Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Should judicial institutions have the ability to create artificial markets?   no comments

Answer by Tim Dees:

I’m responding to your question after having read several of the answers and your revised/added comments.

With regard to the case, I suspect there is some information you’re either not getting or of which you have been misinformed. If your father is truly in the 99th percentile of wage-earners, I would think he would be able to hire a lawyer with more horsepower than the one you described. Someone charged with misdemeanor assault & battery with no previous criminal record should have been able to get a much better deal than your father got. Further, testimony from the victim at trial would have exonerated your father. The attorney would have known this. The behavior you’re describing is more typical of an overloaded public defender who is simply looking to clear his caseload as quickly as possible. Those aspects alone make the story not ring true.

In most states (I don’t know specifically how New York’s statute is worded), an officer with probable cause to believe an act of domestic violence has occurred is obligated to make an arrest, if possible.There are exceptions, but they require doing copious explanatory paperwork, and even then the officer will be closely scrutinized to ensure he didn’t shine on the case for personal reasons (being starstruck by celebrity, personal friend, law enforcement affiliation, etc.). Few cops are going to risk that. They’ll make the arrest and let the courts sort it out.

With regard to the anger management courses and other post-sentencing education and counseling programs, yes, there is quite an industry of these, and it’s quite profitable. I worked for a DUI school for over a year, being paid $25 an hour to teach the same three three-hour blocks over and over again to people convicted of DUI. The “students” were required to take the course, and paid $300 each for the privilege. Do the math, and you can see the school turned a good profit, even if there was only one person in each class (which was seldom the case).

There are lots of these schools and programs out there, and they’re all expensive. The “students” have no choice but to pay the fees, and the schools track one another to make sure the fees are consistent. Scheduling and location usually decide which program the “student” will enroll in, when they are given a choice.

Most courts will allow the defendant to choose from a list of providers when more than one is available. In a place the size of NYC, I’d expect the list to be lengthy. When I was a court officer, we let the defendants choose from a list of approved providers, and the order of the list was shuffled every month, with the top-listed school going to the bottom of the list.

Judges provide a choice to keep from being accused of favoritism. If the judge plays favorites, the consequences can be grave. Recently, two judges and the owner of a juvenile detention facility went to prison over a scheme where the judges would sentence low-level juvenile offenders to be incarcerated in the facility, with kickbacks on the fees (paid by the state or the parents) going to the judges (Builder in youth jail scandal gets year in prison). That incident is an exception to the rule. Most judges stay way clear of any association with private sector providers of counseling or education services.

The counseling and education services do serve as an alternative to jail or prison, and mostly do more good than harm. Unless the defendant is a predator type or the offense cries out for harsh punishment, putting someone in jail as punishment is an expensive and ineffective option. Jails and prisons are almost always overcrowded, and if the person is in jail, they contribute nothing to the economy. The programs do vary widely in effectiveness and credibility, but it can be difficult to monitor and evaluate them. The people who attend them are seldom good sources for a fair assessment.

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Written by Tim Dees on June 26th, 2014

What do police officers feel about the growing adversarial relationship with the public at large?   no comments

Answer by Tim Dees:

I have said this before: there are over 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States, and I don’t pretend to be able to explain the behavior of every one of them.

I have no difficulty believing the account described by the OP, as I have witnessed similar displays myself. Like teenage punks, these guys feed off of one another’s energy. Alone, they may be well-behaved, but when there to reinforce each other, they can behave very badly.

I occasionally saw officers in my own agency act in the boorish and threatening way the (NYPD?) officers in this scenario did. If I tried to get them to straighten up, they would turn on me, call me a pussy, and suggest I file an Internal Affairs complaint on them. They weren’t being serious, of course. If I had done something like that, the retaliation would have been savage. More often than not, these were politically favored cops who could get away with almost anything and emerge unscathed.

