Back to Top
The Spirit of the Law - Homepage
The Spirit of the Law -  Problems, Issues and Challenges
The Spirit of the Law - Intentional Spirituality: Benefits & Resources
The Spirit of the Law - Practical Legal Issues
The Spirit of the Law - About Us
The Spirit of the Law - Links
The Spirit of the Law - Scrapbook
  Print Article



The myth that officers are entitled to extra privileges beyond the rule of law, are a part of the attitude that says, 'because I put my life on the line, I should have special privileges.' This is the first step in a pattern that can lead to other missteps that bring damage to the department and hinder the officer's career; also some action steps to neutralizing destructive attitudes that violate not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law as well.

Free Donuts and More:
A Commentary on Police Misconduct and Corruption

John Gentile


With rapid media communication, more acute civil rights awareness, endless court litigation, public outcries and congressional inquiries, the law enforcement community, local as well as federal, is confronted with a vast litany of allegations that officers have violated the public's trust, engaged in criminal acts, abused their authority, violated citizens' civil rights, used excessive force, been disrespectful and arrogant, "doctored" evidence and generally lost credibility with the communities they serve. Harsh allegations indeed.

Over the years, blue-ribbon panel hearings such as the Mollen Commission in New York have revealed that acts of corruption, violence, robbery and other predatory misconduct have in fact been perpetrated by members of the police community; however, investigation further indicates that such corruption is not systemic but rather is confined to small groups of officers (pockets) or to individuals. It should be noted, with due care and respect, that these investigations have shown that the vast majority of police officers are honest and perform their duties conscientiously a finding that is often overlooked in the midst of media and political "hype." The latter observation notwithstanding, the findings do reflect some lack of supervision and integrity training, as well as some lack of oversight in departmental internal affairs activities. Moreover, many departments lack mechanisms that would refer early-detected indicators, and proactive models for preventing misconduct and analyzing risk factors are almost nonexistent. In many communities the public perception of police integrity is poor and schisms have arisen between the police and segments of the population. These schisms must be repaired if the police community is to gain the cooperation of the citizenry in addressing the reality and perception of crime.

Police image is a vital ingredient in obtaining the public trust. It must be earned daily by demonstrating the highest standards of professionalism and personal integrity. The actions of one rogue cop can tarnish the image of an entire department. We readily see how high-profile criminal court trials can be affected by allegations of racial and ethnic insensitivity by just one member of a department, and how an entire department can then come under public suspicion. The repercussions not only affect the credibility and image of a department, but also can cause all the prior activities and arrests of such an officer to be reviewed. Obviously, the cost in terms of loss of public trust as well as the fiscal impact of reviewing the officer's prior activities are enormous. Therefore, the costs involved in providing better training, more supervision, proactive preventative paradigms and greater oversight are really "deminimus." Integrity awareness must become a "buzz word" for police managers and personal integrity must become a strong force within the police culture.

In the federal enforcement community, we have seen Congressional hearings into high-profile operations in which allegations of cover-up, false reporting and disregard for human rights have surfaced. Federal law enforcement agencies have not been exempt from the credibility gap and image tarnishing. But again, the findings are not systemic, but limited to individuals.

What is causing such acute focus on misconduct and corruption at this time when technology and criminal procedure have so enhanced the professional capabilities of our law enforcement agencies? Have these weaknesses always been there? Are we experiencing a new phenomenon reflective of the "dark side" of a highly industrialized, materialistic, impersonal society? Are we experiencing a crisis in culture? Is there something lacking in family values? Is there something lacking in training, in the socialization process, in the police institution, in the police culture?

If one looks at a cross section of America's professional community, it is obvious that the medical, legal, corporate and political sectors are spotted with many of the same moral shortcomings. So perhaps all of this is reflective of a society that has failed to define and/or enforce moral values and a society that accepts "double standards." I'd like to think not, but the empirical data is disturbing.

Across the nation, young new officers are raising their hands and declaring oaths such as, "I pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States, the Constitution of my state......and to faithfully discharge the duties of police officer to the best of my help me God." A very broad oath perhaps too generic. Thought should be given to adding more specifics such as "I also pledge myself to the highest standards of honesty and professionalism......never accepting any bribe or gratuity......never abusing my authority......never using excessive force or violating the rights or dignity of anyone......never bearing false witness......and always recognizing that this special trust placed in me requires that my professional and private conduct be above question." Perhaps this more encompassing oath could be memorialized in a commissioning certificate that would serve to remind an officer of the sacred commitment each time he or she looks at it during his or her career.

The myths that officers are "entitled" to extra consideration, immunity from the rule of law, "free donuts" and more, are part of a psychology that rationalizes by saying "because I put my life on the line, I'm entitled to extra consideration." "I should have special privileges and, if you don't cooperate, I'll lock you up, ticket you, or close you down." Unfortunately, intimidation often works. Unchecked, and over time, small gratuities become bribes, small discourtesies become arrogance, cynicism becomes insensitivity, and a rationalization process begins that sometimes results in predatory behavior. The rogue cop then emerges in all of his or her ugliness. Power can and does corrupt, unless that power is harnessed. Supervision, discipline and training are those harnesses.

