By Thomas Cline
With constant calls from the media for more discipline of line officers, something often overlooked is that most of the time administrators are given a pass. After all, it is those administrators and their political taskmasters that set the overall tone of an agency. Discipline, though necessary, is really the lesser half of this equation. The question that should be asked is: Which line officer behaviors are rewarded by administration as well as by peers?
Too many rewards – formal and informal – tempt officers to lie to increase arrests and convictions, and officers who display patterns of problem behaviors are often transferred in large agencies; some even get promotions! In smaller agencies, bad officers are forced to leave with an “atta boy” letter that paves the way for a position in another place.
A few years back, a Chicago officer was killed in a car accident returning home after his shift because a suburban officer initiated a chase and was ordered on the air by supervision to stop chasing; he didn’t. The suburban bad apple had “left” five-to-seven local agencies in his 20-or-so years of carnage. Termination apparently was not an option in the agencies he left; administrative cowardice won.
Research done in the 1990s by Dr. Neal E. Trautman, Director of the National Institute of Ethics, showed that in every major law enforcement scandal, leaders ignored, tacitly approved of, and sometimes supported behavior that violated constitutional rights and abused power. Dr. Trautman said, “Based on my experiences instructing more than 600 integrity leadership seminars and working with severely corrupt organizations, most administrators fully understand what’s going on, but merely want to ‘get to retirement.’ One of the most common denominators in national scandals is that selfishness and cowardice of top leaders allow the misconduct to grow like a cancer and destroy innocent people.”
Dr. Trautman’s research discovered that there is an easily recognizable template that leads to scandal. He labeled it the “Continuum of Corruption”:
Phase 1: Administrative Indifference
Phase 2: Ignoring of Obvious Ethical Problems
Phase 3: Hypocrisy and Fear Dominating the Culture
Phase 4: Survival of the Fittest
In Phase 1, administrators, who are not negative role models themselves, devote zero resources to promoting and maintaining ethical standards.
In Phase 2, administrators know “something” is going on and look the other way, ignoring acts of indiscretion by workers even as they grow in severity and frequency. Some lack the courage to address the issues, while some refuse to act because those involved bring in numbers make them and their unit or department appear effective to the public.
Phase 3 happens after many years of indifference and ignored ethical infractions. The majority of line supervisors follow the lead of administration, knowing that politics and hidden agendas decide who is promoted, ostracized, pushed aside or thrown to the wolves. Officers, feeling hopeless over unbearable working conditions, feel victimized and conclude that misconduct is justified. Eventually, resentment and bitterness surface in harsh criticism by many, and sometimes open defiance of administrators.
By Phase 4, employees and leadership do “whatever it takes” to survive; the
Code of Silence is condoned and privately encouraged. As scandal starts to cloud over the department, leaders “in the know” engage in subterfuge to protect their positions. Some place themselves at the head of investigations, thinking they can bury information implicating them. The top priority is hiding the story from the media. Those that deserve firing or arrest are allowed to quietly resign. Chief administrators, especially, hide misconduct, fearing they will be fired because it happened on their watch.
Interestingly, blame for malfeasance seems to escape those at the highest levels of government because they control investigative resources and decide on whom to use them. Low-level government agencies tend to get more scrutiny.
This high-level/low-level difference is not surprising if you examine the rewards and punishments in a politically correct culture that fears truth and punishes those who tell it. Recognition and prestige are so sought after that people trade integrity for them. If a system like CompStat is used to belittle leaders at meetings, the impetus is even greater. The fictional but very realistic HBO series The Wire demonstrated this well.
The way to avoid these scandals was promoted by the National Institute of Ethics, but few organizations have taken the solutions seriously. For law enforcement, they are as follows:
- Stringent entry standards and background checks
- High Quality FTO programs
- Fortitude to fight political interference
- Consistent, fair accountability
- Training in Non-Tactical Career Survival at least as much as in tactics
- A fair promotion process absent of politics
- Promotion of positive leadership role models
- Prevention of officers feeling victimized
- A fair employee-intervention process
Sorry, but I’m not holding my breath for this to happen anywhere any time soon. The best us we can do to survive in this climate is to check our behaviors against a set of standards daily and work on ourselves harder than the job.