Now that I’m out of the industry, I’m less tolerant of this sort of thing. I’ll ask an officer if he’s aware of how he’s coming off to other people, and whether he would act this way if his supervisor or chief was standing there. I haven’t done this a lot–I don’t see all that many episodes of police misconduct. In the couple of instances where I have spoken up, the response is usually something like, “Who the fuck are you?” I show them my retired police credentials, and at the time, my business card identifying me as the editor-in-chief of a police website that most cops know. From there, we had a meaningful conversation.

Cops who are shouting “He cried like a bitch!” are probably not going to be receptive to a citizen tuning them up on their behavior. If you see cops acting badly, call their employer and ask to speak to a supervisor. No well-run law enforcement agency wants their cops representing them this way. It is unlikely you will be destroying anyone’s career. If that is the case, the officer has already done the necessary groundwork himself.

Law enforcement is a service industry. Like any other service industry–say, a restaurant–management can’t fix problems they don’t know about. If you order food in a restaurant and it arrives cold, or burned, or otherwise prepared incorrectly, you’re perfectly justified in asking your server to take it back and make it right. The proprietor might even thank you for making them aware of the problem.

Most law enforcement agencies work the same way. Police officers are directly supervised maybe 5% of the time. The rest of the time, they operate autonomously, and most of them perform honorably and admirably. Supervisors don’t know about most of what their cops are doing unless someone tells them. If a cop does something that was exemplary, it’s appreciated if you let his supervisor know. If the conduct is not so exemplary, it’s your duty as a citizen to let the police know about that, too.

I resent bad police conduct more than most citizens. I am passionate about law enforcement as a profession, and know that every act of misconduct colors the opinion of every citizen who knows about it. I think most cops feel the same way. No one wants to see disgrace brought onto a line of work that is noble and honorable when done right.

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Written by Tim Dees on June 26th, 2014

The Free Cup of Coffee, Revisited   no comments

This essay first appeared on LawOfficer.com on July 25, 2008.

Last week, we re-published a story from Daytona Beach, Florida, where a police lieutenant was fired for demanding free lattes and other premium drinks from a Starbucks restaurant. On the surface, this is a situation where a system of “police discounts” got way out of hand. But even though this is an extreme example, it shows how an entitlement culture and lack of oversight can snowball into a huge problem and embarrassment.

The Starbucks store in Daytona Beach had a policy of offering free drip coffee to police officers. That’s not uncommon at Starbucks or anywhere else that serves coffee. The store gets some added police presence and the cops get free java. The lieutenant had managed to get Starbucks to expand its generosity, at least where he was concerned. He would visit the store as many as six times per day, each time ordering premium coffee and tea drinks from the menu. As anyone who has ever been in a Starbucks knows, these drinks sell for $4.00 or more, and are prepared to order. The drip coffee comes from an urn, and one could argue that they dump as much as they sell, since consistent flavor and freshness is one of the hallmarks of the company.

Eventually, someone at Starbucks tried to rein in the lieutenant and remind him of the official policy on freebies. His response was to remind them that he controlled the quality and quantity of their police services. If something bad happened, he could determine whether cops would be there in three minutes or fifteen. The Starbucks folks decided the lieutenant’s response amounted to a threat to withhold police services unless they met his demands, and they complained. The lieutenant denied the accusation and demanded a polygraph exam, which he failed. His chief fired him. The lieutenant continues to deny the charges, but we haven’t heard as yet whether he’ll try to get his job back.

Police discounts
The “police discount” tradition has been around longer than any of us have been alive. In the days of true community policing, when a cop patrolled the same neighborhood for most of his career, it was an accepted practice that the neighborhood would help take care of him. He often had a “milk stop” for staple groceries, diners would feed him on the cuff (sometimes with some restrictions, such as always getting whatever the “daily special” was), liquor stores would provide a bottle of his preferred adult beverage at Christmas or more often. His badge was his movie ticket, anytime he wanted. Get a copy of Joseph Wambaugh’s classic The Blue Knight, set in the 1970s, to get a notion of how common this practice was–or in some parts of the country–is.

