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Facing an Ethical Dilemma? State Revises Police Training on Bias and Ethics

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in an issue of The Oregon Police Chief magazine.

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

Over the past 10 years, an average 35+ Oregon police officers have been decertified each year for unethical conduct. “We were very concerned about that number,” said Dr. Steve Winegar, who has spent the past three years as the leadership training coordinator for Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training Center for Policing Excellence (CPE). “It was almost the equivalent of one police class each year [of the five to nine offered each year] that was required to backfill for officers who were being decertified.”

Before coming to the Center for Policing Excellence, in 2009 Winegar decided to evaluate how the state was training officers about ethical conduct. “I sat in on an ethics training class and it was the same curriculum I was taught 20 years ago,” said Winegar, who spent 32 years as a police officer and retired in 2003 from his post as police chief of Tualatin, Oregon. “The rise in decertifications made it clear to us that this program was not effective,” he said.

Decertification rates were being noticed by individual officers as well. “Every once in a while, the Oregon Police Academy would send out its findings and give examples like ‘Officer A accepted a gratuity—anything that could be considered a gift for services rendered outside of an officer’s pay—and that’s why that officer was decertified,’” said Assistant Chief Mathew Wagenknecht, who is a 24-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau and a member of OACP. Such notifications served as a reminder about ethical standards, but did little to teach officers how to approach ethical dilemmas.

Based on Wagenknecht’s experience, most officers face such ethical quandaries on their own, choosing not to discuss the situation with others. “It’s unfortunate, because these situations may actually be a good lesson for others, but it doesn’t come to light because people are hesitant to talk about it,” he said.

That lack of discussion is something that police associations and agencies across the state are aiming to change.

Ethical Issues Are a Gray Area

All officers in Oregon must complete the 16-week Basic Police Academy course at the centralized academy in Salem. As part of this training, officers all receive eight hours of instruction on ethics. Part of the revised ethics course curriculum is training officers to recognize when they’re facing an ethical dilemma. On the outset it sounds simple, but many people do not think in the context of ethics. Therefore, it’s important for CPE’s program to train officers how to recognize and acknowledge when a situation has an ethical component to it. By doing so, they are more likely to think about their response options and delay their reaction until they have processed the situation.

Another objective of the training program is for officers to understand that the “right” choice isn’t always clear: What’s appropriate in one situation may not be appropriate in another. For example, one CPE training scenario tackles the issue of gratuity and involves an officer attending a community block party. “In these situations, people offer police free food and drinks. These are family-friendly events and we want officers to recognize there’s a fine line between what’s taking a gratuity and what’s acting as a member of the community. In this case, accepting an offer is the right thing to do,” said Winegar, as it demonstrates that officers are part of the community.

But making such distinctions can prove challenging for officers, especially since many agencies have historically enacted blanket policies against accepting any kind of gratuity, any time. This has been the case throughout Wagenknecht’s police career. “In the Portland Police Bureau, we are not allowed to take any kind of gratuity,” he said. “But, officers face a lot of dilemmas around gratuities that make it not so black and white.”

For example, many years ago there was a local convenience store that would give police free fountain cola. “Agency administrators said it’s a gratuity, so no free pop, but officers couldn’t pay for it—cashiers would not take their money,” said Wagenknecht. “It became such a sticky issue challenging the agency’s ethical stance on gratuities that eventually the administration told officers not to go to that store.”

So what’s the difference between accepting a free cola at a block party but not from a store owner? The answer lies in the environment and situation, said Winegar, and officers have to be trained to recognize the cultural environment and modify their response so it’s appropriate to the situation. Accepting free food during a community gathering demonstrates officers are part of the community and such actions can help build good will and improve community relationships. “If an officer refuses that may be seen as an insult to community members,” said Winegar.

On the other hand, accepting free cola from a merchant on a regular basis is more in line with accepting a gratuity and can quickly become a slippery slope for officers. What starts as one free cola could easily turn into free cola every day, or a free cola and a snack, said Wagenknecht. “Officers must be self-aware and conscious of these ethical scenarios,” he said. “If you don’t think about it in terms of ethics, it’s easy to self-justify your actions after a while.” And that’s when officers run into major problems and potentially face severe consequences like decertification.

