As policing evolves so do new applications of old ethical traps. Without ethical leadership, even our most valued recent policing innovations from improved intermediate weapons to management strategies have resulted in unethical behavior on the part of line officers and commanders.
Corrupting Forces: Rotten & Golden Apples
The Rotten Apples vs. Golden Apples description of unethical officer conduct is a familiar construct. The unethical conduct of a Rotten Apple officer is self-serving in nature (theft, coercion, privilege) and does not seek to serve any legitimate police objective.
On the other hand, Golden Apples are more often recognized as model officers, examples of police efficiency and effectiveness. Their unethical behavior (manufacturing probable cause, witness coercion, street justice, untruthful testimony) is intended to further the otherwise legitimate policing objectives of apprehension, crime reduction, and order maintenance. The difference between the Rotten and Golden Apple corruption is whether the officer’s principal corrupting temptation is found in the Ends or the Means.
Golden Apple or Noble Cause corruption is self-justified as a necessary means to increase arrests, convictions, tickets, field interviews, etc. Officers who give in to noble cause temptation cause irreparable damage to the essential resources of community support, judicial trust, and an ethical organizational culture.
The Apple Cart
A third perspective argues agency culture and effective supervision has the greatest influence on the ethical direction of the agency. This is the Apple Cart argument. It suggests ethical leadership inhibits unethical behavior and promotes virtuous behavior. The Apple Cart approach views every member of the agency as in it together, sharing a moral belief that the Means of policing is as important to long-term success as is the Ends.
When individuals or groups do not perform to expectations, these ethical leaders resist the common temptation of viewing all performance issues as “officer problems.” These leaders look to see if policy created an unintended “reward” for nonconformance, or if there is legitimate confusion or ethical ambiguity about what is to be done. They determine if officers are receiving mixed instructions by others in their chain of command. Effective leaders recognize that left unchecked, “policy habits” are likely to change with the shift, the supervisor and the precinct.
Emerging Corrupting Forces
As policing continues to remake itself, unanticipated temptations and obstacles to policing excellence have arisen. Current allegations of intentional under or misreporting of crime by several of the nation’s most notable agencies serve as a new cautionary tale of an emerging corrupting practice. This meritless behavior neither satisfies the self-serving motivation of the Rotten Apple nor improves the effectiveness and efficiency the Golden Apple seeks.
An examination of the popular CompStat model demonstrates the vigilance ethical leaders must maintain against unintentionally incentivizing Means corruption by using strong carrot and stick encouragements that are outcome or Ends determined.
The innovative CompStat accountability and management model is credited with improving outcomes nationally and internationally. A vibrant CompStat initiative is designed to change an agency’s strategic approach and its organizational culture. Exacting attention is given to crime rate variability down to the smallest defined geographical area. Commanders are given the analytical tools, support and flexibility to develop and implement crime reduction strategies so crime statistics improve beat-by-beat.
CompStat is an optimization effort that seeks endless improvement. For many agencies, this is a sea change from business as usual. Commanders, supervisors and officers are held personally responsible for continuous measurable improvement in their respective areas of responsibility.
Prior to CompStat, a commander or supervisor’s evaluation was unlikely to be closely aligned with crime statistics. Their work group’s tactical response to in-progress calls, investigative effectiveness, or other meaningful matrix for processing criminal or emergency events were the common benchmarks of leader effectiveness.
It is foreseeable that an amplified focus on the Ends of police activity may increase the temptation to seek extraordinary Means to maintain unending statistical improvement. Clearly officers and supervisors alike will be systematically motivated to characterize reported events in a statistically beneficial way.
Unchecked, this accepted practice could become subconscious—a habit. In the worst case scenarios, the institutional habit morphs into gross misrepresentation, poisoning the accuracy of the data pool that is the source of determining and validating the best responses to actual criminal behavior.
Principled leadership focusing as intensely on the means as it does on the ends of the police mission protects against corrupting forces of all types. Principally, it deliberately forges enforced policy, a mindful reward systems, and an ethical environment that makes “acting rightly” the expected habit of excellence.
Setting the folder aside, the Chief looked at the staff’s expressions of discomfort and embarrassment. “I can tell you’re taking this report to heart. That’s good, there’s a lot here for us to think through. Maybe we should start by looking at a few habits.”
Capt (ret.) Greg Seidel is the Director of Training for the Thomas & Means Law Firm, LLP and a 25 year veteran of the Petersburg Police Bureau in Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Attorney Randy Means is a 33-year police legal advisor and founding partner of the Thomas & Means Law Firm, which specializes entirely in police operations and administration. He is past head of the IACP’s Legal Officer Section. He can be reached at email@example.com.