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Of the careers that one can aspire to, the law enforcement profession has several distinct differences that separate it from most other professions.  It requires the courage to face down a defiant suspect and to enter into harms way to protect another person.  Many times it requires the ability to empathize with victims and comfort those in need.  It requires an oath of office, where you swear on your honor that you will never betray your integrity, character or public trust.  The profession also requires the ability to withstand the constant second-guessing that occurs throughout the entirety of an officer’s career.  Nothing about a career in Law Enforcement is easy, but the rewards in this career make it worthy of pursuit. 

I think we can all agree that the majority of men and women who enter into the law enforcement profession do so with the best intentions.  They want 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 that lapse of integrity that causes their respective agencies embarrassment and the loss of their careers?  This contemporary issue is worthy of discussion about the importance of a centerpiece of policing, the integrity of the individual officer.

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?  Apparently it isn’t and I believe the following are some of the reasons why.

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.  In my experience, people entering the law enforcement profession will have an established history of character traits, both good and bad.  A background investigation should carefully scrutinize any lapses of integrity in an applicant to help identify future indicators.  In other words, those with integrity issues in their past, usually live up to that reputation in the future, which can cause a blight on the law enforcement profession.    

The background investigations should also 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 up front to complete a thorough background can save the agency much more by identifying those candidates who might subject the agency to costly lawsuits and embarrassing litigation in the future.  The examples of this are unfortunately plentiful, from the Rampart debacle in LA 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.   

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 from your employment with minimal risk for successful litigation.    

The FTO program is a key element in this process.  Ensuring the FTOs are free from outside influences and character flaws is critically important.  The FTO needs to have the autonomy to fairly review the performance of their trainee, without the worry of repercussions.  They also need the support of management to be effective in their respective role to ensure 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.  In my experience, 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.  In my experience, officers with integrity usually do not want to be partnered with integrity-challenged officers. 

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 of their employees is doing throughout their shift.  Yet, of the many integrity issues I have reviewed, 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, from the Chief of Police and down.  Proactive supervision, including reviewing work product and knowing what your employees are doing, can help to mitigate integrity issues and identify those issues that cannot be mitigated.  Integrity is a cornerstone of the law enforcement profession.  For this reason, 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 the Ethical Policing

Nothing causes friction between the police 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.  

Most of the public is usually pretty 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.  

Allen Huggins