Modern times have changed the policing environment considerably. It’s now uncommon for officers to be assigned to a neighborhood for more than a few months at a time, or if they are, the “neighborhoods” are so large and diverse that forming personal relationships with people is very difficult. In most of the country, the police are paid a lot better than they used to be. Most officers can support themselves and their families on their government paychecks, although we all tend to spend the money we have, no matter how much it is.

What may be the most important aspect of this freebie practice is the lack of clarity in the terms of the exchange. I’ve never heard an officer who was offered a free or discounted service or item ask, “And what are you expecting in return for this?” That goes against the social custom of just acknowledging the giver’s generosity and showing appreciation, but the officer has to remember that this is a business relationship, and there may be an implied contract made when he accepts the freebie. Is the merchant expecting greater, continued police presence than another business might receive? Do they believe they will get faster response times when they call? Is the officer expected to overlook minor law violations, such as customers parking in red zones without being ticketed, sanitation problems when waste cans are overfilled, or a pass when an employee is stopped for a traffic offense? The officer who accepts the benefits is prone to think there is no quid pro quo expected. But, did he ask?

When this practice becomes commonplace, it’s easy for a sense of entitlement to grow. The officer comes to believe that this sort of largesse is part of his rightful due for a dangerous and otherwise thankless job. If a business changes its gratuity policy, the officer gets upset.

As a very new rookie officer, I wanted to crawl under the table of a coffee shop that refused to write off the meal just served to my sergeant, my FTO and me. The restaurant had “comped” police meals since its opening. The waitress said her manager decided that they were giving away too much food to the cops, and we would have to pay the menu price. The sergeant stood up and bellowed, “Where is that <deity-invoking adjective> manager? Get his ass over here right now!” The manager, wisely, decided to be busy, if he was called at all, and we paid the bill. The sergeant declared that the coffee shop had not heard the last of this. I never went in there again, partly because the sergeant had declared it off limits, and partly because I was embarrassed to show my face there.

In the instant case in Daytona Beach, the lieutenant first pushed the envelope by getting the store to expand its policy to include more costly and labor-intensive items, then exploited it as much as possible. I think I’d be vibrating like a piano wire if I consumed six Starbuck’s coffee drinks in eight or ten hours, and the lieutenant must have had a lot of discretionary time available to make that many stops in a shift to get them. When the store tried to enforce the original terms of the offer, the lieutenant threatened to withhold services they were entitled to, anyway, whether they gave away coffee or not. Adjust the scale of payment and benefits, and this is not much different than the “pad” system, where businesses had to contribute money each week, picked up by a police “bagman.” If they didn’t pay, they would experience zealous enforcement of minor code violations and have bricks thrown through their windows by beat officers on the night watch.

I also have to wonder what this lieutenant’s supervisor knew of the lieutenant’s activities. A lieutenant would normally answer to a captain or someone of similar rank, and those folks don’t leave the station very much. There’s an assumption that someone who has attained a middle manager rank doesn’t need close supervision. Clearly, this assumption can be wrong. I know personally of a case where a lieutenant was caught engaged in what a recent president didn’t think was sex, with an officer from another agency, while both were in his marked “command vehicle.” The couple was discovered in flagrante by a patrol officer from the second agency, one who was not intimidated by the lieutenant. Another captain spent his days tending to his rental properties, collecting rents from his take-home car. Not much stays secret for long in a law enforcement agency, and it was common knowledge that all this was going on.

I have both taught and taken many ethics courses, and there is a general assumption that a free cup of coffee is small potatoes in the universe of ethical problems and dilemmas. I tend to agree–if that is the biggest ethical concern in your agency, count your blessings and leave it alone. In this case, a free cup of coffee led to the embarrassment of a law enforcement agency on a national scale, and shows that the free coffee really can be the first step down the “slippery slope” of corruption. Still, this isn’t a call to arms for police supervisors to rise up and smite all those who accept and drink free coffee. It is a suggestion to make sure you know what your subordinates are doing, to get out of the office or the car, to get back to the tools now and then and not rely solely on reports. Getting a first-hand look is an essential function of policing, and it doesn’t become any less so because you got promoted.

Written by Tim Dees on July 25th, 2008