In most large police departments, officers are confronted daily with the ugliness of the human condition. The psychological and physical "ups and downs" during a typical duty tour, when sustained over periods of time, are likely to result in physical and psychological trauma, and this trauma is dealt with in different ways, and wears different masks. When this stress is not dealt with, callousness and cynicism often creep in. Personality changes become evident, both on the job and at home. Personal behavior can change; excessive drinking, promiscuous sexual conduct, domestic violence, substance abuse, excessive force, absenteeism, depression, arrogance, illness, discourtesy, corruption and a host of other manifestations may occur and these should be apparent to the objective and trained observer ; especially the first-line supervisor. Civilian complaints against officers, alleging improper conduct, must be monitored because such complaints may be indicative of an officer in trouble an officer reacting to personal stress whether caused by job environment, private life or both. Repeated complaints of improper use of authority, discourtesy or excessive force are obvious warning signs, particularly when these complaints are not lodged solely by arrestees who may wish to deflect attention from their own acts. In many instances, good supervision practices dictate that such officers require counseling, retraining or even reassignment and in most instances, it's obvious that the officer needs assistance beyond disciplinary action.

Many criminal justice experts now link certain official corruption to stress to cynicism and arrogance, often the progeny of stress. Frustration with the system and with society in general, a sense that everybody is "on the take," constant exposure to drug dealers, child abusers, burglars, murderers and the like all can create a rationale that may allow an officer to transcend his or her moral code. Some officers begin to physically abuse violators and steal money and contraband, rationalizing the supreme violation of their public trust and sacred oath. The street association between police and citizens, police and business proprietors and even police and criminals affect the image of a department. Police officers who rightly understand his or her role in relation to the community they serve will recognize that the dignity of all community is important and that respect from the community can only be earned when one exhibits fairness and understanding.

The mission of any department must be driven not only by the reality of crime, but by public perception. A department's image depends on its efficiency and moral credibility. Corruption, excessive use of force, abuse of authority, disrespect and violation of civil rights are common failings that directly affect such an image. The challenge to the police executive is to change that image, and where necessary, rehabilitate the department. Training, retraining and swift internal discipline must be essential components of such rehabilitation.

Prudent police managers should look to proactive training initiatives and models that will serve not only to instruct, but also to prevent misconduct. Such training models must address the more human and personal aspects of being a police officer. Integrity awareness programs, coupled with role play exercises and workshops, should be incorporated into such programs. A departmental code of ethics should be devised that sets forth the integrity goals and responsibilities of each officer and the agency in general. Officers should be instructed in what is expected of them as street ambassadors and in how to properly exercise their authority, how to conduct themselves in public and in their private life, achieve a proper attitude in dealing with the public, speak to citizens and criminals, de-escalate confrontations, be aware of and sensitive to diverse cultural lifestyles in the multicultural community that they serve, problem solve, and recognize and resist temptations to abuse their authority. They should be taught that the public image and perception of the department's professionalism and integrity are directly linked to his or her actions as a street officer. Officers should recognize that they must become role models in the community and that they are indeed held to a higher standard of conduct and accountability.

Moreover, it must be emphasized that the stress they experience due to unfairness, ugliness and sometimes dysfunctional system of justice is not a rationale for misconduct. Officers must persevere in the performance of their sworn duty unaffected by the moral climate in which they find themselves. The fact that the part of society that the officer deals with may be broken or crooked does not justify a continuing cynical attitude. The outcome of any proactive training program must be a stable, informed, professional, motivated officer dedicated to personal and departmental integrity.

There is no doubt at this time, given the empirical data, that accreditation does enhance a department's public image and improve internal morale, while at the same time it reduces the number and cost of lawsuits for alleged police misconduct. Many police managers, faced with costly lawsuits because of alleged misconduct by officers, have sought national or state accreditation for their departments so that they might conform with national or regional norms of conduct and standards of procedure. I highly recommend this process as a positive step toward achieving professional and moral responsibility.

In-service and on-the-job training are vital components of an effective learning and professional development process. The roles of first-line supervisors and mid-level managers are critical in this area. Regularly scheduled in-service training in the behavioral sciences and corruption awareness should be formalized to the extent that certificates of completion are awarded. First-line supervisors and mid-level managers must be trained so they can provide the necessary leadership and skills. On a daily basis, the challenge to the supervisor or manager is to lead by example. The first-line supervisor (i.e., sergeant) must set the tone for the patrol officers in all matters ranging from grooming to personal integrity. He or she must be vigilant for signs of job burnout, excessive stress, substance and alcohol abuse, abuse of authority or corruption, and must take swift and prudent action to officially address such symptoms. A sufficient number of first-line supervisors and mid-level managers must be able to articulate the vision and goals of the department, and they must be trained in cutting-edge topics that impact community policing, cultural diversity, interpersonal relationships and job technology.

