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By Vicky A. Bufano, Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Law enforcement officers are a vital part of the American criminal justice system. Theirs is a difficult and stressful job. Without these men and women who give of their time, talents, and lives, our streets and communities would suffer.
Like everyone else, law enforcement officers are human and sometimes make mistakes. A recent investigation by USA Today found that “At least 85,000 law enforcement officers across the USA have been investigated or disciplined for misconduct over the past decade.”
The states vary in their levels of oversight and discipline of their law enforcement officers. Some states, such as Georgia and Florida, have a process by which officers can be decertified for their crimes or their fitness to serve.
When officers are decertified their credentials as an officer are taken away and they can no longer be an officer in that state. This action is in addition to any disciplinary action from the employing agency, such as probation, leave without pay, and even termination from employment. Other states have no process for officer discipline.
From committing crimes to violating ethical standards, law enforcement officers can face discipline and possibly lose their credentials for behavior both on and off the clock. They have taken an oath to serve, protect, and enforce the laws of the land. When officers can no longer be trusted or relied upon, the community suffers. So, if you are a law enforcement officer, here are a few ways you can avoid discipline and possibly lose your license or your job.
- Be Completely Accurate and Honest in Your Reports
Sometimes an officer might flat out lie or plant evidence. But more often, an officer might simply embellish the truth or leave out certain facts. Sometimes the officer wants to help the victim and sometimes the officer might have made a mistake and is looking to cover it up. Regardless of the reason for the inaccuracy, the officer’s integrity is now called into question.
The officer is the link in the chain of a case or incident: The initial responder on the scene; the person investigating the incident; the person who talks to the victim, accused and witnesses; and the person who makes an arrest and files charges all start with the officer.
If you falsify an investigative report, you are now useless in court when the case goes to trial. Your credibility is now under scrutiny and either the judge or the jury will find it impossible to believe you once it is revealed that you fudged the report. A huge weight rests on your credibility. The outcome of the case might depend largely upon your testimony. If the jury doesn’t believe you, your testimony is untrustworthy and the case is severely compromised.
- Be Honest and Truthful when Testifying
Some officers will face discipline for testifying falsely in court. The officer is either trying to make the case better or save face for a mistake made in the field. This is a serious offense; false testimony is a crime because the officer is under oath.
Even falsifying a time sheet is a crime. One might think that padding a time sheet with a few extra hours here and there is no big deal. However, this is theft, fraud, and dishonesty. A jury or judge will think that if you are going to lie about something minor, like a time sheet, you probably will probably lie about other things and therefore you cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
The takeaway here is police officers must be honest at all times. Therefore, even things that may seem trivial or minor require complete honesty and transparency.
- Maintain Integrity of the Profession
Law enforcement officers take an oath to uphold the laws of their municipality and state and of the United States. Further, law enforcement officers are largely viewed as protectors of the community and its citizens. When officers conduct themselves in a manner inconsistent with protecting the citizens, they are jeopardizing the integrity of the profession.
- Use Only Proper Force
One area where an officer can maintain the integrity of the profession is in the use of force. You must make sure to use appropriate force only when absolutely necessary. We have seen too many examples of officers appearing to use excessive force to resolve a situation. When faced with a stressful situation, your actions should be viewed in terms of what you knew, thought and felt at the time of the incident.
It is easy to criticize someone’s actions once the event is over. Hindsight is 20/20. It is understandable that dealing with certain people can be difficult based on the situation. Sometimes a person could be intoxicated or under the influence of some drug. Other times, the offender is angry and volatile and cannot be calmed with reason or logic.
Law enforcement officers are human and thus subject to human emotions. You need to be able to control your emotions and responses in stressful and difficult situations. The art of verbal judo is a way to defuse tense situations and to help.
In today’s high-tech world, cell phones are everywhere. Even if you do not have a body cam or a dash cam, it’s highly likely that there will be at least one person who will have a cell phone and is recording your every word and move. If nothing else, always remember that your actions are highly scrutinized, so maintaining composure is of utmost importance.
- Do Not Mix Business with Pleasure
Your personal life is always a matter of concern. Mixing business with your personal life is a sure way to get into trouble. When encountering citizens in the field, you must always maintain your professionalism.
Some officers have tried to date or enter into personal relationships with civilians they have been pulled over or arrested. The officer who does this compromises the case as well as his or her integrity. Using your position as an officer of the law to get a date or obtain some personal favors is an abuse of power and a violation of your oath, your professionalism, and your integrity as an officer.
- Beware of Social Media
The biggest area of concern these days is social media. If you use social media…beware!
Activities on social media can have a huge effect on how you as a law enforcement officer are viewed by your agency, the court system and, of course, the public. Posting certain pictures, comments, or opinions can subject you to discipline from your superiors.
You are entitled to your own opinions and thoughts, but posting them on social media could get you in trouble if they violate your agency’s policies or the laws of the land. Never post opinions about race, religion, sex, gender, politics, or the law on social media because they all can be viewed by the public. Even if you have a private account, your posts are still accessible and viewable.
Maintaining your integrity and professionalism seems like common sense, but many officers face discipline and perhaps even criminal proceedings based on their behavior. Being a law enforcement officer is not just a job, it is who you are.
Even when you leave the job at the end of your shift, just as you carry your weapon and your shield, you continue to carry with you the nature and character of a law enforcement officer. We salute the men and women who give of their time and lives to serve our country and make our neighborhoods safe. Make sure you set the standard for what it means to be an officer of the law.
About the Author: Vicky Bufano is a part-time instructor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. She holds a J.D. in law from Gonzaga University, a M.S. in Administration of Justice, Homeland Security from Wilmington University, and a B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Central Florida. In addition, Bufano is a lawyer in Florida.. To reach her, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.