Evolution of Ethics Training Programs

Posing these types of scenarios during training helps get officers thinking about the nuances of these situations and how to modify their responses. “We want to give officers the tools to think through these types of situations and not just rely on principles of ‘don’t ever take anything,’” said Winegar. Fortunately, many agencies are starting to recognize that blanket policies about ethical issues don’t always work. “We’ve seen a change in the last 10 years that agencies are incorporating some flexibility into their policies,” he said. However, such flexibility means that officers must have greater awareness and training.

In order to help officers, CPE has modified its training program with a greater focus on how the brain processes information in order to make decisions that lead to behavior. In 2014, it launched an updated supervisory training curriculum specifically focusing on the brain functions behind why people take actions even when they know they should do something different.

This curriculum helps supervisors understand how the brain functions and processes information that leads to behavior. There are two processes in the brain that lead to behavior, explained Winegar. One is the conscious, rational, reflective element where people easily understand what they should do. The other process is the non-conscious, automatic, reactive, reflexive element, which is where the majority of behavior comes from—what they will do. The latter process, the non-conscious, has many flaws that often lead people to behave in a way that they may not want to and may not even be aware of.

The goal of the training is to help officers recognize this non-conscious element of their brain and help them better control it through awareness of moral character and understanding the obstacles, such as overconfidence in our ability to behave ethically. “By teaching officers how their brains work, we can start to reduce the difference between what they should do and what they will do,” said Winegar.

Demand for such training has far exceeded what CPE can provide to the roughly 180 police agencies in Oregon. To meet this demand, CPE started a “train the trainer” program. “There’s been a lot of interest from departments to train their officers in this material so they can conduct internal training,” said Winegar.

Expanding Agency Training to Issues of Race and Inequality

Wagenknecht has been involved in his own agency’s training programs regarding ethics, which specifically focuses on issues of race, inequality and bias. “There are a lot of issues around racism and bias that exist in our society and police find themselves on the front lines addressing those ethical and social dilemmas,” said Wagenknecht. “Police officers are granted authority and responsibility and a great deal of power and must work to train officers how to counter their personal bias.” Portland Police Bureau’s internal program started a few years ago, training command staff, and has expanded this year to training line officers about race and disparity.

Wagenknecht acknowledged it has been a challenge and a learning process to determine the best way to get officers to open up about these issues. “People don’t want to talk about race—it’s uncomfortable—but we need to respectfully talk about it. We all have biases and officers need to understand their own biases so it doesn’t impact their actions,” he said. “We know we’re not going to change anyone in a 10-hour class, but we want to teach officers how to talk about race respectfully and help them explore avenues so we can all make ourselves better.”

Education Provides In-Depth Ethics Training

Providing officers with training on ethics has expanded beyond classes offered by state associations, police academies and individual agencies. As part of his master’s degree in Criminal Justice from American Military University (AMU), Wagenknecht was required to take Criminal Justice Ethics (CMRJ500), an eight-week course covering professional and ethical behaviors of officers. This mandatory class covers not only ethical principles but also discusses everyday applications of ethics and uses real-world cases studies to understand why officers engage in misconduct.

But Wagenknecht’s exposure to ethical concepts was not limited to that single class during his graduate program. Much like the approach many law enforcement and corrections academies have taken, the topic of ethics is woven into other undergraduate and graduate courses at AMU.

“I was instructing in Florida’s law enforcement and corrections academies in the 1990s when recruits received an eight-hour block of ethics training,” said Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at AMU. “We all knew this wasn’t enough.” In 2003, Florida’s curriculum changed so that after the introduction of ethics at the start of the academy, the application of proper ethics was integrated throughout the entire academy curriculum.

Russo has taken the same approach in the development of courses at AMU. “During my tenure as program director starting in 2014, the university revised and improved our criminal justice courses to include discussions on ethics in each of our courses,” said Russo.

The issue of ethics must continue to be integrated into multiple facets of officers’ careers, whether through continuous training or formal education. As all officers know, police will always be held to a higher ethical standard than the average citizen—it comes with the territory of being given great authority and power over others. In order to meet these expectations and prevent unethical behavior, officers must be constantly aware of ethical issues so when a neighbor offers them a soda, they can determine whether it’s ethical and appropriate to accept it.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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