Training must also address diversity as it exists or should exist within the department. Unless officers respect one another, it's difficult to expect them to respect the multicultural communities they serve. Quite frequently, officers come from relatively parochial existences where interaction with people outside their own cultural or social grouping is infrequent or nonexistent. In these instances the "cultural shock" experienced when assigned to enforcement duties in neighborhoods populated by cultural groups never previously encountered can be traumatic and may result in inappropriate behavior because of fear or misunderstanding. The most frequent criticism of police practitioners by the public and by minorities in general relates to arrogance, "attitude" and discourtesy, all very often precursors to more predatory misconduct and corruption. While recruit and in-service training cannot provide a substitute for street experience, it can provide near-to-life scenarios in a classroom setting using drama-based participatory exercises. Such training must demonstrate and convince the officer of the importance of attitude, understanding, respect and integrity, as well as the significance of words, tone and body language in dealing with the multicultural and pluralistic community that he or she serves. Cultural awareness and sensitivity training does not make one a "social worker," but it equips one to have an effective consciousness about another's lifestyle.

Prudent and educated internal affairs executives are beginning to recognize the importance of using scientific methodologies to assist their mission to eliminate corruption. "Risk Analysis measures empirical data and provides insight for training and enforcement concentration. Databases can monitor the frequency, type and location of alleged or actual corruption. Tracking isolated as well as potential systemic corruption will indicate the best method for deployment of resources, sting operations and retraining strategies. While some internal affairs units take pride in how many cops they "catch," greater pride should be taken in changing the minds and hearts of officers by embarking on a proactive educational program of integrity awareness.

What I am suggesting is that internal affairs officers should educate their fellow officers about the risks of misconduct and corruption and point out the disastrous outcome for an offending officer as well as the impact on his or her family. In my own experience as an internal affairs officer, I frequently addressed groups of officers, showing films depicting the plight of those caught up in corruption and the effect on their families in terms of financial deprivation and social stigma. Officers were shown how they were jeopardizing their jobs, which were worth between one and two million dollars in salary, retirement and benefits. These sessions also helped to clarify perceptions and misconceptions and often resulted in the recruitment of voluntary "field associates" and the breaking down of the "code of silence". I am convinced that continuing quality in-service training of this type is a key deterrent.

Can an officer involved in misconduct or corruption be rehabilitated? Some say that no matter how serious an infraction, the department cannot tolerate a breach of trust. Others say that incipient behavior or minor infractions can be addressed by moderate disciplinary action, intensive retraining and reassignment. When are second chances good policy? Police executives should make use of departmental psychologists, line organization representatives and police counsel in formulating departmental policy.

Recently, many department have looked at the age and educational requirements for sworn positions. Many are looking toward "older" candidates in their mid-20s with at least two years of college or some business experience. Many believe that younger or less life-experienced officers are too immature emotionally to handle "badge, gun and authority." Some executives welcome a program of recruiting former military personnel who for the most part are well-educated, well- groomed, disciplined, drug-free and life experienced. At first blush there seems to be merit to that thinking; however, age and experience notwithstanding, specialized training and personal integrity continues to be a mandate. Age and experience alone are no guarantees of integrity. Better psychological testing of candidates using an array of integrity indicators may be helpful in identifying potential offenders and result in better screening investigations.

Concerned police executives might also do well to consider a police ethics council within their departments. Such a council, composed of the chief executive, representatives of the rank- and-file, internal affairs representatives, departmental support personnel (e.g., psychologist, legal counsel, chaplain), line organization representatives, and key representatives of the community should set the tone for the establishment of a departmental code of ethics and for the publishing of the department's mission and goals regarding public service and personal integrity. The functions of such councils can be extended to accommodate dealing with individual or specific ethics questions or participation in officer training or retraining courses.

With regard to personnel practices and proactive strategies, consideration should be given to mandated career counseling for all officers. These counseling sessions should be given on a periodic basis (at least once per year) at which time trained counselors working as teams could address an officer's career path and degree of adjustment. Police managers should "re-engineer" the way assignments are made so that prolonged assignment in high-risk or high-stress duties can in some way be modified.

There are frequent criticisms regarding the efficacy of police internal affairs units. These criticisms have given rise to paradigms that range from complete oversight by community and legislative agencies to periodic review of internal security activities and investigations. There is no doubt that some degree of quality control is necessary to ensure that proper focus and objectivity are maintained. In my opinion, and in most instances, this can be best accomplished by the police chief and selected subordinates periodically reviewing the programs, investigations and proactive strategies of the internal affairs unit. However, there is a caveat that oversight must not bring with it the baggage of political or personal agendas.

I am convinced, however, that the need for large standing internal affairs units will diminish as the candidate selection process improves; as the availability of qualified first-line supervisors increases; as the recruit and in-service training programs on personal integrity, image and attitude become more pragmatic and frequent; and as police managers demonstrate by example their dedication to high professional and moral standards. In the interim, and as we approach the next millennium, the challenge for the modern and prudent police executive is to develop innovative strategies to train and convince police practitioners that integrity is a vital aspect of their vocation.

For more information, contact:

John Gentile
P.O. Box 140459
Staten Island, NY 10314
Phone: (718) 876-0944.