Recently, I was directed to a Web site that appeared to belong to an outlaw-type motorcycle gang. There were photos of gang members wearing their biker colors. They were holding cans of beer while displaying “the finger” salute. All of the motorcycle gang members had macho, biker-type nicknames. I could almost hear Steppenwolf singing “Born to be Wild.” Then, I found this wasn’t a motorcycle gang’s Web site—it was a police motorcycle club Web site!
There’s nothing wrong with officers forming a motorcycle club. Many off-duty officers and retired officers are members of legitimate “police only” motorcycle clubs. They spend their free time riding their motorcycles and socializing. In fact, it’s a great idea—birds of a feather!
Yet one question begs for an answer: Why would officers want to look like the people that they typically arrest? What does the image of off-duty police officers as outlaw bikers say to the public? A clear choice needs to be made: Either be an outlaw biker or be a police officer—you can’t be both! What’s next, officers flashing gang signs on personal Web sites?
There are other important questions that need to be considered: Can an agency prohibit or regulate this off-duty behavior, including personal Web sites? Is an agency derelict if they don’t regulate this type of behavior?
Agencies may want to seek out legal opinions concerning off-duty behavior. There may be applicable laws or administrative code that addresses this issue within specific states. Labor agreements with police unions may also address off-duty behavior and conduct. Where do you draw the line concerning unacceptable off-duty behavior and conduct from law enforcement officers? It’s fairly easy to determine clear cases of inappropriate behavior or conduct, such as criminal law violations. However, the gray areas separating acceptable and unacceptable behavior are much more difficult to navigate.
No easy answers exist in regard to some off-duty behavior. Common sense may not always be common, but what ever happened to simple good judgment? Officers should receive guidelines on what does and does not qualify as “conduct unbecoming an officer.” Specific examples can only help clarify acceptable and unacceptable off-duty behavior and conduct.
Whether on-duty or off-duty, officers should plan on being photographed, being video taped and having their voices recorded. Cell phones offer a variety of features that can capture photos, video and audio. There may be legal restrictions on audio recording someone without their permission, but taking photos and shooting videos is usually permissible, as long as it does not interfere with an officer’s duty.
Off-duty situations don’t allow the luxury of an in-car video camera, unless a take-home vehicle is used. In-car video is helpful in discovering fraudulent complaints against officers and can support an officer’s proper behavior or conduct. The video can also reveal improper behavior or conduct.
Officers can use the audio, photo or video options on their cell phones, that is, if they are available to them. Or objective third parties can, with cell phone photos or video recordings, support officers who exhibit proper off-duty behavior and conduct.
Numerous Internet resources exist to assist individuals who want to report improper on-duty and off-duty police behavior. In fact, some of these resources seem to have anti-police agendas. The American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU) has a Web site which should be explored by as many officers as possible. This site has a wealth of useful information and some apparently perfect solutions to nonexistent problems.
Sometimes it seems that ACLU actually stands for the American Criminal Liberties Union! If there is an anti-police agenda with any group, including the ACLU, remember the words of Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Do as much Internet research as possible, and look for information and misinformation. Copwatch
has a Web site that assists individuals who want to report improper police conduct, whether it’s on-duty or off-duty. There are some very interesting posters available in PDF format for free download. Viewing the Copwatch Web site would benefit any officer.
Clearly, law enforcement agencies need to set guidelines relating to off-duty behavior and conduct. Agencies should ensure that officers are trained on appropriate off-duty behavior. Having an officer sign a statement that an “off-duty officer conduct and behavior department policy” is understood is worthless. The only way to ensure understanding from an officer is to train him and administer a written test.
Proper training of officers can reduce improper off-duty behavior and conduct problems. This training should first take place during basic recruit training. Ethics training may partially overlap with this, but there is a specific need for off-duty behavior and conduct training.
Recruit officers should understand what their sworn duties are. This is a responsibility that can’t be taken lightly. In addition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) developed the “Police Officers Oath of Honor.” The oath states, “On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution and community I serve.”
This oath does not separate on-duty behavior from off-duty behavior; why should it? It may be beneficial to frame and post the “Police Officers Oath of Honor” both in the police academy and within the agency. Supervisors may want to stress the importance of the oath and discuss what it means to the officers while on-duty and off-duty.
Sergeant Jim Nieman of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said, “I think off-duty behavior and conduct training is important to individual officers, to their agencies and to law enforcement entities everywhere. On- or off-duty, we represent our agencies and our law enforcement brothers and sisters. Whether we like it or not, we are in the public eye both on- and off-duty, and we are held to a higher standard than those we are sworn to protect.”
How many times have you seen an incident involving an off-duty officer getting extensive coverage in the media? If this were “Joe Citizen” it would never have made the press, but because it involves an officer, even a retired officer, the coverage is often intense. Most officers I know take great pride in their profession, and we all feel the effects of negative publicity. It could be another officer in your agency, or even another agency in a different state or province. When it is bad, we all feel it.
Officers within smaller agencies are generally the subjects of more off-duty scrutiny than officers who work for large agencies. Small town officers may feel that the eyes and ears of the community are always upon them, and they’re right. This is fine if the officers lead near perfect lives, but that is an unrealistic expectation.
Deputy Chief Ray Cordell of the South Barrington, IL Police Department added, “Officers must also be aware that what they do off-duty can and will effect them in their jobs. If a plumber screws up while not at work, the 10:00 news does not report that an off-duty plumber did this or that wrong. If an off-duty police officer screws up, the lead story is ‘Off-duty Cop….’ That screw-up places a negative light on the officer, the department and law enforcement in general.”
Part 2 of this “Training” column will address off-duty behavior and conduct from the perspective of officer safety and survival training. You may discover information that you had never known or considered. Stay tuned for next month’s issue of LAW and ORDER.
Ed Nowicki, a nationally recognized Use of Force expert, is a part-time officer for the Twin Lakes, WI Police Department. He presents Use of Force Instructor Certification Courses across the nation and was formerly the executive director of ILEETA. He can be reached at email@example.com.