By: Allen Huggins
Many men and women enter the law enforcement profession to serve and safeguard their communities, arrest the criminals, and solve crimes, such as the murder of Travis Alexander by Jodi Arias and the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son by Scott Peterson. Yet, why do so many officers, at some point in their careers, have a lapse of integrity that causes their respective agencies embarrassment and the loss of their careers? This contemporary issue is worthy of discussion. What is the importance of the centerpiece of policing?
Integrity. It is the cornerstone of a successful law enforcement career. What is integrity? The dictionary defines it as the “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” A more common definition as it relates to a law enforcement officer is the ability to write an accurate report that contains all relevant facts and answers all questions with complete factual honesty. It seems pretty basic and should be easy, right? But judging by the lapses in character of those who draw negative attention to the profession, it sometimes isn’t. A multitude of causes could exist, but can be broken down into the following categories.
Background Investigations – Complete and Thorough at all Levels
A thorough and competent background investigation is extremely important in preventing those with integrity issues from ever entering the law enforcement profession. People entering the law enforcement profession should have an established history of character traits, both good and bad. A background investigation should carefully scrutinize any lapses of integrity to help identify future indicators. Those with past integrity issues may live up to that reputation in the future. This can cause a blight on the law enforcement profession.
The background investigations should not stop at entry-level officers. A thorough background investigation should be completed for all new hires, from the Chief of Police on down the ranks. Spending a few thousand dollars on a thorough background can save the agency money by identifying candidates who might subject the agency to costly lawsuits and embarrassing litigation in the future. Examples of this are unfortunately plentiful, from the Rampart debacle in Los Angeles to Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona being convicted and sent to prison for witness tampering. Care should be taken to not add to these headlines by keeping a finger on the pulse of new hires’ previous experiences.
Probation – Take the Time to Evaluate the Employee Accurately
Even with a thorough and competent background investigation, not all issues are identified. Probationary periods are the last chance to identify character problems and either correct them, or remove the employee with minimal risk of successful litigation.
The Field Training Officer program is a key element in the probationary process. Ensuring the FTOs are free from outside influences and character flaws is critically important. The FTO should have the autonomy to fairly review the performance of a trainee without the worry of repercussions. They also need the support of management to be effective in their respective role in ensuring quality employees are retained.
Supervisors, especially first-line supervisors, should adequately review the performance of the probationary employee and carefully scrutinize their work for any issues of concern, particularly for integrity-related issues. Consultants sometimes find that problematic employees were problematic probationary employees. Most of the character issues that cause problems later in careers were in fact, evident during the probationary period. The concerns were just not effectively managed at the time. I suggest that probationary employees who show any issues related to integrity will too often create costly issues later in their careers and should not be retained.
Supervision – Be Proactive and Intolerant of Integrity Concerns
A supervisor, at any level, has a responsibility to properly manage their employees. They should have a good idea what each employee is doing throughout a shift. Yet, of the many integrity issues I have reviewed as a consultant, inadequate supervision was almost always a contributing factor that allowed the integrity issue to get to the point where the employee’s career was jeopardized.
Integrity issues flourish where supervisors neglect their responsibility to provide the oversight necessary. This pertains to all levels in the organization. Proactive supervision, including reviewing work product and knowing what employees are doing, can mitigate integrity issues and identify issues that cannot be mitigated. A supervisor should never “overlook” or “excuse away” integrity issues once identified, and the employee should know that integrity lapses are not going to be tolerated, no matter the rank. Having high-character supervisors, which begins with hiring high-character officers, is critical, as every department needs those willing to stand up and indentify integrity issues, regardless whether it is a subordinate or a supervisor.
The Community We Serve – They Deserve Ethical Policing
Nothing causes friction between law enforcement and the community it services more than the perception of a lack of integrity within the department. If the community can’t trust those charged with providing public safety, where do they turn? Why should the public trust the department spokesperson if the department hasn’t done its part to ensure the officers are trustworthy?
In my experience, ten to fifteen percent of the public will never trust the police, and ten to fifteen percent will most always respect and trust the officers. It’s that middle seventy- to eighty- percent of the community that will evaluate a department based on what they read, hear, and experience and are critical to maintaining the public’s trust. While it is true that the press will publish what sells, the police departments can offset this by “pushing-out” positive articles to help educate the public on how they are serving the community. The department can also make sure their personnel are treating the public professionally and with respect.
The public can be forgiving of mistakes and errors made by law enforcement personnel if they trust the overall integrity of the department. After all, they too make mistakes. But when a mistake involves a lack of integrity, the public is not so forgiving, nor should they be. So, where issues of integrity are concerned, once trust is lost it is difficult to get back.
Integrity issues and concerns not addressed are integrity issues and concerns condoned. If you doubt that, ask yourself this: “why can two neighboring departments have such disparate reputations, even though they serve the same or similar communities?” Odds are, one department has shown a history of integrity issues and the other has not.
About the Author: Captain Huggins retired from the Costa Mesa Police Department after 28 years of service. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. Captain Huggins is currently on staff at the North Idaho College Police Academy, where he instructs on Police Ethics, Patrol Procedures and Community Policing. He just completed an assignment as a Special Consultant with the California State University system for personnel matters. Captain Huggins also owns Paragon Investigative Services, which specializes in personnel issues and organizational reviews for governmental agencies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.