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Police Reform: Ways Agencies Can Improve Officer Ethics

By Andrew Bellfaculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University and Bruce Razey35-year police veteran

At one point in author Andy Bell’s police career, his department went through some changes and all officers had to take ethic’s training. At the end of the officer ethics class, there was the question, “Is it okay to accept a free cup of coffee from a store?” After reviewing our policy on gratuities, we were still not clear. Neither the instructors nor the department would take a yes or no stand.

 [Related: Facing an Ethical Dilemma? Police Training on Bias and Ethics]

It was a disturbing lack of clarity in training. The department was not trying to tell us what was right or wrong, but to provide a basic guideline for officer ethics and how people make decisions. They called it a toolbox to take with us to make ethical decisions. That box was full of institutional policies and procedures, laws, mores, local and national customs, traditions, and values. I could see some analogy to the biblical story of teaching us to fish instead of giving us the fish. However, I was left disappointed by the non-commitment of the department regarding officer ethics.

[Related: How Law Enforcement Agencies Can Create a Comprehensive Ethics Policy]

Fast forward to today, and the topic of officer ethics is in chaos. Ordinary citizens question if police are inherently good or bad, and there is a loud cry to “Disband, Defund, Do Away With” police departments. Even the police are divided on how to act, what to say, and how to police. In Portsmouth, Virginia, police let vandals destroy a Confederate statue. They did not even intervene when a piece of the falling debris injured a protester. In Seattle, Washington, police abandoned a precinct building. It appeared that it was not the intent of the chief for her officers to leave the property and local people unprotected.

Our example of whether to accept a free cup of coffee is not meant to be the answer to the problem because the answer is not that simple. It is intended to show that policing is as complicated as people are different. Now we are way beyond accepting a cup of coffee gratis. It is time for police departments to take a stance on what is right and wrong in making ethical decisions. This includes taking away officer discretion and laying down the law. Why? Because, like the public, there are good and bad police officers.

[Related: Keeping Justice in Perspective: Rethinking Codes of Ethics]

No one I know in law enforcement thinks that the officers who killed George Floyd acted appropriately. His killing sparked national cries for police reform. In a perfect world, reformation, or the process of reorganization, should be a constant concern by every police department across the country. Taking a hard look at their organization and rectifying any identified shortcomings is essential in providing protection and services to the communities police serve.

The following are several recommendations on how to improve officer ethics.

Hiring: Proper Selection of Police Candidates

The selection process is vital to ensure departments are hiring the right people for the job. Diversity is the number one factor in reaching this goal. Recruiting at college campuses and in minority neighborhoods is a great idea and it’s important for agencies to maintain high standards for all recruits during the hiring process.

[Related: Studying the Ethics of Criminal Justice Students]

Most departments require the usual written and physical agility tests and background investigations. Departments should also employ a psychological examination and a behavioral personal assessment device (BPAD) with the community serving as assessors. BPAD tests a candidate’s situational judgment, communication skills, and ethical decision-making by responding to video situations. BPAD can also be used by veteran officers wishing to be promoted or transferred to other divisions in the department.

Training: In the Academy and during Field Training

Officers are generally well-trained in the academy and during field training. However, once certified and off probation status, officers in many departments merely must comply with state-mandated in-service training one week per year or in some states, every other year. To make things worse, there are usually no requirements for training subjects, except for firearms training and recertification. Bruce Razey, once satisfied his biannually mandated training by attending a 40-hour municipal supervisory class that had nothing to do with policing.

[Related: Police Ethics: Does Education Matter?]

State-mandated training must occur at least annually and include subject matter such as verbal judo, use of force with hands-on and less-lethal weapons, officer ethics training, and BPAD assessment. This training period is also the time to reinforce department policies and procedures. Chokeholds must never be used. However, in life or death situations, all options must be available to officers. If chokeholds become illegal due to police reform, so be it. Good cops will follow the law just like they did with Miranda.

First-line supervisors should conduct daily training including using examples of officers’ recent errors. For example, Officer A observes a car leaving an area known for drug sales and incorrectly stops the vehicle and conducts a search for illegal drugs. The supervisor must not only deal with Officer A’s actions, but also review tactics to the rest of the squad like reasonable suspicion, as in stop and frisk; and probable cause, so the mistake is not repeated.

Training is also appropriate for the community through ride-along programs and citizen police academies. These academies teach citizens about police policies and procedures, explaining why and how officers do what they do.

Supervision: Supervisors Must Supervise

In addition to training, supervisors must supervise. An officer doesn’t simply one day decide to be a dirty cop. A good supervisor will recognize typical symptoms: A poor attitude, unusual behavior, and increased citizen complaints are just a few. When an officer messes up, action is required. Supervisors must not take a laissez-faire attitude toward officer misconduct.

All supervisors must keep critical incident files on everyone under their command. Documentation is necessary for completing proper officer evaluations and serves as a warning to changing and improper behavior. Critical incident files can be folders in which supervisors document good and bad incidents observed personally or brought to their attention by citizens and other police personnel.

Discipline: Supervisors must Ensure Personnel Comply with Policies

It is the supervisors’ responsibility to ensure all personnel under their command understand and comply with all department policies, as well as local, state, and constitutional requirements. When an officer’s supervisor receives citizen complaints, they sometimes go undocumented. Why? Because complaints on officers also reflect poorly on the supervisor. Therefore, some bosses will listen to the complaint, then merely chew out the officer.

All citizen complaints must go through Internal Affairs or the department’s equivalent. The complaint must be documented and thoroughly investigated. Whenever the investigation shows fault on the part of the officer, disciplinary action must be taken. All citizens should know or be advised of the procedures to make a formal complaint. Those procedures must be as easy as possible, even by making an anonymous phone call if they wish.

When discipline is warranted, a citizen review board can review the case and ensure that the appropriate discipline is carried out. Whenever an officer is recommended for termination, that department must not allow the officer to resign. Allowing an officer to leave rather than be fired allows the officer to seek employment at a different department. This resignation dismissal only leads to bad cops hopping from one department to another and is part of the ongoing debate about officer misconduct going unpunished.

Some would have us believe that all police departments are racist and should be defunded or dissolved. Defunding will severely inhibit police reform and abolishing departments borders on insanity. Fortunately, most of us do not share that notion. However, we are not so foolish to think every cop is perfect. The bad ones can be identified and removed with the help of the communities they serve.

About the Authors:

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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