Q: Do you think continual education and/or training in police ethics would reduce incidents of police corruption?
A: Again, it depends entirely on the type of continual education and training we're talking about: repeating simplistic ethical training scenarios originally presented in the academy is even less effective with respect to seasoned police veterans than with respect to rookies or trainees. On the other hand, if we're talking about a well-designed program that really reflects the realities of policing and that fundamentally distinguishes legitimate issues of corruption from trivial matters and unrealistic standards that are all but ignored on the street by veteran officers, then yes, I think continual education and training is essential in police ethics just as it is in other police services and functions.
Q: Thank you very much for your time Sergeant, I really appreciate your participation.
A: You're very welcome. I'd let you buy me a cup of coffee right now, but that would violate department ethical policy.
Interview Subject 2 - FBI Special Agent:
Q: Special Agent, thank you for agreeing to this interview under condition of anonymity.
Could you please synopsize your law enforcement background in as much detail as you are comfortable?
A: You're welcome. I graduated from law school in 1988 and practiced law as a public defender in Massachusetts for several years before switching to the prosecution side as an assistant district attorney. In 1996 I applied to the Bureau and graduated from the FBI Academy. From 1990 until 1994, I investigated various white collar crimes at the Detroit Michigan Field Office, and from 1994 until 2006, I worked at the New York City Regional Office in lower Manhattan. For the last 2 years I have been a legal instructor at the FBI Academy in Quantico, VA, where I provide instruction in Constitutional Law and Criminal Procedure. Q: What are your main responsibilities?
A: As a legal instructor, it is partly my responsibility to make sure than new agents understand the protections afforded by the United States Constitution, both to protect the rights of citizens subject to criminal investigations as well as to ensure the success of our investigative efforts against legal defenses arising from unconstitutional practices and procedures that could undermine the efforts invested by the Bureau into criminal investigations.
Q: After practicing criminal law on both sides, you've probably had experiences along the entire spectrum of police conduct including ethical issues.
A: That's true, yes.
Q: What is your perspective of the importance of personal and professional ethics and character in the field of law enforcement?
A: Personal and professional ethics and character are absolutely essential throughout the field of law enforcement. In this country, police agencies work very hard to identify unsuitable candidates before they ever enter a police academy to receive training to become police officers. Granted, some agencies are better at doing so than others, but that is attributable mainly to the sheer size of the country and the thousands of individual agency standards applied by each agency. Budget is also an issue in that what is realistic for larger state and federal agencies may not be in the case of much smaller local police agencies. Nevertheless, all you have to do is consider the situation apparent in other countries by comparison to understand that, in principle, law enforcement in the U.S. upholds the highest standards, both in general, and also in particular with respect to ethical conduct anywhere in the modern world. Q: Do you think that police are more ethical today, or were they more ethical ten years ago?
A: Generally, I think that U.S. policing evolves on a continual basis in almost every way, including in ethical conduct. In that sense, I think police are generally more ethical today than last year, last year than two years ago, and this decade than last decade, and so on and so forth. In my opinion, the most significant changes were inspired by various Supreme Court decisions relating to proper police conduct and procedures in the last 30 or 40 years as much as by any other single element.
Q: Why do you think police officers sometimes become involved in misconduct?
A: Human nature applies just the same to police officers as to you or anyone else. All of us experience the same innate urges and temptations and none of that goes away when you take an oath to uphold or enforce the law. The difference between police who engage in misconduct and those who do not - or for that matter, between law abiding citizens and criminals - is not necessarily in our urges and temptations, but rather, in the degree to which we give in to those urges and temptations. However, when police officers engage in misconduct or criminal activity, it is much worse for several reasons.
Q: Such as?
A: First, police officers swear an oath to uphold the law; second, police officers receive training that makes them much more aware of the lines between what is legal and ethical and what is not; and third, however bad it is for an ordinary person to engage in criminal conduct, it is that much worse for someone to do under what is called the "color of authority" which means, essentially, misusing your powers and official authority to perpetrate crime. Q: Do you think there is sufficient training devoted to ethics at the police academy level?
A: Yes and no. At the federal level, ethical training is more or less consistent even among many different agencies in general. Because state and local agencies operate much more independently from each other and also from any uniform standards other than those imposed by federal law, there is much more room for error.
Q: Do you think police ethics training should be offered on-going basis for all law enforcement officers?
A: At the federal level, ongoing police ethics training is already provided; in fact, ethics training is already ongoing throughout the federal government, even in civilian agencies and occupations. At the state and local level, continuing ethics training may be offered, or not, depending on the particular agency and on state laws that pertain to police training. Undoubtedly, training makes a difference and ongoing training is preferable to one-time instruction only in the academy. Q: Do you think continual education and/or training in police ethics would reduce incidents of police corruption?
A: In some respects, yes; in other respects, not necessarily. The concept of ethics is really not all that complicated in principle. Just as in the general population, police officers who "get it" do so after minimal training while those who don't are not likely to do so after repetitive training. Civilians rarely live their lives lawfully for decades and then suddenly decide to engage in criminal conduct. Police officers don't often exercise a high degree of personal and professional ethics on the job and then suddenly misuse their lawful authority in a single isolated instance. More commonly, citizens who violate the law do so habitually and accumulate long criminal histories by the time they reach middle adulthood and police officers who operate unethically or criminally do so as a pattern rather than in isolated instances in a background of perfect conduct. In this regard, I think better candidate screening and supervisory oversight are more important than continual classroom-style training.
The interviews disclosed several common themes as well as certain differences.
Both the NYPD detective and the FBI legal instructor seemed to acknowledge the role of personal ethical perspective of individuals as more determinative of police conduct than any formal ethical training. The NYPD detective actually used the phrase "bad apple"; the FBI agent did not use the same terminology but also suggested that police ethics is more attributable to individual predisposition than to training.
The NYPD detective focused on the difference between (1) the realities of policing "in the street" and (2) realistic ethical concepts and unrealistically idealized standards of ethical conduct. In that regard, he views ethics in policing as something that is addressable through training only where training corresponds more closely to scenarios actually encountered by police officers and where ethical standards reflect legitimate issues of bona fide corruption instead of trivial matters. He regards the failure to distinguish genuinely problematic issues from benign matters as a fundamental weakness of modern police ethics training.
Possibly because his duties relate more to white collar criminal investigations rather than street crimes and tactical patrols, the federal agent views police ethics as more susceptible to improvement through formal training than the NYPD street crime veteran.
Similarly, because the federal agent's law enforcement experience is limited to federal agencies, he views police ethics as something enforceable through oversight and the establishment of uniform standards. Ultimately, both officers value the significance of ethics in policing and both recognize the evolution of more ethical policing since the Civil Rights era.
Personal Perspective and Conclusions:
From my perspective, both interview subjects provided valuable insight into police ethics…