pointed out in a follow-up e-mail exchange, he has seen teenagers share Facebook passwords with each other so they can update each other’s statuses, share photos of each other without obtaining permission (sometimes with rude comments attached). And we all know the debate about sexting.
In a police context, officers are now surrounded online by people calling other people stupid. A young recruit may believe that saying “people are stupid,” for instance, is “not as bad” as calling them “stupid redneck bimbos.” And there’s the old freedom-of-speech issue.
But as Carvey, a former Marine, says, “Obtaining a position of authority does not remove your freedom of speech… it simply places you in a position of greater responsibility of the use of that freedom.”
Social networking is a new take on old human interaction. And if communication is, at least in part, about pushing the boundaries with each other, then social networking magnifies this tendency. The trick for police managers is in learning how to help cops push the right boundaries.
Training officers to think first
Good ethics training teaches what and why and how: as Carvey says, the purpose behind the standard, the need for it to exist. Good ethics training starts at the police academy and continues on through field and in-service training. It’s not just left to a policy or set of policies, but is incorporated into every piece of training an officer attends.
That covers the department’s butt in the event of misconduct. But it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of teaching officers to think about what they are doing and saying.
Case in point. Last year, one of my sources (Lt. David Hubbard of the Eustis FL Police Department) conducted an internal investigation of one of his officers for Tasing a 14-year-old at a birthday party. Not because the teen was out of control or attacking anyone—but because he asked the officer, a personal friend, to Tase him.
Several things stand out about this incident, which ended up on YouTube:
- EPD had conducted a thorough background check of the officer, who before he was hired had been a nonsworn bailiff at a nearby sheriff’s department.
- His Taser training had included rules of conduct, including “don’t Tase your friends.”
- Just off probation, he had never had any other disciplinary problems, and was considered a good officer.
- The video shows him essentially “training” the teen on what to expect.
- He took full responsibility for the incident, not even trying to blame it on drinking too much.
Ultimately, the officer quit before being fired; because he’d not only Tased a juvenile, but also failed to do enough to stop underage drinking, termination was the only possible outcome. As Hubbard told me, “The ethics were there—he just exercised poor judgment.” And therein lies the rub.
So the challenge to police administrators is not just to teach according to policy about unofficial use of government property, or liability, or the other usual suspects. It’s also how to teach people to empathize with those who feel wronged by an action, when 1) they themselves would not feel wronged if the same action were done to them, 2) they “got consent,” or 3) when the sense of feeling wronged is a normal part of life for them.
It’s not, in other words, enough to ask officers to “maintain the professionalism of the department, and to nothing to bring shame or disgrace upon yourself, your fellow officers, your department, or your profession” because when people don’t even get that certain conduct (like sexting) is shameful—because they don’t see it that way for themselves—they’re not going to think about professionalism in the same way their supervisors are.
Constant, continuous ethics training
To get officers out of their own heads and into what civilians think (and why they should care) will take commitment: “…more training and education, more mentoring and working more closely with some folks, and a lot more oversight,” says Carvey.
Best way to accomplish this, when training budgets (as in Eustis PD) are being slashed? There, ethics are being worked into the high-liability training the agency must focus on. Hubbard is also a proponent of career mentoring for young officers, helping them move toward careers in law enforcement rather than just a job at an agency.
As Carvey notes, instilling professionalism in young officers is no different than instilling anything else they don’t bring to the job. To use a street example, you can’t assume that just because an officer can run five miles means he can chase and tackle a suspect safely; he needs training to put his physical abilities in context of his job.
Carvey rightly points out: “Why does a standard have to be objectively defined? Doing so basically says that we as individuals and adults simply aren’t capable and mature enough to make our own decisions…. A lot of folks want to be cops, so they are willing to learn… if they aren’t, then they need to go.”
Taking responsibility for mistakes
One last point, something that ties directly to social media usage: as Hubbard noted, his officer took responsibility for his mistake, as did the Bozeman officer, both resigning their positions.
While an agency may bear no responsibility for its officer’s bad decisions, it does have responsibility to regain public trust. Social media cannot “save the day,” but properly applied, it can show an agency willing to take a look at itself—hiring, training, and related practices—and either to make changes when needed, or to show the public how it fulfilled its responsibility.
Eustis, incidentally, is using social media. You can find them on Twitter and Facebook. While Hubbard acknowledges that the agency is still working out how to use it, his view of how to handle bad PR fits with the “be honest” strategy:
When the news breaks, post a message from the chief. Link to all news accounts—good and bad—about the incident. Let people talk about it on the department Facebook page and other venues.
The old saw about “an ounce of prevention” still holds, however, and standard-setting should be based on Carvey’s take: “Set the standard, then reinforce and mentor. Don’t just address those who come close or fall short, but address those that do well, those that encounter a situation and choose correctly. Create a sense of ownership and build confidence in the standard.”
Image: cambodia4kidsorg via Flickr