The Free Cup of Coffee, Revisited   no comments

This essay first appeared on 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