Can Cops Be Honest?

The Power of Police Subculture

An Excerpt From “Arrested Development

 images (3)“Years ago as a young police officer, I remember finding myself being profoundly enmeshed in the life of being a cop. I soon realized that my identity, social life, and even family life revolved around me being a cop. I worked every day with police and socialized with them when I was off-duty. My preferred company was other police. I also realized I was closer to the man I was paired with at work—my partner—than I was to the woman to whom I was married. I shared more of my thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams with him than I did with her. Each day at work, I trusted my partner with my life. And then I realized that if he did something wrong, I would no more give him up than I would my own mother.

“This is the power of a subculture… a distinct group of people who have patterns of behavior and beliefs that set them apart from society as a whole…

“Throughout my career I learned that without effective oversight, adequate salaries, and high public expectations, police will slide backwards—because left alone, isolated, underpaid, and with low public expectations, these police won’t be the kind of people we want to protect us and our way of life…

“If the police are to be kept free from corruption, honesty and integrity must be among their fiercest internal values…”

++++++++++++++++++++++

INTEGRITY: The quality of being honest and holding strong moral principles.

Maintaining integrity is not just a police problem. It can be a problem for anyone who has power in relation to someone else – physical, social or economic. We see the problem in education, medicine, corporations and government as well as in the criminal justice system. We all like to say we are persons of integrity — but truly practicing it can be difficult.

Worse yet, when a police department has inculturated corruption into its rank, as a way of doing business, it takes a long, long time with sustained, competent leadership to ever change the situation. [As an example of this kind of endemic police corruption, see the January, 23, 2013 report of the University of Illinois Department of Political Science regarding the Chicago Police Department and especially the description of a “code of silence.” Click HERE.]

On the other hand, these are the qualities (moral principles) that police in our society should practice:

Qualities of Police in a Free and Democratic Society

1. Accountable

2. Collaborative

3. Educated and trained

4. Effective and preventive

5. Honest

6. Model citizen

7. Peacekeeper and protector

8. Representative

9. Respectful

10. Restrained

11. Servant leader

12. Unbiased

[For an introduction and further discussion of these qualities, click HERE.]

Whether or not police falter from time to time in these qualities, the important thing is that they know this is the standard of policing to which we hold them. Honesty must be more than a statement painted on the side of a police car, it must be a demonstrated value.

Police officers need to know what our society expects of them. And for them to be men and women of integrity is first and foremost. We have a better chance of making that happen when we require those who would police us to be college-educated, (not from technical, craft-like schools, but from schools of higher learning with 4-year degrees from traditional disciplines like psychology, sociology, history, or philosophy). Then we must make sure they are adequately compensated, effectively trained, have a collaborative work environments, and be led by leaders who are themselves models of integrity and the 12 qualities.

When a society has police like this, men and women of integrity and ability, we can all sleep better at night knowing liberty and justice are being well served in our behalf.

Can cops be honest? Of course they can — and should be.

 


[1] Egon Bittner. The Functions of Police in Modern Society. New York: Routledge. 1970.

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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

5 Responses to “Can Cops Be Honest?”

  1. Absolutely powerful and convicting comments Chief. We are preaching the same thing and its reassuring to read a mentor’s work. Keep sharing teh vision and change will come.

  2. Reblogged this on clarkcountycriminalcops and commented:
    The most common response those of us who seek a more honest and accountable police department as that our opinions mean nothing without an extensive law enforcement background. This argument is a repugnant as it is juvenile, and we should never give it credence. While not wanting to provide any acceptance of such a stance, we do feel it is important to share with our readers how some with lifetime in law enforcement, see the same problems we do.

  3. Chief Mike Masterson Reply January 30, 2013 at 6:14 am

    Committed leaders, especially the Police Chief actively lead the “preaching” of the organization’s values as a way to inspire others. You can’t help but see them every day as they are posted in the main entrance corridors as you enter and leave our building. Establishing the importance of these values in each agency can be passed down to others through storytelling is the job of every police leader..

    There is power in story. When I began to teach police leaders around the country about what we were doing in Madison, the stories seemed to be the most effective way I had to get my points across. Those who attended my class wanted to hear stories. In effect, the storytelling that goes on with a police academy or department are usually the real things that an organization values. That why they are so essential; through story, police officers began to understand the nature of policing, how they are suppose to act and what seems to be important. Chappell’s work in Arrested Development (as cited in Couper, 2011) .

    Although the Chief plays a primary role, everyone has to carry the message. If employees at all levels of the organization are involved in sharing stories, you begin to institutionalize the philosophy into your personnel systems, hiring and promotions, and these become part of your organization’s culture. Most organizational success stories arise from great followership. Recently I invited my six Captains to help “spread the word” by having them define the values which drive our organization in their own words. It’s vitally important we write and tell the stories of the people who are living the organizations values. The more we talk about and internalize our values on the front end, the less work we, as leaders, have imposing them through discipline on the back end.

    Sergeant Ted Snyder challenged his team in a briefing by asking this question, “is it better to be good or right?” An insightful discussion followed. Ask yourself, how do you empower your staff to hold similar probing discussions about personal and organization values?

  4. “The most common response those of us who seek a more honest and accountable police department as that our opinions mean nothing without an extensive law enforcement background.”

    On http://www.officer.com, the cops and their backers on that website don’t want to hear from anyone who has no police background and even if you did, they think you are a traitor to the thin blue line when you have a difference of opinions and ideas.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Culture of Corruption | improving police - November 24, 2014

    […] reform efforts in a police department is that they usually fail to acknowledge the power of the police subculture. When dishonesty is a matter of common practice, overlooked by supervisors, and when it […]

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